The NYT’s Gretchen Morgenson continues her investigation of how Kerry Killinger’s WaMu facilitated the American Dream:
The drug addict and the $100,000-a-year mariachi singer:
As a supervisor at a Washington Mutual mortgage processing centre, John D. Parsons was accustomed to seeing baby sitters claiming salaries worthy of college presidents, and schoolteachers with incomes rivaling stockbrokers’. He rarely questioned them. A real estate frenzy was under way and WaMu, as his bank was known, was all about saying yes.
Yet even by WaMu’s relaxed standards, one mortgage four years ago raised eyebrows. The borrower was claiming a six-figure income and an unusual profession: mariachi singer.
Mr. Parsons could not verify the singer’s income, so he had him photographed in front of his home dressed in his mariachi outfit. The photo went into a WaMu file. Approved.
“I’d lie if I said every piece of documentation was properly signed and dated,” said Mr. Parsons, speaking through wire-reinforced glass at a California prison near here, where he is serving 16 months for theft after his fourth arrest — all involving drugs.
$10,000 referral fees, loans to dead people:
WaMu pressed sales agents to pump out loans while disregarding borrowers’ incomes and assets, according to former employees. The bank set up what insiders described as a system of dubious legality that enabled real estate agents to collect fees of more than $10,000 for bringing in borrowers, sometimes making the agents more beholden to WaMu than they were to their clients.
WaMu gave mortgage brokers handsome commissions for selling the riskiest loans, which carried higher fees, bolstering profits and ultimately the compensation of the bank’s executives. WaMu pressured appraisers to provide inflated property values that made loans appear less risky, enabling Wall Street to bundle them more easily for sale to investors.
“It was the Wild West,” said Steven M. Knobel, a founder of an appraisal company, Mitchell, Maxwell & Jackson, that did business with WaMu until 2007. “If you were alive, they would give you a loan. Actually, I think if you were dead, they would still give you a loan.”
“Thanks for your deposit. Want a mortage?”
Between 2000 and 2003, WaMu’s retail branches grew 70 per cent, reaching 2,200 across 38 states, as the bank used an image of cheeky irreverence to attract new customers. In offbeat television ads, casually dressed WaMu employees ridiculed staid bankers in suits.
Branches were pushed to increase lending. “It was just disgusting,” said Ms. Zweibel, the Tampa representative. “They wanted you to spend time, while you’re running teller transactions and opening checking accounts, selling people loans.”
Employees in Tampa who fell short were ordered to drive to a WaMu office in Sarasota, an hour away. There, they sat in a phone bank with 20 other people, calling customers to push home equity loans.
“The regional manager would be over your shoulder, listening to every word,” Ms. Zweibel recalled. “They treated us like we were in a sweatshop.”
The $150,000-a-year gardener:
On one loan application in 2005, a borrower identified himself as a gardener and listed his monthly income at $12,000, Ms. Zaback recalled. She could not verify his business licence, so she took the file to her boss, Mr. Parsons.
He used the mariachi singer as inspiration: a photo of the borrower’s truck emblazoned with the name of his landscaping business went into the file. Approved.
The “$150,000 savings account”
On another occasion, Ms. Zaback asked a loan officer for verification of an applicant’s assets. The officer sent a letter from a bank showing a balance of about $150,000 in the borrower’s account, she recalled. But when Ms. Zaback called the bank to confirm, she was told the balance was only $5,000.
The loan officer yelled at her, Ms. Zaback recalled. “She said, ‘We don’t call the bank to verify.’ ” Ms. Zaback said she told Mr. Parsons that she no longer wanted to work with that loan officer, but he replied: “Too bad.”
Bring us a loan, get an extra $10 grand
WaMu turned real estate agents into a pipeline for loan applications by enabling them to collect “referral fees” for clients who became WaMu borrowers.
Buyers were typically oblivious to agents’ fees, the agent said, and agents rarely explained the loan terms.
“Their Realtor was their trusted friend,” the agent said. “The Realtors would sell them on a minimum payment, and that was an outright lie.”
According to the agent, the strategy was the brainchild of Thomas Ramirez, who oversaw a sales team of about 20 agents at the Downey branch during the first half of this decade, and now works for Wells Fargo…
Mr. Ramirez’s team sold nearly $1 billion worth of loans in 2004, he said. His performance made him a perennial member of WaMu’s President’s Club, which brought big bonuses and recognition at an awards ceremony typically hosted by Mr. Killinger in tropical venues like Hawaii.
Mr. Ramirez’s success prompted WaMu to populate a neighbouring building in Downey with loan processors, underwriters and appraisers who worked for him. The fees proved so enticing that real estate agents arrived in Downey from all over Southern California, bearing six and seven loan applications at a time, the former agent said.
WaMu banned referral fees in 2006, fearing they could be construed as illegal payments from the bank to agents. But the bank allowed Mr. Ramirez’s team to continue using the referral fees, the agent said.
The King of the Option ARM
Top producers became heroes. Craig Clark, called the “king of the option ARM” by colleagues, closed loans totaling about $1 billion in 2005, according to four of his former coworkers, a tally he amassed in part by challenging anyone who doubted him…
Christine Crocker, who managed WaMu’s wholesale underwriting division in Irvine, recalled one mortgage to an elderly couple from a broker on Mr. Clark’s team.
With a fixed income of about $3,200 a month, the couple needed a fixed-rate loan. But their broker earned a commission of three percentage points by arranging an option ARM for them, and did so by listing their income as $7,000 a month. Soon, their payment jumped from roughly $1,000 a month to about $3,000, causing them to fall behind.
The Luckiest CEO Alive
By the time shareholders joined WaMu for its annual meeting in Seattle last April, WaMu had posted a first-quarter loss of $1.14 billion and increased its loan loss reserve to $3.5 billion. Its stock had lost more than half its value in the previous two months. Anger was in the air.
Some shareholders were irate that Mr. Killinger and other executives were excluding mortgage losses from the computation of their bonuses. Others were enraged that WaMu turned down an $8-a-share takeover bid from JPMorgan.
“Calm down and have a little faith,” Mr. Killinger told the crowd. “We will get through this.”
WaMu asked shareholders to approve a $7 billion investment by Texas Pacific Group, a private equity firm, and other unnamed investors. David Bonderman, a founder of Texas Pacific and a former WaMu director, declined to comment.
Hostile shareholders argued that the deal would dilute their holdings, but Mr. Killinger forced it through, saying WaMu desperately needed new capital.
Weeks later, with WaMu in tatters, directors stripped Mr. Killinger of his board chairmanship. And the bank began including mortgage losses when calculating executive bonuses.
In September, Mr. Killinger was forced to retire. Later that month, with WaMu buckling under roughly $180 billion in mortgage-related loans, regulators seized the bank and sold it to JPMorgan for $1.9 billion, a fraction of the $40 billion valuation the stock market gave WaMu at its peak.
Billions that investors had plowed into WaMu were wiped out, as were prospects for many of the bank’s 50,000 employees. But Mr. Killinger still had his millions, rankling laid-off workers and shareholders alike.
See Also: Making Loans The WaMu Way 1