The risk of relying on reputational capital: a case study of the 2007 failure of New Century Financial

Working Papers No 294
December 2009


The quality of newly originated subprime mortgages had been visibly deteriorating for some time before the window for such loans was shut in 2007. Nevertheless, a bankruptcy court's directed ex post examination of New Century Financial, one of the largest originators of subprime mortgages, discovered no change, over time, in how that firm went about its business. This paper employs the court examiner's findings in a critical review of the procedures used by various agents involved in the origination and securitisation of subprime mortgages. A contribution of this paper is its elaboration of the choices and incentives faced by the various types of institutions involved in those linked processes of origination and securitisation. It highlights the limited roles played by the originators of subprime loans in screening borrowers and in bearing losses on defective loans that had been sold to securitisers of pooled loan packages (ie, mortgage-backed securities). It also illustrates the willingness of the management of those institutions that became key players in that market to put their reputations with fixed-income investor clients in jeopardy. What is perplexing is that such risk exposures were accepted by investing firms that had the wherewithal and knowledge to appreciate the overall paucity of due diligence in the loan origination processes. This observation, in turn, points to the conclusion that the subprime episode is a case in which reputational capital, a presumptively effective motivator of market discipline, was not an effective incentive device.

JEL Classification Numbers: G10, G20, G30

Keywords: mortgage originators, reputational capital, securitisation