From Warren Buffet’s Letter to Shareholders:
Kevin Clayton has again delivered an industry-leading performance at Clayton Homes, the second-largest home builder in America. Last year, the company sold 34,397 homes, about 45% of the manufactured homes bought by Americans. In contrast, the company was number three in the field, with a 14% share, when Berkshire purchased it in 2003.
Manufactured homes allow the American dream of home ownership to be achieved by lower-income citizens: Around 70% of new homes costing $150,000 or less come from our industry. About 46% of Clayton’s homes are sold through the 331 stores we ourselves own and operate. Most of Clayton’s remaining sales are made to 1,395 independent retailers.
Key to Clayton’s operation is its $12.8 billion mortgage portfolio. We originate about 35% of all mortgages on manufactured homes. About 37% of our mortgage portfolio emanates from our retail operation, with the balance primarily originated by independent retailers, some of which sell our homes while others market only the homes of our competitors.
Lenders other than Clayton have come and gone. With Berkshire’s backing, however, Clayton steadfastly financed home buyers throughout the panic days of 2008-2009. Indeed, during that period, Clayton used precious capital to finance dealers who did not sell our homes. The funds we supplied to Goldman Sachs and General Electric at that time produced headlines; the funds Berkshire quietly delivered to Clayton both made home ownership possible for thousands of families and kept many non-Clayton dealers alive.
Our retail outlets, employing simple language and large type, consistently inform home buyers of alternative sources for financing – most of it coming from local banks – and always secure acknowledgments from customers that this information has been received and read.
Mortgage-origination practices are of great importance to both the borrower and to society. There is no question that reckless practices in home lending played a major role in bringing on the financial panic of 2008, which in turn led to the Great Recession. In the years preceding the meltdown, a destructive and often corrupt pattern of mortgage creation flourished whereby (1) an originator in, say, California would make loans and (2) promptly sell them to an investment or commercial bank in, say, New York, which would package many mortgages to serve as collateral for a dizzyingly complicated array of mortgage-backed securities to be (3) sold to unwitting institutions around the world.
As if these sins weren’t sufficient to create an unholy mess, imaginative investment bankers sometimes concocted a second layer of sliced-up financing whose value depended on the junkier portions of primary offerings. (When Wall Street gets “innovative,” watch out!) While that was going on, I described this “doubling-up” practice as requiring an investor to read tens of thousands of pages of mind-numbing prose to evaluate a single security being offered.
Both the originator and the packager of these financings had no skin in the game and were driven by volume and mark-ups. Many housing borrowers joined the party as well, blatantly lying on their loan applications while mortgage originators looked the other way. Naturally, the gamiest credits generated the most profits. Smooth Wall Street salesmen garnered millions annually by manufacturing products that their customers were unable to understand. (It’s also questionable as to whether the major rating agencies were capable of evaluating the more complex structures. But rate them they did.)
Barney Frank, perhaps the most financially-savvy member of Congress during the panic, recently assessed the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, saying, “The one major weakness that I’ve seen in the implementation was this decision by the regulators not to impose risk retention on all residential mortgages.” Today, some legislators and commentators continue to advocate a 1%-to-5% retention by the originator as a way to align its interests with that of the ultimate lender or mortgage guarantor.
At Clayton, our risk retention was, and is, 100%. When we originate a mortgage we keep it (leaving aside the few that qualify for a government guarantee). When we make mistakes in granting credit, we therefore pay a price – a hefty price that dwarfs any profit we realized upon the original sale of the home. Last year we had to foreclose on 8,444 manufactured-housing mortgages at a cost to us of $157 million.
The average loan we made in 2015 was only $59,942, small potatoes for traditional mortgage lenders, but a daunting commitment for our many lower-income borrowers. Our buyer acquires a decent home – take a look at the home we will have on display at our annual meeting – requiring monthly principal-and-interest payments that average $522.
Some borrowers, of course, will lose their jobs, and there will be divorces and deaths. Others will get over- extended on credit cards and mishandle their finances. We will lose money then, and our borrower will lose his down payment (though his mortgage payments during his time of occupancy may have been well under rental rates for comparable quarters). Nevertheless, despite the low FICO scores and income of our borrowers, their payment behavior during the Great Recession was far better than that prevailing in many mortgage pools populated by people earning multiples of our typical borrower’s income.
The strong desire of our borrowers to have a home of their own is one reason we’ve done well with our mortgage portfolio. Equally important, we have financed much of the portfolio with floating-rate debt or with short- term fixed-rate debt. Consequently, the incredibly low short-term rates of recent years have provided us a constantly-widening spread between our interest costs and the income we derive from our mortgage portfolio, which bears fixed rates. (Incidentally, we would have enjoyed similar margins had we simply bought long-term bonds and financed the position in some short-term manner.)
Normally, it is risky business to lend long at fixed rates and borrow short as we have been doing at Clayton. Over the years, some important financial institutions have gone broke doing that. At Berkshire, however, we possess a natural offset in that our businesses always maintain at least $20 billion in cash-equivalents that earn short-term rates. More often, our short-term investments are in the $40 billion to $60 billion range. If we have, say, $60 billion invested at 1⁄4% or less, a sharp move to higher short-term rates would bring benefits to us far exceeding the higher financing costs we would incur in funding Clayton’s $13 billion mortgage portfolio. In banking terms, Berkshire is – and always will be – heavily asset-sensitive and will consequently benefit from rising interest rates.
Let me talk about one subject of which I am particularly proud, that having to do with regulation. The Great Recession caused mortgage originators, servicers and packagers to come under intense scrutiny and to be assessed many billions of dollars in fines and penalties.
The scrutiny has certainly extended to Clayton, whose mortgage practices have been continuously reviewed and examined in respect to such items as originations, servicing, collections, advertising, compliance, and internal controls. At the federal level, we answer to the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Dozens of states regulate us as well. During the past two years, indeed, various federal and state authorities (from 25 states) examined and reviewed Clayton and its mortgages on 65 occasions. The result? Our total fines during this period were $38,200 and our refunds to customers $704,678. Furthermore, though we had to foreclose on 2.64% of our manufactured-home mortgages last year, 95.4% of our borrowers were current on their payments at yearend, as they moved toward owning a debt-free home.