Thursday, October 20, 2022

Western Asset Mortgage Capital: Trading Well Below BV, Exploring a Sale

Western Asset Mortgage Capital (WMC) ($56MM market cap) was one of the mortgage REITs caught up in the margin call wave of 2020 when otherwise safe mortgage back securities ("MBS") suddenly went no-bid.  Mortgage REITs often financed their MBS with daily mark-to-market short term financing, when MBS prices suddenly dropped (they would later recover), financing counterparties forced liquidations and significant shareholder value evaporated in the process.  WMC did survive, but in a wounded and subscale form.  Around the end of last year, they started to transition their portfolio away from commercial mortgages to residential mortgages, primarily in Non-QM loans (financed via RMBS under the Arroyo branded shelf).  Non-QM is short for non qualifying mortgages, those that aren't eligible to be purchased by the GSEs, most of these are actually to prime borrowers (746 average FICO) but those borrowers don't have regular W-2 income to meet tighter post-GFC mortgage underwriting standards.

Getting straight to the point, WMC trades for $9.35/share despite having an economic book value of $24.58/share, or WMC is trading at just 38% of book.  Their book value will likely come down a fair amount when they release Q3 earnings due to rates rising and spreads widening since 6/30, but it should still be very cheap to its net asset value.  WMC is managed by large fixed income specialist Western Asset Management, they've already cut their fees 25% for 2022, have no chance of raising additional capital to regain scale, and are thus waving the white flag by announcing they've commenced a strategic alternatives review process.  It is likely just not worth Western Asset's time at this size (their management fee is based on equity, not assets).

Here is WMC CEO Bonnie Wongtrakool discussing the rationale in their Q2 earnings call:

The primary way to achieve scale as a mortgage REIT is to issue additional common equity, but our philosophy and practice has been to conduct equity offerings only at such times when they have not been materially dilutive to existing shareholders. The last time we issued any meaningful amount of equity was in the second quarter of 2019, when we raised nearly $50 million, which was done at a modest discount to our book value at that time.

Unfortunately, when COVID hit the following spring, our portfolio experienced a significant decline in value and our stock price experienced an even greater decline relative to book value. Since then, our overarching goal has been to improve and stabilize our future earnings power.

Over the last two years, we have made significant progress by taking actions to improve our liquidity and balance sheet and by shifting our investment focus towards residential real estate. Nonetheless, we do not see these positive actions being reflected in our stock price. Therefore, we believe that yesterday's announcement regarding our decision to review strategic alternatives is the best path forward towards unlocking shareholder value, and we are committed to analyzing alternatives that may involve a sale, merger or other transaction involving the company.

I'm always a little skeptical of externally managed mREITs looking to sell themselves, sometimes it means they're simply selling the management contract to another asset manager that will just rebrand and the discount to NAV won't close much.  But here the discount is so wide and the language sounds slightly more focused on shareholders.  There is likely some middle ground in between the share price and book value to get a deal done that pleases all three parties: 1) WMC shareholders get some premium to current prices; 2) Western Asset rids themselves of the distraction and receives some value for their management contracts; 3) one of the countless potential acquirers gets a publicly traded permanent capital vehicle or a current mREIT gets some additional scale and fees for their manager.

Similar to LMPX, this is a completely commodity/fungible type business or balance sheet that trades hands regularly, even in this currently strained M&A market, a willing seller (which sounds like they are) should find no problem finding plenty of willing buyers.  Most likely this will be a stock-for-stock deal or reverse merger with a non-traded REIT, so the upside won't be as big as a liquidation or cash deal, but still an attractive risk/reward.  My best guess is $12-14/share in value.

Other thoughts:

  • Their balance sheet is a mess and difficult to untangle.  For example, one of their legacy commercial investments is a mezz tranche of the Mall of America CMBS (CSMC Trust 2014-USA) and due to accounting rules, WMC actually consolidates the entire SPV.  WMC's economic exposure is $10.7MM, but they consolidate the $1.4B in liabilities on their balance sheet.  Mall of America's future is certainly cloudy, they did restructure the loan during the pandemic, but as an important tourist attraction for the Twin Cities MSA, I would expect it to get political support to survive as a destination/entertainment mall.  In 2020, alongside the restructuring, Trep did put a $1.9B value on the mall, for whatever that's worth.
  • They also have one big problem CRE loan, "CRE 3" in their disclosures which is described as an entertainment/retail property in New Jersey.  I couldn't find it in their disclosures, but it wouldn't surprise me if that was the troubled American Dream mall as it shares ownership with Mall of America.  CRE 3 has been in non-payment status for about a year, if WMC needs to write down the full value of the loan, that knocks about $4/share off the book value.
  • Their Non-QM loans are highly concentrated in California, about 2/3rds.  LTVs look good (originally 65% at the time of underwriting) at the current moment, but we're early in any housing correction and California typically exhibits higher price volatility than other markets.  WMC disclosed that about 15% of their Non-QM loans have near term rate resets (these are ARMs) that will slightly help offset the price pressure of higher rates.

Disclosure: I own shares of WMC


  1. Thanks for this- I have been kicking this around too. Have you seen any comparable transactions to reference?

    1. I wrote about CMO last year:

      They did a reverse-merger with a private mREIT at a book for book basis. Given where WMC trades, not sure that's realistic here, but maybe the overall high level deal structure will be similar.

  2. The amount of debt they have is not sustainable going into a recession and housing bust. This is the external management way of doing things - load up the assets full of debt, collect the management fees for "growth" and dump the losses on shareholders. Wouldnt touch this equity with a 10 foot pole.

    1. The management fee is based on equity, not assets, so the incentive to load up on debt is less here.

      Most of their debt is non-recourse and some of that non-recourse debt they consolidate (the Mall of America CMBS) is also non-economic to them. So I disagree. I've worked in the structured finance industry for a long time, their debt doesn't worry me.


    Q3 results are in, economic book value down to $19.25/share after they wrote down most of the CRE 3 loan which was confirmed to be the American Dream mall. After subtracting out a management termination fee (~$3/share) and expenses, still could get somewhere in that $12-14/share range. Although that assumes no further write downs in the portfolio, including the Mall of America CMBS.

    Oddly, their initial strategic alternatives press release gave out their banker's contact information, the Q3 results do the same. My skeptical side takes this to mean they're not as far along in the process as I had hoped. I guess we might hear more tomorrow on the earnings call.

  4. Why the dump? No news or filings.

    1. No idea, I bought a little more, hopefully that wasn't a terrible decision.