SAN JOSE, Calif. -- When California wildfires ruined their jewelry business, Tony Becker and his wife fell months behind on their mortgage payments and experienced firsthand the perils of subprime mortgages.
The couple wound up in a desperate, six-year fight to keep their 1,500-square-foot San Jose home, a struggle that pushed them into bankruptcy.
The lender with whom they sparred, however, wasn't the one that had written their loans. It was an obscure subsidiary of Wall Street colossus Goldman Sachs Group.
Goldman spent years buying hundreds of thousands of subprime mortgages, many of them from some of the more unsavory lenders in the business, and packaging them into high-yield bonds. Now that the bottom has fallen out of that market, Goldman finds itself in a different role: As the big banker that takes homes away from folks such as the Beckers.
The couple allege that Goldman declined for three years to confirm their suspicions that it had bought their mortgages from a subprime lender, even after they wrote to Goldman's then-chief executive Henry Paulson -- later U.S. Treasury secretary -- in 2003.
Unable to identify a lender, the couple could not capitalize on a mortgage hardship provision that would let them defer some payments, or on a state law letting them offset their debt against separate, investment-related claims against Goldman.
In July, the Beckers won a David-and-Goliath struggle when Goldman subsidiary MTGLQ Investors dropped its bid to seize their house. By then, the college-educated couple had been reduced to shopping for canned goods at flea markets and selling used ceramic glass.
SOARING MONTHLY PAYMENTS
Theirs is an infrequent happy ending among the hundreds of cases in which subsidiaries of Goldman have sought to contain bondholder losses by foreclosing on properties and evicting delinquent borrowers.
Goldman spokesman Michael DuVally declined to comment on individual cases or on the firm's new role in bankruptcy courts.
Joining other Wall Street firms that bought millions of subprime mortgages, Goldman companies have gone to courts from California to Florida seeking approval to foreclose on the homes of middle- and lower-income Americans who couldn't keep up with their loans' soaring monthly payments.
Some borrowers were speculators or homebuyers who exaggerated their incomes on loan applications, thinking they'd always have a profitable escape hatch because housing prices would keep rising. Others, however, were victims of fast-talking mortgage brokers who didn't explain that the loans' interest rates could rise to as high as 15 percent. Many borrowers who defaulted on their mortgages may never qualify for a home loan again.
In court encounters, Goldman and other Wall Street firms have faced the impact of their own wheeling and dealing. Many of the families being put on the street never would've gotten their big mortgages if investment banks hadn't provided a seemingly insatiable secondary market for millions of loans to marginally qualified buyers.
Now, millions of these borrowers have defaulted on mortgage payments, contributing to a historic slump in home prices and depressing the bonds' value. Half the homes in some California neighborhoods have been subject to foreclosures or short sales, in which a house is sold for less than the mortgage balance, and either the seller or the lender takes a loss.
PUSHED TO THE BRINK
The Beckers charged that in their case Goldman engaged in years of obfuscation and resistance.
"In bankruptcy court, they tried to portray us as incompetent or deadbeats," said Celia Fabos-Becker, blinking back tears as she sat with her husband in their living room, with boxes of mortgage-related documents surrounding them.
The couple thought they'd made a safe bet in 2000 when they opened a retail jewelry business in two San Diego County areas populated mainly by military personnel.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, brought big military call-ups, sapping their market. After a wildfire ravaged much of the area in 2002, the Beckers refinanced their house to generate some $70,000 in cash to prop up their two stores. They wound up with an adjustable-rate, subprime loan from WMC Mortgage Corp., an arm of General Electric's GE Money unit, and a 10.75 percent second mortgage with the same lender.
A second wildfire in 2003 all but killed their business and left the couple reeling financially as interest-rate adjustments pushed the mortgage payments higher.
"We'd gotten to the point where I was cutting my own hair. I was cutting his on occasion," Fabos-Becker said.
"And trolling the Goodwills," Tony Becker said.
Tony Becker, an engineer, took short-term contract jobs amid the technology bust. Celia Fabos-Becker, meanwhile, found a provision in the mortgages that allowed the borrower to push payments to the end of the loan term in the event of a disaster such as the two fires.
When she wrote to Paulson, however, lawyers for Goldman denied that it owned the Beckers' mortgages. So did Germany's Deutsche Bank, a trustee that was holding thousands of subprime mortgages Goldman had converted to bonds.
To stall foreclosure, the Beckers wound up negotiating "forbearance agreements" with Ocwen Loan Servicing, a Florida company, that required the couple to pay several thousand dollars under the threat that their house would be auctioned off in a week or a month, Fabos-Becker said. Their monthly payments rose to nearly $3,300 from $2,650.
The couple already had taken Goldman and Morgan Stanley, another Wall Street firm, to arbitration over their $325,000 in stock market losses, accusing the investment banks of misleading investors about public offerings.
On the same day in June 2006, Goldman sued to end the arbitration, and Ocwen filed papers seeking to foreclose on the Beckers' home.
In desperation, the couple filed for bankruptcy protection. With no money to hire an attorney, they acted as their own lawyers.
A JUDGE GETS TOUGH
As the months dragged on, Fabos-Becker finally found a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission confirming that Goldman had bought the mortgages. Then, when a lawyer for MTGLQ showed up at a June 2007 court hearing on the stock battle, U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California demanded to know the firm's relationship to Goldman.
The lawyer acknowledged that MTGLQ was a Goldman affiliate.
That was an understatement. MTGLQ, a limited partnership, is entirely owned by Goldman and is housed at the company's headquarters in New York City, public records show.
In July, after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Roger Efremsky threatened to impose "significant sanctions" if the firm failed to complete a promised settlement with the Beckers, Goldman dropped its claims for $626,000, far more than the couple's original $356,000 in mortgages and $70,000 in missed payments. The firm gave the Beckers a new, 30-year mortgage at 5 percent interest.
That lowered their monthly payment to $1,900, less than half the maximum $4,000 a month their subprime loans could've demanded.
Fabos-Becker, 60, said that the trauma has left her hair "a lot grayer." Much of the stress would have been alleviated, she said, if a law required lenders to identify themselves, especially to borrowers facing hardships.
"I take solace," Tony Becker said, "in knowing that I was up against the worst possible opponent -- the biggest, strongest investment bank in the world."
McClatchy Newspapers researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report.