Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations conducted hearings to examine the largest bank failure in U.S. history and its role in the 2008 financial crisis. The failure of Washington Mutual (“WaMu”) was largely the result of years of increasing involvement in the mortgage-backed securities market. Over a four year period, WaMu increased their securitizations of subprime mortgages from about $4.5 billion in 2003 to $29 billion in 2006. Altogether, from 2000 to 2007, they securitized at least $77 billion in subprime loans. At the same time, WaMu allowed its lending practices and controls to erode in the pursuit of greater loan production and short-term profits. Here is a summary of the investigators’ findings.
(1) High Risk Lending Strategy. Washington Mutual (“WaMu”) executives embarked upon a high risk lending strategy and increased sales of high risk home loans to Wall Street, because they projected that high risk home loans, which generally charged higher rates of interest, would be more profitable for the bank than low risk home loans.
(2) Shoddy Lending Practices. WaMu and its affiliate, Long Beach Mortgage Company (“Long Beach”), used shoddy lending practices riddled with credit, compliance, and operational deficiencies to make tens of thousands of high risk home loans that too often contained excessive risk, fraudulent information, or errors.
(3) Steering Borrowers to High Risk Loans. WaMu and Long Beach too often steered borrowers into home loans they could not afford, allowing and encouraging them to make low initial payments that would be followed by much higher payments, and presumed that rising home prices would enable those borrowers to refinance their loans or sell their homes before the payments shot up.
(4) Polluting the Financial System. WaMu and Long Beach securitized over $77 billion in subprime home loans and billions more in other high risk home loans, used Wall Street firms to sell the securities to investors worldwide, and polluted the financial system with mortgage backed securities which later incurred high rates of delinquency and loss.
(5) Securitizing Delinquency-Prone and Fraudulent Loans. At times, WaMu selected and securitized loans that it had identified as likely to go delinquent, without disclosing its analysis to investors who bought the securities, and also securitized loans tainted by fraudulent information, without notifying purchasers of the fraud that was discovered.
(6) Destructive Compensation. WaMu’s compensation system rewarded loan officers and loan processors for originating large volumes of high risk loans, paid extra to loan officers who overcharged borrowers or added stiff prepayment penalties, and gave executives millions of dollars even when its high risk lending strategy placed the bank in financial jeopardy.
These findings are not surprising in the aftermath of the financial disaster. However, without significant oversight and change in the operations of financial institutions, a similar scenario will likely occur in the not too distant future.