Friday, April 15, 2011

The Washington Mutual Case Study: How one bank nearly destroyed the FDIC

Just in case you wonder whether your bank savings and checking accounts are safe, please read the following. The following is an excerpt from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report entitled: “Wall Street And The Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse.” It is very well written, so you don't have to worry about a lot of legalese or complicated language. It's easily understood. This quote from the report is from the Executive Summary about the subcommittee's case study of Washington Mutual Bank. Just this one bank nearly destroyed the Federal Depositary Insurance Corporation's guarantee of your $100,000 or less savings account. If you STILL think these banks should not be regulated and that regulators can be EASY on them, then you're crazy.

The first chapter focuses on how high risk mortgage lending contributed to the financial crisis, using as a case study Washington Mutual Bank (WaMu). At the time of its failure, WaMu was the nation’s largest thrift and sixth largest bank, with $300 billion in assets, $188 billion in deposits, 2,300 branches in 15 states, and over 43,000 employees. Beginning in 2004, it embarked upon a lending strategy to pursue higher profits by emphasizing high risk loans. By 2006, WaMu’s high risk loans began incurring high rates of delinquency and default, and in 2007, its mortgage backed securities began incurring ratings downgrades and losses. Also in 2007, the bank itself began incurring losses due to a portfolio that contained poor quality and fraudulent loans and securities. Its stock price dropped as shareholders lost confidence, and depositors began withdrawing funds, eventually causing a liquidity crisis at the bank. On September 25, 2008, WaMu was seized by its regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, placed in receivership with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and sold to JPMorgan Chase for $1.9 billion. Had the sale not gone through, WaMu’s failure might have exhausted the entire $45 billion Deposit Insurance Fund. This case study focuses on how one bank’s search for increased growth and profit led to the origination and securitization of hundreds of billions of dollars in high risk, poor quality mortgages that ultimately plummeted in value, hurting investors, the bank, and the U.S. Financial system. WaMu had held itself out as a prudent lender, but in reality, the bank turned increasingly to higher risk loans. Over a four-year period, those higher risk loans grew from 19% of WaMu’s loan originations in 2003, to 55% in 2006, while its lower risk, fixed rate loans fell from 64% to 25% of its originations. At the same time, WaMu increased its securitization of subprime loans sixfold, primarily through its subprime lender, Long Beach Mortgage Corporation, increasing such loans from nearly $4.5 billion in 2003, to $29 billion in 2006.

From 2000 to 2007, WaMu and Long Beach together securitized at least $77 billion in subprime loans. WaMu also originated an increasing number of its flagship product, Option Adjustable Rate Mortgages (Option ARMs), which created high risk, negatively amortizing mortgages and, from 2003 to 2007, represented as much as half of all of WaMu’s loan originations. In 2006 alone, Washington Mutual originated more than $42.6 billion in Option ARM loans and sold or securitized at least $115 billion to investors, including sales to the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac). In addition, WaMu greatly increased its origination and securitization of high risk home equity loan products. By 2007, home equity loans made up $63.5 billion or 27% of its home loan portfolio, a 130% increase from 2003.

At the same time that WaMu was implementing its high risk lending strategy, WaMu and Long Beach engaged in a host of shoddy lending practices that produced billions of dollars in high risk, poor quality mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. Those practices included qualifying high risk borrowers for larger loans than they could afford; steering borrowers from conventional mortgages to higher risk loan products; accepting loan applications without verifying the borrower’s income; using loans with low, short term “teaser” rates that could lead to payment shock when higher interest rates took effect later on; promoting negatively amortizing loans in which many borrowers increased rather than paid down their debt; and authorizing loans with multiple layers of risk. In addition, WaMu and Long Beach failed to enforce compliance with their own lending standards; allowed excessive loan error and exception rates; exercised weak oversight over the third party mortgage brokers who supplied half or more of their loans; and tolerated the issuance of loans with fraudulent or erroneous borrower information. They also designed compensation incentives that rewarded loan personnel for issuing a large volume of higher risk loans, valuing speed and volume over loan quality.

As a result, WaMu, and particularly its Long Beach subsidiary, became known by industry insiders for its failed mortgages and poorly performing RMBS securities. Among sophisticated investors, its securitizations were understood to be some of the worst performing in the marketplace. Inside the bank, WaMu’s President Steve Rotella described Long Beach as “terrible” and “a mess,” with default rates that were “ugly.” WaMu’s high risk lending operation was also problem-plagued. WaMu management was provided with compelling evidence of deficient lending practices in internal emails, audit reports, and reviews. Internal reviews of two high volume WaMu loan centers, for example, described “extensive fraud” by employees who “willfully” circumvented bank policies. A WaMu review of internal controls to stop fraudulent loans from being sold to investors described them as “ineffective.” On at least one occasion, senior managers knowingly sold delinquency-prone loans to investors. Aside from Long Beach, WaMu’s President described WaMu’s prime home loan business as the “worst managed business” he had seen in his career.

Documents obtained by the Subcommittee reveal that WaMu launched its high risk lending strategy primarily because higher risk loans and mortgage backed securities could be sold for higher prices on Wall Street. They garnered higher prices, because higher risk meant the securities paid a higher coupon rate than other comparably rated securities, and investors paid a higher price to buy them. Selling or securitizing the loans also removed them from WaMu’s books and appeared to insulate the bank from risk.

The Subcommittee investigation indicates that unacceptable lending and securitization practices were not restricted to Washington Mutual, but were present at a host of financial institutions that originated, sold, and securitized billions of dollars in high risk, poor quality home loans that inundated U.S. financial markets. Many of the resulting securities ultimately plummeted in value, leaving banks and investors with huge losses that helped send the economy into a downward spiral. These lenders were not the victims of the financial crisis; the high risk loans they issued were the fuel that ignited the financial crisis.”


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