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Covered Bonds Could Be a Viable Alternative to CMBS
A financing vehicle that has been used in Europe since it was invented in Prussia in 1769 is finding its way to American shores as a replacement for commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS). The vehicle is known as covered bonds, which is a securitized debt instrument backed by a pool of top-quality assets, primarily mortgages. What is different about covered bonds is that the assets – known as a cover pool – are maintained on the issuer’s balance sheet. This acts as a safety measure because the issuer is less likely to underwrite loans that carry significant risk.
Currently, the United States has no established market for covered bonds, although they are a $3 trillion business in Europe. In July, the House Financial Services Committee approved a bill that would establish a regulatory framework for covered bonds. Although the bill just missed being included in the Dodd-Frank financial reform overhaul, the consensus is that the legislation could win House and Senate approval in 2011.
“We have seen the difficulties wrought by the complexity of securitizations,” said Bert Ely, a financial and monetary policy consultant. “Covered bonds, on the other hand, are a very clean and simple tool. A bank makes a loan, keeps the loan on its books, and issues a covered bond. There is no sale and resale of mortgages.” With a covered bond, several elements protect the bondholder. All assets in the covered pool are subject to monthly monitoring by an independent third party. If one of the loans becomes non-performing, the issuer must remove it and replace it with a loan that is performing. Thanks to the safety features, the majority of covered bonds enjoy a triple-A rating.
Despite the fact that many in the investment community support covered bonds, the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) has some concerns about them. Primary is the fact that the pools are over-collateralized – sometimes by as much as three times the bonds’ face value. The FDIC wants access to these assets when a bankruptcy occurs. The FDIC argues that if the cover pools protect the bulk of the banks’ assets from being claimed, the depositors are being asked to take on too much risk. “We support covered bond legislation, but not at the expense of our obligation to protect the deposit insurance fund,” said the FDIC’s Michael H. Krimminger.