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Barclays latest to take mortgage hit

Barclays, Wells Fargo and SunTrust are among the slew of companies anticipating a total of more than $30 billion in mortgage- related losses this quarter.Associated Press
 (FILE Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Barclays, Wells Fargo and SunTrust are among the slew of companies anticipating a total of more than $30 billion in mortgage- related losses this quarter.Associated Press (FILE Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

NEW YORK – Checking to see which bank is revealing billion-dollar losses in its portfolio has become something of a daily routine on Wall Street. On Thursday, traders fretted about Barclays’ multibillion-dollar writedown over their morning coffee.

The British bank estimated it would write down $2.7 billion for losses on securities linked to mortgages for borrowers with poor credit. Barclays, along with Wells Fargo & Co., SunTrust Banks Inc. and General Electric Asset Management, joined the slew of financial companies anticipating, in total, more than $30 billion in losses this quarter.

That figure doesn’t exceed the approximately $44 billion written down by financial institutions in the third quarter, but the fourth quarter is only halfway over – leaving investors wondering how many more writedowns are on the way.

Deutsche Bank analysts estimate that over the next few years, the current credit crisis will have led to about $300 billion to $400 billion in losses for companies with investments exposed to subprime loans.

Wells Fargo and SunTrust executives said Thursday they anticipate more losses from defaulting mortgages this quarter, although they have little exposure to the problematic debt instruments known as collateralized debt obligations.

“We have not seen a nationwide decline in housing like this since the Great Depression,” said Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf.

Stumpf’s assessment helped push stocks down Thursday. The Dow Jones industrial average lost more than 120 points.

Also Thursday, General Electric Asset Management said outside investors have withdrawn $600 million from a $5.6 billion fund involving mortgage-backed securities. Late Wednesday, NovaStar Financial Inc. said it lost about $252 million due to mortgages.

Many investors are bracing for UBS AG to report a substantial writedown – a Lehman Brothers analyst is reportedly estimating a writedown of $7 billion to $8 billion. However, the Swiss bank said it expects to post a fourth-quarter profit.

Earlier this week, Britain’s HSBC said it would write down $3.4 billion; Bear Stearns Cos. announced a writedown of $1.2 billion; and Bank of America reported a $3.3 billion writedown. Those followed even larger estimates a few weeks ago from Citigroup Inc. and Merrill Lynch & Co., which expect writedowns as much as $11 billion and $6 billion, respectively.

A writedown is a calculation of how much one’s debt holdings – in either actual mortgages, or instruments like CDOs that have mortgage exposure – have lost value.

Because it’s so hard to know how much some investments are worth in the tight credit markets, Wall Street remains uncertain how high losses really are. Certain accounting rules require companies to price their holdings according to the market value; when there is no market, they have to estimate.

Neri Bukspan, chief accountant for Standard & Poor’s credit market services, likened the process to figuring out how much your house is worth when no one in your neighborhood can sell theirs – a scenario many U.S. homeowners can relate to right now.

“Some argue this is highly judgmental, that management could introduce their own bias,” Bukspan said.

Furthermore, if the credit markets worsen, banks will inevitably have to write down their portfolios further.

The credit markets tightened up in August, when concerns about plummeting home prices and missed mortgage payments came to a head.

Industry experts say home prices will likely keep falling because lending standards were the most lax in late 2006 and early 2007. The adjustable-rate mortgages issued then won’t reset until late 2008 or early 2009, so investors should brace for a couple more years of increasing foreclosures – and in turn, scarce demand for mortgage-backed securities.

Banks appear to be erring on the side of caution, said S&P bank analyst Scott Sprinzen. “But one thing to keep in mind, under accounting rules, you can’t deliberately build in a downside cushion.”

Barclays Capital chief executive Bob Diamond said there was no risk of further writedowns of Barclays’ residential mortgage-backed CDOs, but declined to say if it would make additional writedowns from exposure in other parts of its business.