A sandcastle a little to close too the shoreline...
As a supervisor at a Washington Mutual mortgage processing center, 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.
While Mr. Parsons, whose incarceration is not related to his work for WaMu, oversaw a team screening mortgage applications, he was snorting methamphetamine daily, he said.
“In our world, it was tolerated,” said Sherri Zaback, who worked for Mr. Parsons and recalls seeing drug paraphernalia on his desk. “Everybody said, ‘He gets the job done.’ ”
At WaMu, getting the job done meant lending money to nearly anyone who asked for it — the force behind the bank’s meteoric rise and its precipitous collapse this year in the biggest bank failure in American history.
On a financial landscape littered with wreckage, WaMu, a Seattle-based bank that opened branches at a clip worthy of a fast-food chain, stands out as a singularly brazen case of lax lending. By the first half of this year, the value of its bad loans had reached $11.5 billion, nearly tripling from $4.2 billion a year earlier.
Interviews with two dozen former employees, mortgage brokers, real estate agents and appraisers reveal the relentless pressure to churn out loans that produced such results. While that sample may not fully represent a bank with tens of thousands of people, it does reflect the views of employees in WaMu mortgage operations in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas.
Their accounts are consistent with those of 89 other former employees who are confidential witnesses in a class action filed against WaMu in federal court in Seattle by former shareholders.
According to these accounts, pressure to keep lending emanated from the top, where executives profited from the swift expansion — not least, Kerry K. Killinger, who was WaMu’s chief executive from 1990 until he was forced out in September.
Between 2001 and 2007, Mr. Killinger received compensation of $88 million, according to the Corporate Library, a research firm...
During Mr. Killinger’s tenure, 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.”
JPMorgan Chase, which bought WaMu for $1.9 billion in September and received $25 billion a few weeks later as part of the taxpayer bailout of the financial services industry, declined to make former WaMu executives available for interviews...
For those who placed their faith and money in WaMu, the bank’s implosion came as a shock...
The ultimate supervisor at WaMu was Mr. Killinger, who joined the company in 1983 and became chief executive in 1990. He inherited a bank that was founded in 1889 and had survived the Depression and the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s.
An investment analyst by training, he was attuned to Wall Street’s hunger for growth. Between late 1996 and early 2002, he transformed WaMu into the nation’s sixth-largest bank through a series of acquisitions...
WaMu underscored its eagerness to lend with an advertising campaign introduced during the 2003 Academy Awards: “The Power of Yes.” No mere advertising pitch, this was also the mantra inside the bank, underwriters said.
“WaMu came out with that slogan, and that was what we had to live by,” Ms. Zaback said. “We joked about it a lot.” A file would get marked problematic and then somehow get approved. “We’d say: ‘O.K.! The power of yes.’ ”
Revenue at WaMu’s home-lending unit swelled from $707 million in 2002 to almost $2 billion the following year, when the “The Power of Yes” campaign started.
Between 2000 and 2003, WaMu’s retail branches grew 70 percent, 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.”...
Referral Fees for Loans
WaMu’s boiler room culture flourished in Southern California, where housing prices rose so rapidly during the bubble that creative financing was needed to attract buyers.
To that end, WaMu embraced so-called option ARMs, adjustable rate mortgages that enticed borrowers with a selection of low initial rates and allowed them to decide how much to pay each month. But people who opted for minimum payments were underpaying the interest due and adding to their principal, eventually causing loan payments to balloon.
Customers were often left with the impression that low payments would continue long term, according to former WaMu sales agents.
For WaMu, variable-rate loans — option ARMs, in particular — were especially attractive because they carried higher fees than other loans, and allowed WaMu to book profits on interest payments that borrowers deferred. Because WaMu was selling many of its loans to investors, it did not worry about defaults: by the time loans went bad, they were often in other hands...
The ARM Loan Niche
WaMu’s retail mortgage office in Downey, Calif., specialized in selling option ARMs to Latino customers who spoke little English and depended on advice from real estate brokers, according to a former sales agent who requested anonymity because he was still in the mortgage business.
According to that agent, 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.”...
Forced Out With Millions
By 2005, the word was out that WaMu would accept applications with a mere statement of the borrower’s income and assets — often with no documentation required — so long as credit scores were adequate, according to Ms. Zaback and other underwriters.
“We had a flier that said, ‘A thin file is a good file,’ ” recalled Michele Culbertson, a wholesale sales agent with WaMu...
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.”...
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.
“Kerry has made over $100 million over his tenure based on the aggressiveness that sunk the company,” said Mr. Au, the money manager. “How does he justify taking that money?”
In June, Mr. Au sent an e-mail message to the company asking executives to return some of their pay. He says he has not heard back.
Full article here.