A federal judge in Alexandria yesterday ordered the mortgage-banking affiliate of Equity Programs Investment Corp. (EPIC) not to spend any money it has collected from rents on the 20,000 homes owned by the faltering Falls Church real estate investment group.
EPIC officials, who on Friday had claimed that court action might force the company into bankruptcy, yesterday said the decision should have no impact on the company's viability.
Other sources said the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton should not interfere with negotiations to devise a bailout for EPIC, which is delinquent on payments on $1.4 billion of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities.
Investment bankers, mortgage insurers and other officials trying to keep EPIC from collapsing are scheduled to meet in New York today to disclose their progress in finding a buyer who would step in and rescue EPIC.
A spokesman for Dean Witter Reynolds, EPIC's financial adviser, confirmed that the Wall Street brokerage house is trying to negotiate a restructuring of the company, including the possibility of a buyout by a "white knight."
Another real estate company has reportedly expressed interest in taking over EPIC, but Dean Witter officials refused to identify it.
Industry sources say they believe it will require between $150 million and $250 million in cash to keep EPIC from defaulting on its mortgages and setting off a major crisis in the mortgage insurance industry.
Richard Pratt, chairman of Merrill Lynch Mortgage Capital Inc., said that while he knows none of the details of any bailout plan, he is skeptical that any white knight would actually be interested in acquiring the company.
"Unless someone can come in and step in pretty quickly, it blows up and becomes a feeding frenzy for lawyers. And the losses become substantial," said Pratt, former chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. Only insiders, such as people who traded EPIC mortgage-backed securities or the companies that insured EPIC mortgages, would probably have the incentive and the wherewithal to accomplish a quick workout of EPIC's problems, he said.
Washington real estate industry sources said that the wealthy Bass brothers of Texas have expressed interest in purchasing some of the thousands of houses owned by EPIC, but only if they can get them at distress prices. One source said that the Bass family does not appear interested in rescuing EPIC itself, merely in getting houses "at panic prices. They are talking about 30 cents on the dollar."
The crisis at EPIC, which set up tax-sheltered investment partnerships that bought more than 20,000 houses, triggered a run on deposits at EPIC's sister, Community Savings & Loan of Bethesda. Withdrawals at Community have been temporarily halted by Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes.
The investment banks and other parties seeking to prop up EPIC are under a tight deadline, because within a week EPIC will be in formal default on many of its mortgage payments. After that, creditors and insurers can begin foreclosing on the properties, which would further complicate any bailout efforts.
The limited injunction issued yesterday against EPIC appears likely to continue the status quo. Judge Hilton ordered EPIC Mortgage to account to National Bank of Washington and First National Bank of Maryland for all the income received from the mortgage loans owed to the holders of EPIC securities. The two local banks are trustees for nearly $1 billion in EPIC mortgage-backed securities held by thrifts and other institutions around the country.
The judge also prohibited EPIC Mortgage from diverting any payment or income from the mortgages to any use except an escrow account until further determination by the court.
EPIC, in a statement, contended the judge's order "directs EPIC Mortgage to do nothing more than what it has been doing all along -- account to the trustees for all income received on account of the mortgage loans and application thereof and continue to refrain from diverting any such funds other than into an escrow."
Although EPIC lawyers had earlier claimed a court injunction would threaten the mortgage company with $500 million worth of losses, yesterday one official discounted the impact of the ruling, saying the order was of a much more limited nature than originally envisioned.
The plaintiffs "had asked for all kinds of relief, including the appointment of a receiver," said James B. Deerin, Equity Programs vice president and general counsel. "The court, in our view, enacted a very limited order, which doesn't require us to do anything that we haven't done to this point."
Judge Hilton's opinion said EPIC Mortgage has not furnished information about what action is being taken to foreclose on the mortgaged properties or about efforts to file mortgage insurance claims and other facts sought by the banks.
"Nor has any information been given as to the amount of funds withheld, if any, or any assurance given that any funds will not be used for purposes other than to pay the amount due to the certificateholders," Hilton said. He added that, contrary to EPIC's assertions, there is "substantial evidence that EPIC is in default on the required principal and interest payments."
Hilton dismissed EPIC Mortgage's claim that rent collected on the houses was controlled by a separate company in the EPIC group. "All the corporations are substantially owned by the same individuals," Hilton said.
Lawyers for the banks said they were pleased with the judge's decision and would soon be in touch with EPIC to obtain the information they are seeking.
They also said the decision should help spur any bailout effort because, by escrowing EPIC Mortgage's funds, the judge gave assurances to the parties involved that the mortgages will be properly serviced.