- parkingexemptionapp
Chain of Blame
How Wall Street
Caused the Mortgage and
Credit Crisis
Paul Muolo
Mathew Padilla
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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Chain of Blame
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Chain of Blame
How Wall Street
Caused the Mortgage and
Credit Crisis
Paul Muolo
Mathew Padilla
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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Copyright © 2008 by Paul Muolo and Mathew Padilla. All rights reserved.
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.
Published simultaneously in Canada.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:
Muolo, Paul.
Chain of blame : how Wall Street caused the mortgage and credit crisis / Paul Muolo,
Mathew Padilla.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-470-29277-8 (cloth)
1. Mortgages—United States. 2. Mortgage loans—United States. 3. Financial
crises—United States. 4. Stock exchanges—United States. I. Padilla, Mathew. II. Title.
HG5095M86 2008
332.7'20973—dc22
2008021463
Printed in the United States of America
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Contents
Acknowledgments
vii
Introduction
ix
Cast of Characters
xi
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Angelo Speaks, the Worldwide Contagion Begins
The Repo Man Meets the Bald Granny: A Short
History of Subprime
The Death of the Bailey Building and Loan, the
Rise of Millionaire Loan Brokers
and Countrywide
The Beach Boys of B&C: How Roland Arnall
Became the Johnny Appleseed of Subprime
Angelo Rising: The Son of a Bronx Butcher
Makes Good
The Holy Roller of REITs
The End of the (New) Century
1
23
47
73
103
127
149
v
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vi
contents
A Conspiracy by Merrill?
A Warning from Lewie: CDOs, SIVs, and
Other Things No One Understands
Chapter 10 Deep in the Belly of the Bear
Chapter 11 Armageddon Times: The Tan Man Departs,
Bye-Bye Bear
Chapter 12 What the Hell Happened? Ten Bad Years for
Housing in America
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Afterword
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We Buried (Some of ) Our Garbage Overseas
179
205
227
249
277
305
Source and Interview Notes
309
Glossary
319
About the Authors
327
Index
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Acknowledgments
T
his book was a year in making, longer if you count the early
reporting we did before subprime became a household word.
There are more people who deserve our gratitude than
space allows.
First among them are our families: Paul’s wife Ann, daughters
Sherry and Katherine, and his parents Louis and Norma; Mathew’s
wife Lucia, daughter Anna, and mother Geri. Without their support the
long nights of fact checking and reinterviewing sources would not have
been possible.
High also on our list is our agent, Denise Marcil, and her colleague, Michael Congdon, as well as John Wiley & Sons editors Emilie
Herman and Debra Englander, who believed in this project early on,
encouraging us to move forward.
Specials thanks to Tim Murphy, publisher of National Mortgage
News, and especially the senior editorial staff—Mark Fogarty, Bonnie
Sinnock, Brian Collins, Ted Cornwell, and Bradley Finkelstein—who
patiently excused Paul’s absences from the Washington office when
news was breaking all around (especially Brian). And special thanks to
vii
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viii
ac k nowle dg m e nt s
Andras Malatinszky, who three years ago talked Paul into writing a Web
column that resulted in numerous leads and new sources.
Matt would like to thank Orange County Register editor Diana McCabe
and former Register editor Glenn Hall, now editor of TheStreet.com,
for their patience and understanding while working on this book, as
well as for their strong mentoring. He would also like to acknowledge
the fine reporting on the subprime meltdown by Register colleagues
John Gittelsohn, Ronald Campbell, Jeff Collins, Andrew Galvin, and
Mary Ann Milbourn. Matt would also like to thank Orange County
Business Journal editor Michael Lyster for turning him on to the subprime industry and editor Rick Reiff for his early teachings.
A special hats off to the late Stan Strachan, who taught Paul everything he knows about reporting. Also, a nod to Brenda White, who
started down this road with us but for personal reasons had to abandon
the project. And finally, our gratitude to the many whom we could not
name in this book: the contract underwriters who worked for Clayton
Holdings and the Bohan Group, the mortgage executives who sold
loans to Wall Street, and some of the managing directors on the other
side of the table. All spoke to us at the risk of their careers.
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Introduction
I
first met Angelo Mozilo, the co-founder and CEO of Countrywide
Home Loans, 20 years ago. It’s hard to put an exact date on it, though
I do remember the first time he came to my Washington office on
G Street two blocks from the White House. He was dressed in a dark gray
suit, and was wearing a white shirt with a blue collar and a red tie. It was
the kind of shirt that investment bankers wore when they appeared on
CNBC (FNN) to discuss the vicissitudes of the stock market. Later on I
would learn that Angelo was none too fond of investment bankers, though
he did like the shirts they wore. (He also was a big fan of CNBC.)
During his visit to my office he had a PR flack (as we journalists
like to call them) at his side, but the PR man (who has since gone down
the road) was there strictly as a formality. You might say he was corporate bling. He was there because every CEO, of course, had his own PR
man. Angelo, by this time, was already at the epicenter of the mortgage
industry in the United States. He needed a PR man like he needed
an extra brain. Back then no one spoke for Angelo Mozilo. When he
talked no one interrupted him to help clarify or shape his message. The
CEO of a firm that would one day become the nation’s largest residential lender knew exactly what he wanted to say before he said it.
One reason Angelo came to trust me as a reporter had to do with
a book I co-wrote about the savings and loan (S&L) crisis of the
late 1980s and early 1990s, Inside Job: The Looting of America’s Savings
and Loans. He had read the book, admiring its detail and its financial
ix
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x
introduction
morality tale—a story about so-called honest businesspeople who took
advantage of newly passed laws that allowed them to loot federally
chartered S&Ls (thrifts). He was genuinely appalled by the audacity of
both legitimate businessmen (real estate developers mostly) and con artists who were allowed to own S&Ls and treat them like their own personal piggy banks. The S&L crisis led to the indictment of hundreds of
men (and a handful of women). Dozens went to prison. Others walked.
Angelo lobbied me on one point, and he said it almost every
time we talked about the S&L crisis—that the criminality inherent in
the thrift mess could never happen in the world of residential mortgage banking, where loans were securitized into bonds and sold every
day by the billions. (The huge thrift losses were caused by commercial
real estate boondoggles and junk bond investments.) “The capital markets are the regulator in our business,” I recalled him saying. “Wall Street
would snuff it out.” He wasn’t crazy about the Street, but he believed that
because Wall Street firms were the gatekeepers between the lenders (and
hence the homeowners) and the institutional investors, it was in their
best interests to keep everything clean, to promote honesty and integrity.
He had made this argument before subprime lending began to
boom in 2003. He believed it down to his toes—that Wall Street (despite
his contempt for it) would keep the housing market honest because the
Street controlled the mortgage bond business, where most of the money
for home lending came. It was in the Street’s best interests. I wasn’t
so sure. I became even less sure when the losses (the nice word being
write-downs) at banks and Wall Street firms topped $300 billion in the
spring of 2008. To me and my co-author, Mathew Padilla, something
had gone awry. A million or so people had lost their homes to foreclosure. Two or three million would follow in their path by the end of the
decade. It wasn’t just housing and mortgages that were ailing. It seemed
as though the nation was getting hit from all different directions: rising
energy and commodities prices, falling home values, banks pulling credit
lines of all sorts including commercial and student loans. The mortgage
virus had spread, infecting the entire body. It was as though the U.S.
economy, which had burned so brightly during the Bush years, was a
mirage. Angelo had been wrong. The capital markets—Wall Street—had
failed us. This is the story of how it happened.
Paul Muolo
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Cast of Characters
Descriptions include only information that is relevant to the stories in
this book.
The Central Cast
Roland Arnall: founder of Ameriquest Mortgage, Long Beach
Mortgage, and other subprime lenders; chairman, Ameriquest Capital
Corporation.
Eric Billings: co-founder, chairman, and chief executive of investment banker Friedman Billings Ramsey (FBR).
Michael Blum: managing director in charge of global asset-based
finance at Merrill Lynch.
Ralph Cioffi: founder and senior portfolio manager of Bear Stearns’
two subprime hedge funds.
Robert Cole: co-founder and CEO of New Century Financial
Corporation.
Bill Dallas: First Franklin founder and chief executive. Dallas also
started Ownit Mortgage Solutions, which Merrill Lynch owned part of.
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xii
cast of c harac te r s
Patrick Flood: president and chief executive of HomeBanc
Mortgage.
Ed Gotschall: co-founder of New Century Financial Corporation.
Steven Holder: co-founder of New Century Financial Corporation.
David Loeb: co-founder of Countrywide; Angelo Mozilo’s onetime
boss and partner.
Brad Morrice: co-founder, president, and CEO of New Century
Financial Corporation.
Angelo Mozilo: co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of
Countrywide Financial.
Stanley O’Neal: Merrill Lynch CEO.
Lewis Ranieri: co-inventor of the mortgage-backed security (MBS);
former vice chairman of Salomon Brothers.
Jim Rokakis: treasurer of Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
Warren Spector: co-president of Bear Stearns; supervisor in charge
of Bear Stearns Asset Management (BSAM).
The Supporting Players
Adam Bass: outside counsel to Ameriquest who eventually joined
the company and became vice chairman of Ameriquest Capital
Corporation; nephew to Roland Arnall.
Betsy Bayer: first vice president of compliance at Countrywide.
Kenneth Bruce: Merrill Lynch stock analyst who covered Countrywide.
Warren Buffett: unofficial advisor to Mozilo.
James Cayne: CEO of Bear Stearns.
“Carl Chamberlain”: contract underwriter for the PCI Group/
Clayton Holdings.
Craig Cole: Long Beach Mortgage executive who worked for
Roland Arnall.
Peter Samuel Cugno: management trainee at Beneficial Finance.
George Davies: loan trader at Merrill Lynch.
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Cast of Characters
xiii
Alan Greenspan: former Federal Reserve chairman.
Joy Jenise Jackson: director and manager of Metropolitan Money
Store, a foreclosure “rescue” company.
Russell and Becky Jedinak: The husband-and-wife team that
managed Guardian Savings and later on Quality Mortgage.
James Johnson: chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae; friend of
Angelo Mozilo.
Gary Judis: chief executive officer of Aames Financial.
Stanford Kurland: president and chief operating officer of Countrywide who at one time was considered to be Mozilo’s heir apparent.
Kirk Langs: executive in charge of retail mortgage lending at
Ameriquest.
Wayne Lee: executive in charge of wholesale/broker mortgage lending at Argent Mortgage, an affiliate company and arm of Ameriquest.
Jack Mayesh: chief executive of Long Beach Financial Corporation/
Long Beach Mortgage, a wholesale mortgage lender.
Mike McMahon: Sandler O’Neill stock analyst who covered Countrywide. He also was a warehouse lending executive at First Interstate,
which lent money to subprime lenders.
Henry Paulson: Treasury secretary in the Bush administration; also
the former head of Goldman Sachs.
Dan Phillips: founder and chief executive officer of First Plus Financial,
a high-LTV lender.
Charles Prince: chief executive of Citigroup; former general counsel,
Commercial Credit.
Jonas Roth: Countrywide executive in charge of the firm’s early
trading desk.
David Sambol: president and chief operating officer of Countrywide
who replaced Stan Kurland.
Rick Simon: press spokesman for Countrywide.
Rock Tonkel: senior executive and president of Friedman Billings
Ramsey (FBR).
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Chapter 1
Angelo Speaks,
the Worldwide
Contagion Begins
The mortgage business is the only business I know where you earn a
ton of money in one year and give it all back during the next three.
— A disciple of Lewis Ranieri
T
he earnings conference call between the chief executive officer
and the Wall Street community is a delicate kabuki where bad
news is often couched in somber tones and fuzzy adjectives to
soften the blow. But don’t tell that to Angelo Mozilo—the Bronx-born,
perpetually tanned CEO and co-founder of Countrywide Financial
Corporation, America’s largest home mortgage lender.
On July 24, 2007, the 68-year-old Mozilo and eight of his senior
lieutenants at the publicly traded Countrywide, a company that a few
months earlier had been worth $25 billion on paper, marched down
the carpet from the corporate suite to a 30-foot conference table in the
boardroom, where the top equities analysts from Bear Stearns, Merrill
Lynch, Morgan Stanley—Wall Street’s elite—and others were waiting
1
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2
chain of blame
on the telephone to hear what he had to say about the housing and
mortgage markets.
To many on the other end of the line Mozilo was more than just
the co-founder of an almost 40-year-old company, one he had built
from scratch after starting out his career as a 14-year-old runner delivering documents and bank checks around Manhattan, Brooklyn, and
Queens, hopping buses and subways to keep the costs down for the
midtown lender he worked for. In the summer of 2007, Mozilo was
the market, and had been for years. He didn’t just sit in on board meetings. He actually closed loans for the company, working with homeowners to gauge the business, what the customer wanted. “To keep my
fingers in it, still,” he would say. He also would personally handle certain
“FOA” or “friend of Angelo” loans where discounts and fee reductions
were given to friends, family members, and business acquaintances.1
Mozilo didn’t want to lose touch with what the business of home
lending was all about. He never wanted to forget his roots. A product of public schools and colleges, he was a second-generation ItalianAmerican who not only looked like clothing designer Ralph Lauren
but dressed like him as well. He wore tailored suits, handmade shirts,
gold cuff links. His hair was gray but not one hair was out of place,
never. No matter where he spoke, whether it was on the trading floor
at Lehman Brothers or to the Horatio Alger Association, which had
inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2003, chances are he would be
the best-dressed guy in the room. With his tight skin and perfect teeth,
he looked like a male model, a 68-year-old male model, one who had
come out of retirement for one last photo shoot for the fall fashion
issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine.
In private he had a penchant for bashing competitors, peppering his nonpublic comments with four-letter words. He rarely forgot
his enemies. “He’s not one to forget when someone hurts him,” said a
friend of 20 years. Among his brethren in the home lending industry,
he acknowledged few peers. He admired Richard Kovacevich of Wells
Fargo because Dick, as he called him, knew how to cross-sell—that is,
1 Among
many mortgage lenders it was not an unusual practice to waive fees and waive
certain loan underwriting guidelines if they had personal or business ties to the CEO or
other senior executives.
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Angelo Speaks, the Worldwide Contagion Begins
3
offer other products to the mortgage customer. But Kovacevich was
about it. About a mortgage executive at a large West Coast thrift, Mozilo
had this to say: “He’s fucking incompetent. I wouldn’t even let him manage one of my branches. Utterly pathetic.”
As for those on Wall Street, if he had his way he’d throw them into
a burning pit and apply more gasoline. He needed them but wouldn’t
hide his disdain for them. Mozilo once told a reporter from the New
York Times: “I run into these guys on Wall Street all the time who think
they’re something special because they went to Ivy League schools.”
He had never forgotten how back in 1969, when he was starting
Countrywide, the Street had turned him down for loans to grubstake his career. “No one gave us a chance,” he had said. He wasn’t the
type of person to forget it, either—but he learned to live with it. And
the irony of it all was that early in his career while doing office chores
for a small mortgage company, Mozilo had once aspired to be a trader
working the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
His dream of working at the NYSE was now buried in the past, in
the haze of the late 1950s. As a young man growing up in New York,
he grew to believe—whether or not it was true—that if you were
Jewish or Italian and worked on Wall Street, you were assigned to what
he called the “bowels” of a company like, say, Merrill Lynch. The backroom or basement, those weren’t places where he wanted to be—well,
at least not for very long.
Angelo, as everyone called him, had as much patience with Wall
Street firms as a pit bull would with a newborn kitten. But, as Mozilo
knew, he didn’t always get to play the pit bull role. He had a reputation
for having somewhat of a chip on his shoulder—especially in regard
to the Street—but also that he was someone who knew the mortgage
industry better than anyone else. Mozilo had left the Bronx long before,
but he would admit from time to time that the Bronx hadn’t necessarily left him. After all, he had created a model company, one that made
mortgages not by using deposits but by borrowing money from others—
banks and, yes, eventually Wall Street. (In time he would relent and buy
his own bank, but only because Countrywide had grown too large for
its own bankers.) Here was a man who over the course of 40 years had
taken a tiny company from obscurity to the top of the heap in making
home mortgages to Americans, past the gargantuans of banking—past
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chain of blame
Kovacevich’s Wells Fargo, past Citigroup, past JPMorgan Chase, past
BankAmerica, past them all. In the summer of 2007 it looked as though
he had won the game, but the game—home lending—suddenly turned
treacherous.
Those who knew him said Mozilo ate and slept mortgages. There
was never any question about his love for the business. When he went
to bed most nights, and when he woke up in the morning, mortgages
were foremost in his mind. He had made Countrywide the biggest and
the best in the business, and his goal was to keep it that way. He would
brag to reporters of the company’s corporate culture, one in which
employees who wanted to find themselves in the executive suite would
work weekends and late nights. “If not, they don’t last too long here,”
he told a reporter.
To some, Countrywide was his bride. Not that he wasn’t a family
man. He had been married to the same woman for 50 years. He was the
father of five children and had nine grandkids. His sons Chris and Eric
were managers at Countrywide, and his daughter Lisa was an executive
in human resources (HR). His brother Ralph worked there for a while,
as did his cousin Ray Malzo, who had followed him from New York to
California and helped him get the company off the ground in the 1970s.
Malzo left after a few years, taking his Countrywide stock and investing
it in a Harley-Davidson dealership. Mozilo saw his cousin’s departure
from the company as a betrayal, said a mutual friend. “Angelo would
complain that Ray just didn’t have the right vision for Countrywide,”
said the friend.
To those who knew him well, the idea that Mozilo would retire
was ridiculous. Sure, he had promised to slow down and pick a successor by the end of 2006, but December 31 came and went and, well,
there was no successor. Not that he hadn’t tried—supposedly. There was
Stanford Kurland, an accountant by training who had risen through
the ranks at Countrywide and was ensconced as its president and chief
operating officer, the number-two banana at its Southern California
headquarters in suburban Calabasas. Stan and Angelo were said to be
somewhat close. During conference calls Mozilo would sometimes let
Kurland take the reins, explaining the company’s financials to analysts.
In the fall of 2006 Countrywide’s public relations department began
gearing up for a media campaign to send Kurland on the road to greet
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Angelo Speaks, the Worldwide Contagion Begins
5
Wall Street equities analysts and the press. A public relations woman for
Countrywide bragged how she’d convinced him to shed a few pounds
and buy better suits. She’d coached him on how to deal with the press.
“He’s really well spoken now,” she said. (The intimation was that as an
accountant he once had the social skills of a turtle, which was far from
acceptable for someone who would be succeeding the über-polished
Mozilo.)
The idea was to introduce Kurland as the “new” Angelo. There was
a problem, though: There was no such thing as a “new” Angelo. There
was only the original. As that day grew closer, it became clear to Mozilo
that Kurland envisioned Mozilo’s future role as a docile chairman only.
Kurland believed that Mozilo would only show up for board meetings, bang the gavel, and spend his newly found leisure time attending
his grandkids’ soccer games and playing golf at the local country club
with his close friends Howard Levine, a commercial mortgage banker,
and James Johnson, the former head of Fannie Mae. Angelo loved his
grandkids, but he wasn’t about to spend almost all of his spare time
with them.
Stan’s vision was not Angelo’s vision. “He was fucking crazy if he
thought that I wasn’t going to have anything to do with the company
after I retired,” Mozilo told a friend. And that was that. In short order,
Kurland resigned from Countrywide in October. A press release issued
by the company said Stan had left to pursue “other career interests.”
Translation: Mozilo kicked him out of the company, pushed him overboard headfirst, and never looked back. Countrywide was his baby, his
creation. If some accountant thought Angelo was going to sit on the
sidelines, well, he had another thing coming. At least that’s what Mozilo
confided to some.
So, here he was on July 24—earnings day—nine months later still
very much in charge, very much at the helm. Wall Street analysts like
Morgan Stanley’s Ken Posner and Paul Miller from Friedman Billings
Ramsey, and dozens of others (the press as well), were waiting to hear
what Angelo had to say. On July 24, Countrywide was scheduled to
report its second quarter results. In the normal course of business the
second quarter conference call would be a routine affair, but on this
particular day, at this particular point in time, all was not well in the
mortgage and housing industries.
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chain of blame
Loan delinquencies were rising to 20-year highs. Subprime
borrowers (those with bad credit) were defaulting on their payments as
never before. Since 2002, subprime had been the hottest lending niche
in the business, accounting for 20 percent of new mortgages written in
the United States. Over the previous five years, home lenders had originated an eye-popping $2.6 trillion in mortgages to people with bad
credit, and delinquencies had been just fine. But not anymore. Home
sales were falling to five-year lows—and even worse, home prices were
starting to slip. Anyone who worked in mortgages or housing knew
this: Home prices never fall. They’re not supposed to. It just doesn’t
happen. Well, not since the Great Depression, that is.
Mortgage lenders were beginning to close their doors at a rate that
hadn’t been seen since the nation’s savings and loan (S&L) crisis of the
late 1980s. But administration officials from the Bush White House,
including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, were explaining away
the nation’s housing woes and the emerging subprime crisis as something that was “contained”—that it wouldn’t “affect America’s healthy
economy,” in Paulson’s words. It wouldn’t spread to the global markets.
And Paulson was a smart guy. Handpicked by President George W. Bush
the year before, he had been the chairman of Goldman Sachs, the bluest
of Wall Street’s blue bloods. He was an Ivy Leaguer, a man who knew
what the hell he was talking about.
Yet, cracks were starting to show—not just in the mortgage market
but on Wall Street, Paulson’s home turf. Several months earlier, two
hedge funds that had been created by Bear Stearns, a firm whose history was built on risk analysis—that is, knowing a good investment
from a bad one—had begun to lose money. There was talk on the
Street and in the financial press that the Bear Stearns hedge funds—
once valued at $40 billion—might even collapse. And what exactly had
these funds invested in? Answer: mortgage bonds that had been created from subprime loans. It wasn’t just mortgage bonds that the hedge
funds had bought into, but a relatively new type of bond called a collateralized debt obligation (CDO). A CDO was a security created from
other securities. The Bear Stearns hedge funds also were making side
bets on other subprime bonds by purchasing hundreds of insurance
policies called credit default swaps. Grouped together, these investments
were called derivatives, which meant they were derived from loans or
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Angelo Speaks, the Worldwide Contagion Begins
7
bonds that Bear Stearns didn’t necessarily own. The bets being made by
senior managing director Ralph Cioffi, who was in charge of the hedge
funds, boiled down to this: Bear Stearns was bullish on the future of
housing, and subprime in particular.
But Bear Stearns wasn’t the only investment banking firm playing
the subprime game. The biggest names on Wall Street—Citigroup,
Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Swiss investment banker Credit
Suisse—were all doing the same thing. They were buying billions of dollars’ worth of subprime mortgages from nonbank lenders, securitizing
them, and then resecuritizing them into CDOs, selling some of them
overseas. Almost every mortgage they put into a bond was a loan made
to a borrower who either had bad credit or was considered a statedincome risk. Stated-income mortgages worked like this: The borrowers
stated their income and the lenders believed them. It was a wildly popular product and for obvious reasons: Borrowers got what they wanted
even though they had to pay a slightly higher interest rate for it. Wall
Street loved any type of loan that was paying a higher rate than the
conventional or “A” paper rate of good credit quality mortgages sold to
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two congressionally chartered mortgage
giants whose mission in life was to buy such loans.
A higher-yielding mortgage meant that a Wall Street firm like Bear
Stearns could create a higher-yielding bond to sell to an investor. Every
time a bond salesman at Bear (or any other firm) sells a bond, he takes
a fraction of the deal for himself. On a $50 million bond, the commission might be an eighth of a point, which works out to $62,500. Bond
commissions are not openly publicized and can vary greatly depending
on what type of bond is being sold. But one equation rings true—the
higher the yield on the bond, the higher the bond sale commission.
Subprime mortgages were the highest-yielding loans around that were
backed by something tangible: a house. Right smack in the middle of
Wall Street’s thirst for yield were Angelo Mozilo and Countrywide.
Even though Mozilo hadn’t started out as a subprime mortgage banker,
he was now number one in that business as well. Countrywide wrote
more subprime loans than anyone else. That’s what Angelo had designed
Countrywide to do: enter a market and dominate it. That’s what a man
who eats, sleeps, and lives mortgages does. “Our goal is to be number
one in all the markets,” he would say.
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chain of blame
As doubts began to mount about the ability of subprime borrowers
to keep paying on mortgages backed by homes that were now worth
less, Countrywide became part of the story, whether Mozilo liked it or
not. As he prepared his comments that July morning, he realized that
moving Countrywide into subprime lending was, perhaps, the worst
business decision he had ever made in his life. Up until now he had a
reputation as a man who had spent his life putting people in homes—
minorities and immigrants as well as the middle class, people like his
father, who had been a butcher. All that was about to change.
As the microphone opened up on the third floor, Angelo and his
top executives at the company laid out the second quarter results: earnings down by one-third to $400 million. On the surface, that may not
have seemed so bad. After all, if Angelo and the equity analysts who
followed his every move knew anything, they knew that residential lending was a cyclical business, one where profits boomed for a
few years and then flattened out, only to revive once again. But then
came the conference call Q&A—where analysts got their chance to grill
the CEO. Before their microphones were opened up, Angelo, ever the
proud father of Countrywide, reminded the experts who followed his
company that Countrywide’s team was “best in class,” that they would
weather the storm.
He added that even though the housing market was tanking—and
the business of lending on homes right along with it—Countrywide
was in a “position to capitalize” on the market’s wreckage, that as other
lenders failed, Countrywide would pick up market share, meaning his
company would get a bigger piece of the pie, something equities analysts loved to hear. Gaining market share was what it was all about—
not just in mortgages but in any business. In the mortgage business,
the bigger machine you operated, the more money you made. Angelo’s
creation had a 15 percent market share, which meant that 15 out of
every 100 loans closed in the United States belonged to Countrywide.
It was an impressive number. But Angelo wanted 20 percent. That’s just
the kind of guy he was.
Countrywide, even though it, too, was having trouble that quarter,
would make lemonade out of lemons. It was a message that Mozilo had
been stressing for the past nine months. Everyone in the business—as
well as the analysts who followed his company for their rich clients—had
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heard the Mozilo mantra. “We’re well positioned to capitalize” on the
industry’s problems, he repeated. As other lenders failed, Countrywide
would only grow stronger, feeding on the carcasses of others, raiding
their demoralized employees and offering them jobs. To Angelo, it was a
beautiful way to do business. He and Countrywide would grow stronger
as everyone else grew weaker.
But then a question came from Paul Miller, an analyst at Friedman
Billings Ramsey, an investment banking firm based in northern Virginia,
a firm that, ironically, owned a failing subprime lender of its own.
“Angelo, when do you see things improving out there?” asked Miller.
The Countrywide CEO, known for his bluntness above all else,
reminded them that “no one” had seen the housing and mortgage downturn coming. “Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, S&P’s [Standard & Poor’s].
No one,” Angelo said. There he was, bashing Wall Street again. But
Angelo, as he would admit later, hadn’t seen it coming, either. He knew
it was going to be bad, but he didn’t think it would be quite this bad.
Angelo was asked another question or two and then was pressed
again about when housing prices and sales might finally come out of
their swoon. He shot back quickly. “I’d say 2009,” he said. “It takes a
long time to turn a battleship around. That’s what this is—a huge battleship. We need to slow it down, stop it, and then turn it around: 2009.”
Some analysts were wondering: 2009? That was two years away.
Sitting at their desks on the other end of the phone, watching blinking computer screens, that wasn’t the kind of reassuring talk that equities analysts wanted to hear. An analyst asked a question of another
Countrywide executive, and then Mozilo butted in at the end of the
executive’s answer.
If anything, he wanted to make sure that these folks on Wall Street
fully understood the situation. He wasn’t about to whitewash it. He
wasn’t a put-on-your-best-face kind of guy. His ability to cut through
the malaise of the situation (or as he would call it, “the bullshit”) was
what endeared him to analysts, certain competitors, and definitely
members of the media. Mozilo told the audience on the other end of
the line without hesitation, “We are experiencing a huge price depression, one we have not seen before—not since the Great Depression.”
The Great Depression? Analysts didn’t want to hear that, either.
Mentioning the “D” word in relation to anything financial was akin
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to saying the world was about to end. The next day, Countrywide’s
stock skidded 11 percent. On paper, investors lost millions. Some analysts believed it would have skidded even more if the investment banking community hadn’t swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, Mozilo’s boast
that even though the mortgage and housing markets looked bleak,
Countrywide would capitalize on all the carnage by gaining market
share. Market share was his mantra.
Still, Mozilo’s remark about the Great Depression savaged the stock
market.The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 226 points. It was the
worst decline in four months, which in the scheme of things may not
have seemed that bad, but the New York Stock Exchange had indeed
set a record that day: 4.16 billion shares of stock changed hands, a sign
that investors were heading for the exits big-time. They were nervous.
Had Angelo’s comments wiped out billions of dollars in stock value? It
looked that way. “The ‘Great Depression’ comment he made was just
irresponsible,” said an investment banker who served on industry panels
with Angelo. “He started it.”
In the weeks ahead, the stock market would recover by a hundred
points here and there and slip by just as much and then some. Within
a month the Dow would drop by a thousand points.2 While the Dow
sank, Mozilo cashed in stock options, unloading thousands of shares in
Countrywide. Over the previous year he had cashed in stock options
and sold $140 million worth of company stock. People noticed. And
when it was pointed out by columnists and short sellers, he bristled.
In an interview with the trade newspaper National Mortgage News,
he boasted, “I started this company with my own money. I have created $25 billion in value for shareholders. It’s been one of the bestperforming stocks on the NYSE. I gave them 98 percent and took
2 percent. And they [the shareholders] didn’t have to do the work. I did
it for them.”
A few days after the Countrywide conference call, the two Bear
Stearns hedge funds that had invested in subprime CDOs and credit
default swaps collapsed for good. The funds were now worth just
10 percent of their peak value, if that. Warren Spector, the Bear Stearns
co-president who had ultimate responsibility for the funds, had been
2 By
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canned within days of Mozilo’s “Great Depression” comment. Spector,
a 20-year veteran of Bear Stearns who had shepherded the firm’s foray
into residential mortgages two decades earlier, was considered by many
on the Street as something of an analytical genius who had rarely made
a bad call in mortgages. Not anymore.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, a residential lender called HomeBanc
Mortgage, a midsize nonbank a fraction of Countrywide’s size, was struggling to stay afloat. HomeBanc, which once had been part of a savings and loan, was managed by a handful of executives who a few years
earlier had worked at a Countrywide competitor called HomeSide
Lending. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, HomeSide had been
a target of Mozilo’s in the trade press. The Countrywide chairman and
CEO had bashed HomeSide because instead of making mortgage loans
directly to consumers through retail branches, the company bought
already-originated loans from other firms. Mozilo strongly believed that
the practice of buying newly originated loans from other lenders would
eventually bankrupt the company, because the profit margins on such
a strategy were so thin. (Ironically, Mozilo was doing the same thing,
but he still used retail branches and loan brokers to gather mortgages.)
In time, he would be proved right. HomeSide collapsed two years after
being bought by an Australian bank. “They didn’t know what the fuck
they were doing,” he said of HomeSide’s management. The Australian
bank, National Bank of Australia, lost $2 billion on HomeSide. It left
America with its tail between its legs, Mozilo bragged.
HomeBanc, though, was a direct lender to consumers through its
retail storefront branches. And it wasn’t a subprime lender, either. In
the summer of 2007 it was struggling to survive because all the bad
news in the subprime sector had caused its bankers to rethink the strategy of lending money to HomeBanc. HomeBanc was a nonbank that
employed 450 loan officers, many of whom had no prior experience
in the mortgage business, which is sort of like running a soccer team
by hiring baseball players, hoping you can teach them the game. (Loan
officers work with the public, selling them different mortgage products.)
HomeBanc CEO Patrick Flood (unlike his next in command,
Kevin Race) was not a former employee of HomeSide. Flood was a
born-again Christian who made prospective employees take what
he called a “values test” before he would hire and then train them to
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chain of blame
make loans to the public. HomeBanc had 22 branches, and each one
had a Christian chaplain on call. Its human resources director was Ike
Reighard, a close friend of Flood’s who had once held bible studies
at HomeBanc. Reighard, the founder of a megachurch in suburban
Atlanta, had once told Flood, “God has prepared me all of my life for
this job.”
The Reverend had no professional HR experience, but that didn’t
matter to Flood. He felt that a pastor who could counsel churchgoers
about divorce, kid problems, and money woes would make a fine HR
chief. “Our 450 loan officers may’ve had no prior experience,” he
would later explain, “but we had the best service out there.” Maybe so,
but by August Flood was no longer at the company, the board forcing
him to resign in January because HomeBanc’s loan originations were
sinking right along with its stock price. (Like Countrywide, HomeBanc
was publicly traded on the NYSE.)
By early August, after Mozilo had already painted his bleak picture
of the business, HomeBanc’s stock had drifted down to 60 cents from
a onetime high of $10. Its shareholders were not happy. HomeBanc’s
bankers pulled the plug. On Friday afternoon, August 10, Kevin Race,
Flood’s successor, gathered some of his staff in a conference room at the
lender’s headquarters, giving them the bad news. “We’re shutting down,”
he said.
The strange thing about HomeBanc’s failure is that when it filed
its bankruptcy court papers a few days later, it listed liabilities (what
it owed) of $4.9 billion and assets of $5.1 billion, which meant that
even though no bankers ( JPMorgan Chase, Bear Stearns, and several
foreign banks) would lend it any money, it actually had a net worth of
$200 million—not bad for a failed company. Had Mozilo’s comments
played a role in its death?
It was hard to pin HomeBanc’s failure on Angelo. He had no control
over what the money center banks did in regard to his competitors.
(Both HomeBanc and Countrywide were top lenders in Georgia.)
After all, HomeBanc wasn’t a subprime lender. But by this time subprime lenders were failing every week—at a rate of 10 a month, at least.
When HomeBanc ascended into mortgage heaven, guess who stepped
in to purchase five of its highest-performing storefront branches in
Georgia? Mozilo and Countrywide. He once again was making good
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on his promise to prosper from the mortgage industry’s meltdown. As
others died, he would get stronger: his mantra.
One of his favorite ploys was to find out which loan officers at open
(as well as failed) lending shops were the highest performers. A high
performer was a loan officer who had a kick-ass client list of potential
customers, someone who could work a network of prospects, bringing
them in as loan customers. Selling a mortgage to a consumer (whether
for buying a new house or for refinancing one) was just like selling a car
or washing machine or expensive stereo. Mozilo knew that gangbuster
loan officers—men and women who worshipped the movie Glengarry
Glen Ross and the phrase “ABC” or “always be closing”—whether they
worked directly with home buyers or gathered loans through mortgage
brokers, were worth their weight in gold. Those were the people he
wanted to hire. He would personally interview some of them himself.
A marketing officer at Impac Mortgage in Southern California, a
Countrywide competitor, tells a story of just how aggressive Mozilo
and Countrywide could be in their recruiting of loan officers. “There
was a news story in the local paper that we were having trouble, which
caused some of our employees to get nervous. The afternoon the story
appeared about us, a car pulls into our parking lot with a big cardboard
advertisement on the roof. The ad said something like ‘If you’re worried about your job, call this number.’ At first, a few of us laughed. But
then we started getting concerned. After a half hour the car was still
there in the parking lot. We were getting annoyed. Someone from the
company went down there and told that car to get the hell out of our
parking lot. We called the phone number—it was a phone number at
Countrywide.”
When Countrywide agreed to buy the five branches from the nowdead HomeBanc, employees who worked at those branches were elated
to have jobs and be working for Countrywide—the nation’s largest
lender of home mortgages, a Fortune 500 company that employed
60,000. Countrywide had a bank affiliate. It had depositors, little old
ladies from Pasadena with certificates of deposit and savings accounts.
It didn’t need to depend solely on Wall Street and money center banks
to keep its business going. Countrywide was rock solid. Angelo Mozilo
was the poster child of mortgage lending in the United States. He was
a frequent guest on CNBC, the business channel, and friends with one
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of its chief anchors, Maria Bartiromo. He—and Countrywide—would
be around forever.
At least, that’s what the ex-HomeBanc workers thought.
*
*
*
On Wednesday, August 15, Jim Israel, an advertising salesman for National
Mortgage News, the largest industry trade publication that covered mortgages, was driving down a four-lane street in Pasadena, California, a
city where Countrywide was once headquartered. In years past Israel
had sold advertisements in National Mortgage News to Countrywide, but
he wasn’t having much luck this year. As for Pasadena, the story goes,
back in 1997 Mozilo had requested financial assistance from the city.
“He wanted the city to help us develop space for Countrywide,” said
Rick Simon, a public relations executive at the lender. “They turned us
down.” In 1997 Countrywide employed 10,000 across the United States,
1,000 of them in Pasadena. Angered by Pasadena’s reluctance to help
him, Mozilo bought the old Lockheed Martin headquarters 34 miles
east in Calabasas, at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains. In short
order Angelo gave Pasadena’s mayor the Bronx cheer.
Even though Countrywide had bolted Pasadena for the more
business-friendly confines of Calabasas, the company still maintained
back offices and even a bank branch there. A few weeks earlier, Israel
had tried to arrange a sales meeting with Countrywide’s marketing
department but was rebuffed. “They told me, don’t even bother coming
by,” he said. Driving down the street that afternoon, Israel saw a crowd
of about 40 people milling around outside Countrywide’s Pasadena
branch. “I kept looking at those people, thinking it was a protest or
something,” said Israel. “As I kept driving I looked in my rearview mirror.
I didn’t know what it was.”
It would not be uncommon for a protest to be held outside a
Countrywide branch—or the branch of any other large home lender
for that matter. By the summer of 2007 home foreclosures were rising
to their highest level in 15 years. Public interest groups like ACORN3
3 ACORN, a
consumer activist group, stands for Association of Community Organizations
for Reform Now.
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routinely staged protests outside the headquarters and branches of large
lenders like Countrywide, trying to convince them to go easy on late
payers. But what Israel witnessed that afternoon wasn’t a protest against
a big, bad mortgage lender. As he later remembered, it didn’t seem as
though any of those 40 people milling around outside the branch were
holding a protest sign.
The next day Israel picked up the Los Angeles Times and found
out what the fuss was all about. Countrywide’s Pasadena branch—and
branches throughout Southern California—had been the subject of a
good old-fashioned run on the bank where panicked depositors, fearful
that they might lose their life savings, lined up to yank all their money
out. The nation hadn’t witnessed any bank runs since the S&L crisis
two decades earlier, and before that, the Great Depression. (It seemed
as though Mozilo’s “Great Depression” comment was coming back to
haunt him again.)
The newspaper reported that those pulling out cash included a Los
Angeles Kings hockey player and a middle-aged banker named Bill
Ashmore. Ashmore was a top executive at Impac Mortgage—the same
company that Countrywide had tried to raid for employees. Like every
other mortgage lender in the land, Impac had seen its stock price ravaged over the past year. It was now trading at just over a dollar, compared to a yearly high of $12. Impac’s specialty was “alt-A” lending, a
loan product best described as not quite subprime, but not quite prime,
either. Impac, like HomeBanc, was a nonbank. It, too, borrowed money
from Wall Street. It didn’t use deposits. Depending on which analyst
you talked to, it looked as though Impac was on the gurney as well.
Ashmore worked in nearby Irvine. That morning, at the behest
of his wife, he drove his Porsche Cayenne to Countrywide’s Laguna
Niguel office. Scott Reckard, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, was
staking out the parking lot, hoping to talk to nervous depositors pulling
their life savings from the branch. (Countrywide’s newspaper and radio
ads targeted senior citizens. Pasadena and the surrounding towns had
more than their fair share of well-to-do seniors.) Reckard approached
Ashmore, not knowing who he was—the president of a Countrywide
competitor, an ailing one at that. (Reckard would later say that running
into Ashmore “was one of those serendipitous things that occur maybe
once a decade. I drove to the nearest Countrywide office, saw that there
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chain of blame
were a dozen people inside waiting to get their dough, approached the
first guy who left, and it turned out to be Ashmore.”)
Ashmore was a little like Mozilo in that if you asked him the right
question he could be a chatty fellow. He told the reporter that he had
just cashed in a $500,000 certificate of deposit, transferring it over to
an account at Bank of America, the third largest bank in the United
States, one that was considered a pillar of financial stability. “It’s because
of the fear of bankruptcy,” Ashmore said as he approached his Porsche.
“It’s got my wife totally freaked out. I just don’t want to deal with
it. I don’t care about losing 90 days’ interest. I don’t care if it’s FDIC
insured.” (The FDIC, or Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a government agency, insured each account up to $100,000.)
The strange thing was that Countrywide wasn’t bankrupt, not even
close—at least that’s what Mozilo believed. There was no logical reason for the run on its branches. Mozilo was none too pleased that the
Los Angeles Times had published the physical locations of Countrywide’s
Southern California branches. (The adjectives he used to describe
the newspaper started with the letter f.) Countrywide Financial Corporation, the parent company, owned a savings and loan that boasted
$60 billion in deposits. Sixty billion in deposits went a long way—but
not when you were originating $400 billion a year in home mortgages,
which Countrywide was on track to do in 2007. So, like HomeBanc
and Impac, Countrywide borrowed from Wall Street firms and the
money center banks. It had $190 billion in loans it could draw upon.
The reason for the run: Before the stock market opened Wednesday
morning—before Countrywide was besieged by nervous customers
like Ashmore—an equities analyst at Merrill Lynch named Kenneth
Bruce wrote a critical research report on the company, suggesting that
if enough “financial pressure” was placed on Countrywide, it might
have to file for bankruptcy protection. Two weeks earlier, Bruce, who
was in his late 40s, had told Merrill Lynch’s institutional and retail
clients to buy Countrywide shares. Now he was calling it a “sell.” Bruce
wasn’t just any old equities analyst. He had worked at Countrywide
for five years, under Angelo’s new successor-in-waiting, David Sambol,
Countrywide’s president.
In two weeks’ time, Bruce had abruptly changed his opinion about
Countrywide. Word of the “sell” rating and the mention of bankruptcy
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roiled the markets, sending Countrywide’s shares into a nosedive.
Six months earlier its shares were at $40. After the Bruce missive, its
shares were at $19 and sinking fast. Mozilo was furious. Investors in
Countrywide’s stock had seen billions of dollars in value disappear—
poof. When Bruce worked at Countrywide, Angelo never met him.
“I have no idea who he was,” he later said. (He also had a few choice
words for Bruce, none of which were printable in a family newspaper.)
“I don’t know what his motivation was,” Mozilo said a few days later.
“He had just confirmed us as a ‘buy’ two weeks earlier. It was like yelling
‘fire’ in a crowded theater. He put my 60,000 employees at risk. He panicked our senior citizen depositors. And the thing is that he doesn’t know
what the fuck he’s talking about. He doesn’t even have his facts right.”
The facts, as Mozilo saw them, were that Countrywide, even
though it had stopped making most types of subprime loans, was liquid, meaning enough banks were willing to lend Countrywide money
despite Bruce’s disparaging comments. Countrywide had $190 billion
in loans available to it. However, Bruce didn’t see it that way. Bruce
said that yes, banks and Wall Street had agreed to lend Countrywide
such a large sum, but those deals could be terminated at any time, and
at a moment’s notice.
Bruce had another connection to Countrywide that Mozilo didn’t
realize. Ten years earlier he was an intern at the investment banking
firm of Sandler O’Neill working under Mike McMahon, a stock analyst who closely covered Countrywide and was on friendly terms with
Mozilo. “Ken worked for me for two months,” said McMahon. “I told
him he was too smart to be doing this kind of work. Eventually, he
moved on.” (Further adding to the web of connections was the fact—
never published—that Mozilo earlier in the year had been talking to
Sandler O’Neill’s senior managing principal, Jimmy Dunne, about
merging the investment banker with Countrywide.) Bruce went from
Sandler O’Neill to Countrywide’s capital markets group to Merrill
Lynch, whose CEO, Stanley O’Neal, was a golfing buddy of Mozilo’s.
(After Bruce’s comments wreaked havoc on Countrywide’s stock,
Mozilo, still steamed, told one friend, “Next time I see Stan I’m going
to punch him in the nose.” He was half kidding, said the friend.)
It wasn’t so much that Bruce had told Merrill Lynch’s institutional
and retail customers to dump the stock, but that he was suggesting
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that the nation’s largest mortgage lender and servicer, the House of
Angelo—one that was closing in on a market share approaching
20 percent—could go belly-up. Just how bad were things in the mortgage market? The subprime sector, where 20 percent of home borrowers got their loans, had just about seized up. Wall Street firms were still
buying mortgages from subprime lenders but at greatly reduced prices
and volumes. The phrase credit crunch was starting to be used liberally by
financial commentators on television. Home buyers with good credit
could still get mortgages, but home prices were falling and defaults
were rising.
All summer President Bush’s Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, no
matter where he traveled, had been making the same speech—that the
problems in the U.S. mortgage business, the subprime market in particular, had not sparked what was being called a “worldwide contagion.”
No one was listening, though. Stocks were now tumbling in Asia,
Europe, and Latin America. Bruce’s bankruptcy call on Countrywide
had capped off a week of horrific news. Rumors were starting to
spread that subprime CDOs sold by Wall Street firms such as Merrill
Lynch and Morgan Stanley were causing losses overseas at banks in
Europe and Australia.
To some, though, Angelo was getting his comeuppance. To some,
Mozilo’s July 24 comments about the housing market being in the
worst shape since the Great Depression had started the ball rolling. But
this ball was no longer small. It had grown into a boulder and then
a landslide, rolling downhill toward Mozilo and the 60,000 employees who worked at his Calabasas-based baby, Countrywide. “Angelo’s
mouth finally got him in trouble,” said Lew Sichelman, a nationally syndicated housing columnist who had covered the company for 30 years.
Even President Bush was being asked about the mortgage crisis at
press conferences. (Mortgages weren’t typically topic A during presidential Q&As.) Bush kept repeating what he had always believed—that
the U.S. economy was strong, that there would be no government bailout of mortgage lenders. But the President’s words didn’t convince Jim
Cramer, a former hedge fund manager who runs a stock picking show
on CNBC. On the Friday before Bruce’s “sell” rating, Cramer—who on
his show Mad Money often referred to Mozilo as a “good friend” and
implored CNBC’s viewers to buy Countrywide’s shares—was describing
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the stock market meltdown, the worldwide contagion, as “Armageddon.”
Not only was he using the word “Armageddon,” but he was shouting it
out at the top of lungs, jumping up and down on the set like a child
having a temper tantrum. “This is Armageddon,” Cramer repeated to his
viewers. Reporter Erin Burnett looked at Cramer as though he had lost
his mind.
Back in Calabasas, Mozilo couldn’t have agreed more with Cramer’s
assessment. Thanks to one word uttered by Merrill Lynch’s Ken Bruce
(bankruptcy), Countrywide was now facing financial Armageddon—
even though it had earned almost $2 billion the year before. On
the Wednesday that Bruce made his bankruptcy utterance, the
Countrywide founder had been scheduled to appear on CNBC at 4 pm
Eastern time. He was a no-show. Countrywide’s stock continued to
trade downward like a rock thrown off an airplane. Instead of talking
to Maria Bartiromo, the CNBC anchor, Angelo was working the telephones, trying to get his lenders, his bankers, to calm down.
He tried to convince them that despite what that “moron” (his
words to a friend) Bruce had said, Countrywide was going to be okay. It
had earned $2 billion just the year before. But it didn’t really matter what
Angelo thought. When he called around to calm Countrywide’s bankers, to plead with them to continue lending money to his company—so
Countrywide could continue funding the American dream of home
ownership for millions of Americans—he got the cold shoulder. Wall
Street hadn’t forgotten that chip on his shoulder. Their collective answer
to him: Drop dead.
“They said, ‘We have our own problems,’” Mozilo explained.
“These were guys I had been banking with for 40 years.” For the first
time in a long time, when Angelo spoke no one was listening, at least
not the way he wanted them to.
Over the next few days, ashen-faced Countrywide executives
worked around the clock at the Calabasas headquarters. Betsy Bayer,
who worked in the compliance department, remembered that “you
could see the stress on their faces. They were working monster hours.
I think some people were caught up in denial or they looked like a
deer caught in the headlights.”
In Manhattan at the corporate offices of JPMorgan Chase something else was afoot. Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of the
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bank/investment bank, was trying to convene a meeting of Countrywide’s five largest commercial paper lenders, including Citigroup and
Bank of America (BoA). As commercial paper lenders, these firms had
lent and committed some of the $190 billion that Angelo spoke of.
Dimon, according to one of his advisors, was concerned that each of the
five was wasting valuable time trying to negotiate individually with
Countrywide. “Jamie was not comfortable with Countrywide’s chances
of survival,” said the advisor.4 It looked as though Bruce was not alone
in his belief that Countrywide could go under.
As Countrywide’s stock continued on a downward trajectory,
Mozilo worked the telephones and convinced an old friend, Ken Lewis,
the president and CEO of BoA, to invest $2 billion of its money in a
special class of preferred stock that was convertible to common stock
and paid a 7.25 percent dividend. Under a deal that Mozilo personally negotiated, BoA got the shares for $18 a pop, giving the bank a
16 percent stake in the nation’s largest lender and servicer of home
mortgages. The investment by BoA was enough to calm Dimon’s fears.
It wasn’t exactly luck on Angelo’s part. Over the previous two years
he and Lewis had talked informally about BoA buying Countrywide
in its entirety. At one point the talks turned serious and BoA even
began conducting due diligence, sending a team of analysts to scour
Countrywide’s books. Angelo got cold feet and backed out. The company was coming off its two most profitable years ever, and it appeared
the good times wouldn’t end.
Five years earlier, according to National Mortgage News, Countrywide had almost struck a deal to become a private label lender and
servicer for BoA. Under Mozilo’s plan, BoA could get rid of its entire
mortgage department, and Countrywide, for a fee, would service and
originate all of BoA’s home mortgages. (The story got little attention
from the news dailies that covered Countrywide.) Angelo had personally courted BoA’s Ken Lewis about the idea. The move could have
saved the Charlotte, North Carolina–based bank hundreds of millions
of dollars a year. Angelo at one point thought he was close on the private label agreement, but Lewis eventually balked, fearful that he would
4 The
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advisor, an investment banker, spoke under the condition his name not be used.
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Angelo Speaks, the Worldwide Contagion Begins
21
be putting the bank’s mortgage customers in the hands of a company
that might try marketing credit cards and home equity loans—the latter
being a huge and profitable business for the Charlotte bank.
Bank of America’s $2 billion investment in Countrywide wasn’t the
first time in its history that BoA had bailed out Mozilo. Back in 1970
when Countrywide was a struggling young company, BoA had purchased
a Florida bank that had a $75,000 outstanding loan to Countrywide.
One of the first things BoA did when it bought the Florida bank was to
call in the loan. “I told them I had three kids, a wife, and no money,” said
Mozilo. BoA could close him down and lose the loan or let him continue operating with the chance that eventually the loan would be paid
in full. They bit. Mozilo got his loan extended.
Some 37 years later, BoA had saved the day once more. When
the investment was announced publicly, Countrywide’s shares spiked
upward to $24.50. The bank was now sitting on a paper gain of $700
million, and Ken Lewis looked like a financial Einstein—all for listening to an old friend named Angelo who needed some money. But
in the months ahead the good times would not last, and BoA’s masterstroke would soon look like a financial disaster. By January 2008
Countrywide’s shares were down to $8, which meant BoA and Lewis
were sitting on a loss of well over $1 billion. Mozilo and Lewis had a
lot of explaining to do to their respective shareholders.
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Chapter 2
The Repo Man Meets
the Bald Granny
A Short History of Subprime
I
n the summer of 2007, Angelo Mozilo’s bluntness about the sorry
state of the mortgage and housing markets caught many in the industry by surprise, especially Merrill Lynch & Company and its CEO,
Stanley O’Neal, who five short months earlier had spent $1.3 billion to
buy First Franklin Financial Corporation of San Jose, the fourth largest
originator of subprime loans in the land. The seller was National City
Corporation of Cleveland, a commercial bank that eight years earlier had
bought First Franklin (a nonbank) from Bill Dallas, a 25-year veteran of
the mortgage industry whose best quality, according to some, was revving
up his sales force of account executives (AEs) to gather subprime mortgages from thousands of loan brokers from coast to coast.
“Bill is really a guy who can rally the troops to sell things,” said one
competitor who went head-to-head with Dallas. “He can make them
move. He knows how to make it rain—but when he does, he doesn’t
have an umbrella and galoshes.” Dallas, he said, had a penchant—for better or worse—for overpaying the AEs who gathered residential mortgages
from independent loan brokers. Among his professional accomplishments,
23
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chain of blame
Dallas listed a joint venture with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox television
network to own and manage the Fox Sports Grill, a small chain of
upscale restaurants that catered to consumers who liked to eat casual food
and watch sporting events on big-screen TVs. Another career highlight
was the fact that he was the trustee for teenage entertainers Mary-Kate
and Ashley Olsen and the chairman of Dualstar Entertainment Group,
a holding company that controlled the twins’ assets. What wasn’t listed
on his resume was the fact that he knew Angelo Mozilo and happened
to live in the same Agoura Hills neighborhood. Mozilo’s Countrywide
competed against First Franklin.
Mozilo’s opinion of First Franklin? True to form, he didn’t pull any
punches here, either: “In my opinion, Bill was operating a flawed company. It was flawed operationally, structurally, and culturally.” Did he
have anything nice to say about Dallas? “Bill impressed a lot of people.
He’s a salesman. He’s a neighbor of mine.”
Even though he didn’t have much in the way of warm things to
say about the First Franklin co-founder,1 one thing could be said of
Bill Dallas—when he sold the subprime lender to National City he
made a killing on the sale: $325 million, doubling the money he and
his venture capital backers, CIVC Partners of Chicago, had put into
the company. After that, he did what any sensible subprime executive
would have done: He took the money, signed a noncompete clause,
and sat out of the business, serving only as chairman emeritus of First
Franklin and concentrating on his other investments. (A chairman
emeritus shows up for board meetings six times a year, bangs a gavel,
and collects a salary, often having absolutely nothing to do with the
day-to-day operations of a company.)
Meanwhile, National City was handing off First Franklin to Merrill
Lynch, a name synonymous with the retail stock brokerage trade. Merrill,
by this time, was one of the last of Wall Street’s investment banking
giants that didn’t own a subprime origination company. By purchasing
First Franklin it was making a costly bet that the business—which was
1 First
Franklin was founded by Bill Dallas and family members in the 1980s. About a
decade later, Fred Baldwin, a veteran subprime executive, merged his company, Trillium
Mortgage, into First Franklin. Some in the mortgage industry credited Baldwin as a
co-founder of First Franklin as well.
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The Repo Man Meets the Bald Granny
25
starting to fray because of rising delinquencies and concerns about
flatlining home values—would be just fine over the long haul. O’Neal
and the Merrill executives who ran the mortgage group were betting
that the early signs of trouble in subprime and housing were temporary
and that the market would snap back.
Mozilo and Merrill’s Stan O’Neal were friends. Merrill Lynch was
one of a handful of investment banks that helped raise capital (in the
form of stock and bonds) for Countrywide over the years. The two
served together on the Business Council, a voluntary group of executives that held court with elected officials, including the president of
the United States. Even though they were somewhat close, O’Neal
never tipped his hand to Mozilo regarding his intentions to buy First
Franklin. “Here they were getting under our kimono,” said Mozilo.
“I later asked Stan about it. He said, ‘It’s part of our plan.’”
Mozilo knew what that plan was. Merrill Lynch increasingly had
become one of the hungriest buyers of subprime loans on Wall Street.
But it had to pay other lenders for the product—that is, the loans. It
planned to keep doing that, but figured it could really ramp up its
loan purchases—which ultimately would wind up in mortgage bonds
that it could sell worldwide—if it owned its own lending operation,
First Franklin. That was all well and good with the top executives at
National City. When the deal finally went down in February of 2007
and the bank had the $1.3 billion wired into its cash account, some of
its executives were dancing in the aisles at the bank’s headquarters in
Cleveland, according to George Ostendorf, an investment banker from
Chicago who had a friend at National City.2 “They were giving each
other the high fives,” said Ostendorf.
2 National
City sold the risk-inherent First Franklin to Merrill Lynch for $1.3 billion. The
price—almost $1 billion more than what National City had paid back in 1999 for the
subprime lender—was for First Franklin and two affiliates. Despite the sale (and the
celebrating in the corporate suite), the bank would not escape entirely unscathed from the
mortgage crisis. In the fourth quarter of 2007, National City posted a $333 million loss, tied
in part to delinquencies and write-downs on alt-A mortgages and second-lien home equity
loans held on its books. In time, it also would stop funding mortgages through loan brokers
and close its wholesale channel where such loans were produced. In the first quarter of 2008
it lost $171 million and was forced to raise $7 billion in equity from outside investors.
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chain of blame
When Peter Samuel Cugno of California read that Merrill Lynch
was buying First Franklin, he just scratched his head. As the CEO of
his own Southern California mortgage company, he had dealt with
Merrill in the late 1980s when the investment bank operated what was
called a trading desk out of its office in Philadelphia. Cugno’s company,
Financial Services Funding Group (FSFG), would originate a subprime
loan and sell it to Merrill’s desk for a negotiated price, and then Merrill
would resell it (flip it, so to speak) to an institutional buyer for an even
higher price. “As long as Merrill stayed in the game as a middleman,
I thought they’d be okay,” he said.
Cugno was a bit like Mozilo in some ways. Born a few years apart,
both were Italian-Americans who loved the Southern California climate, talked a tough game of business, and knew their respective niches
in the home lending industry. But that’s where the similarities ended.
Mozilo had spent almost his entire career lending money to Americans
with good credit, whereas Cugno had spent his entire career lending
to Californians with bad credit. “A” paper lending was a huge business. The origination of home mortgages to people with bad credit—at
least until 2002—was a small pond, but it was a business Cugno loved,
despite some of its personal pitfalls. Cugno, as his friends might tell
you, was a little rough around the edges when it came to his personal
appearance. He was Oscar Madison to Mozilo’s Felix Unger.
In 2002 the U.S. housing market began to recover from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Interest rates were low, and a national housing
recovery—thanks to a succession of rate cuts by the Federal Reserve
under Alan Greenspan—was well under way. Wall Street firms like Bear
Stearns, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and Lehman Brothers began
doing something that Cugno could not quite comprehend: They were
buying billions of dollars’ worth of subprime loans from nonbank
mortgage lending firms. The activity made Cugno think of the 1960s,
of his early days as a management trainee at Beneficial Finance, one of
the granddaddies of the subprime movement. He wondered, why was
Wall Street buying subprime loans? “Back when I was a 20-year-old
snot-nosed amateur at Beneficial, all Wall Street meant to me was a
bunch of guys who were stockbrokers,” he said.
When he was a young man, Cugno wasn’t all that keen on stockbrokers. The way he saw it, he was a frat boy who liked going to parties
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The Repo Man Meets the Bald Granny
27
and chasing women. Wall Street, to him, meant Ivy Leaguers with
white shoes and a handful of finance degrees. He loathed such people.
(He and Mozilo saw eye-to-eye on that issue.) Now, 40 years later,
investment bankers from New York were buying subprime loans—a lot
of subprime loans. When he saw what the Street was doing in the early
2000s he got a sick feeling in his stomach, and it wasn’t just the cancer
he was suffering from. “That was the beginning of the end as I remember it—when they started to see the potential for them to get hip-deep
in this biz and suck out some serious money,” he said. “But their mistake was that to do that, they needed to no longer be someone who
put others together—like the trading desk operation—but to saddle up,
own the lender, and take on some serious risk.”
*
*
*
As a management trainee for Beneficial Finance in the 1960s, Cugno
knew what risk was all about. He lived it. When Cugno started out his
career in the subprime mortgage business, he was what some people
called a “repo man.” In street terms (not Wall Street terms, that is), a
repo man was someone who took back items from deadbeat borrowers. He was someone who repossessed items—by any means necessary
(usually legal).3 Back then the word subprime didn’t exist, and the last
thing in the world a white-shoe investment banking firm like Merrill
Lynch (or Bear Stearns or any other firm headquartered on the island
of Manhattan) wanted was to be in the business of repossessing people’s
cars, stereo equipment, or homes for that matter.
As a management trainee for Beneficial, a company founded in
1914 in Elizabeth, New Jersey (a sister city to Newark), young Cugno’s
job was to originate small personal loans to office workers and bluecollar wage slaves living in the San Fernando Valley in Southern
California. After the loan was made, he would service the debt (collect
the monthly payments), and in the event the loan became late, cure the
3 In the consumer finance business, the word repo pertained to repossession or the taking
back of property (a car for instance) that collateralized a personal loan. By the 1980s the
word repo (on Wall Street, at least) was jargon for “repurchase agreement,” whereby a lender
pledged loans to an investment banking firm or a commercial bank in exchange for a loan
totaling tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
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chain of blame
note, that is, make the borrower make a payment. If borrowers were
late, Cugno would call them on the telephone after a couple of friendly
letters failed to do the job. “You owe us a lot of money,” he would tell
them. “I will find out where you work.” And that’s just what he did. He
would wake up at four in the morning and follow them to their place
of employment. “I would go to their desk and I would say, ‘I’m from
Beneficial. I’m here for the payment. I don’t care if your kid is sick.’”
He was a repo man for items both big and small—pianos and furniture, too. Taking back indoor merchandise could be tricky. “That stuff
was in the house,” he said. “Sometimes I was afraid of getting shot, so
I tried not to go through the window. I tried not to do anything illegal.” His goal, as always, was to go into a house by invitation. The first
order of business was to call the borrowers and let them know that
Beneficial was on its way to take back the furniture. Luckily for him,
most delinquent borrowers knew the jig was up and cooperated. (By
the time he left Beneficial in 1979 he could boast that he’d never been
shot by a customer.)
Cars—he repossessed those, too. It was another four in the morning, better-to-do-it-in-the-pitch-darkness type of job. He would go the
deadbeat’s house. If he saw his asset sitting in the driveway, he would
call the tow truck, show the driver his certificate of title to the automobile, and that was that. The car got hoisted up on the tow chain, and
Beneficial’s collateral would be wheeled down the street in the gentle
stillness of a Southern California morning, before the milkman arrived
and the (former) owner realized that he’d be taking the bus to work
that morning—that is, if he had a job.
In the early 1960s that’s what Beneficial Finance was all about. It
was a publicly traded company that made small-balance consumer loans
to millions of Americans. It wasn’t a bank that took deposits (savings
and checking accounts) from the public. That was the point. When it
was founded in 1914 its business model was that it lent money to consumers who couldn’t get loans from banks. Back then the loans were
used to buy durable goods such as appliances and furniture. The borrowers would then pay back Beneficial in installments. Beneficial’s first
office allowed consumers to borrow up to $300. By 1924 the lender
boasted 80 offices and was making $13 million in loans a year. Its average loan size back then? A whopping $100. In 2007 the average size of
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29
a subprime mortgage was $180,000, according to Source Media, the
publisher of American Banker, National Mortgage News, and other trade
periodicals.
During the Great Depression, banks didn’t exactly endear themselves to the American public by foreclosing on thousands upon thousands of homes—not to mention wide swaths of farmland. After the
bank failures of the early 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
signed into law the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which
helped the banking industry financially but didn’t totally alleviate its
public image problem of being the bad guy that took away people’s
homes and personal property. Banks weren’t to be trusted. In the years
leading up to World War II, Beneficial thrived by paying close attention
to a middle-class customer base that still viewed banks (and even savings and loans) with suspicion. Beneficial—which had little in the way
of competition from other upstart consumer finance firms—beat the
banks in the business of making personal loans by having its salespeople
offer customers “personalized service, getting to know the names and
ages of customers’ children and taking other steps that made customers
feel more comfortable than if they were applying for a loan at a bank.”
So said the International Directory of Company Histories.
By the mid-1960s when Cugno joined as a management trainee
fresh out of the Army, Beneficial had 1,200 retail consumer finance
offices in the United States and Canada. Its origination volume was
less than $900 million, its average loan size just $370. It was peanuts
in the scheme of things. Cugno knew it and Beneficial knew it. All
that changed just about the time Cugno started his career in subprime
(even though it wasn’t called subprime then). “Beneficial,” he said,
“wanted to make larger loans and more money.” And that meant one
thing and one thing only: It needed to get into the business of lending
money to its base—to Americans who were strapped for cash and who,
for one reason or another, avoided their neighborhood bank or S&L.
Beneficial needed to begin originating loans secured by residential real
estate—a borrower’s home.
And that’s exactly what it did. But there were two very important
distinctions between what Beneficial began doing in the 1960s and
what banks and savings and loans (thrifts) had been doing for decades.
Beneficial and its management trainees, Peter Cugno among them,
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chain of blame
originated second liens or “second deeds of trust.” Oftentimes the first
lien was held in a portfolio by a bank or thrift. Back then there was no
active secondary market where banks and S&Ls could sell their mortgages. They held on to them. The other distinction? Second mortgages
were made to Americans with, well, less than perfect credit. After all, if
they had good credit they wouldn’t need to take out another mortgage
on top of their already existing first mortgage, or so the thinking went.
In the 1960s most banks and savings and loans didn’t make second
mortgages. It just wasn’t done, because the business of making a second (but smaller) mortgage on top of a first was considered risky. And
that’s where the Cugnos and the Beneficial Finances of the world came
in: risk. Beneficial, as any business would, expected to be compensated
for its risk—in the form of charging the consumer a higher interest
rate on these second deeds of trust. If the going rate for a first lien
was 9 percent, Beneficial would charge a rate five or six percentage
points higher for the second—14 percent, 15 percent. In short order,
an industry was born. Beneficial Finance, a publicly traded company
whose forte for 45 years had been making small $100 loans, was now
making loans of $1,000 or more. The collateral: a house. (By the time
Cugno parted ways with Beneficial, its average loan size was $17,000.)
When Beneficial made the decision to enter the residential loan
arena, that meant different chores for Cugno and his fellow management trainees. Cugno admits that the term management trainee was just
parlance for learning how to be a loan officer. “It took two years,” he
said. “Soup to nuts. You make the loan and you’re the debt collector.”
As a loan officer, he did everything from taking the borrower’s application to servicing the loan (making sure the payments were made on
time) and then foreclosing on the mortgage if that’s what needed to
be done. Unlike subprime lenders of the modern era, Beneficial’s loan
officers were a bit more cautious as to who they lent money to.
When a loan application came in to Cugno’s branch, the first thing
he would do was pull a credit report from one of the three national
credit reporting repositories—Experian, TransUnion, or TRW. “The
cost of pulling a credit report was $1.25 per lookup, per customer,”
he said. “The principal issue for us was the credit history of the borrower.” Other issues were how much the house was worth and how
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much equity there was. If a customer didn’t have equity in the home,
Beneficial wouldn’t make a second mortgage on the property.
Lenders like Beneficial were comfortable only if the mortgage they
held on a house had an acceptable loan-to-value (LTV) ratio. If a house
in Orange County was worth $100,000 and the home buyer had a
mortgage of $80,000 on it after having made a $20,000 down payment, that meant the mortgage had an LTV of 80 percent. (Key to the
process was obtaining an independent appraisal from a company that
had no ties to Beneficial.) In the second lien consumer finance niche
that Beneficial trailblazed in the 1960s, the company would not extend
credit to a homeowner if the first and second mortgages (combined)
would have an LTV above 80 percent. Beneficial did not originate
first mortgages for Californians and other consumers who were looking to buy a new or existing home. Its specialty was making second
mortgages (second deeds of trust) to customers who had owned their
house for years and had seen their abode rise in value—so much so
that Beneficial and loan officers like Cugno would grant them another
loan. “I made the loan, underwrote it, and Beneficial kept it in its portfolio,” he said.
In short order, Cugno had graduated from making loans on cars
and furniture to originating mortgages backed by homes. He did so
because that’s what Beneficial wanted to do—make larger loans, make
more money. It also meant that repossessing or foreclosing on a house
could be a trickier proposition for Beneficial and its management trainees. “If a home loan went bad, that meant I had to eat shit,” he said.
“That was my account, and I had to get all that fucking money back
for my boss or it was my job.” (“Hard money” lending was one term
used to describe the type of loans Cugno was making.)
When a home went into foreclosure, he would play by the rules. If
Beneficial was the only lender, that simplified matters. Beneficial would
foreclose and gain title to the property. “But it could get ugly sometimes,”
Cugno admitted. The next step was to get the foreclosed-upon mortgage
customer out of the house. “We’d gain title and the customer would still
be in the house, not wanting to move. You would have to show up with
the marshal, who would have his shotgun with him. He would be standing
there with his bullhorn, in the street. He’d have his dogs,” recalled Cugno.
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chain of blame
“If the marshal had to, he’d kick in the door, guns drawn, dogs
barking,” Cugno said. “You might have the bald granny in there, the
kids, the grandkids. We’d put all their stuff on the sidewalk. Then we’d
board up the windows with nails and hammers.” The final item on the
to-do list? The Beneficial management trainee would then hire a company to put a chain-link fence around the house. “It was something
trainees did all the time, all over the country,” he said.
Foreclosing on his customers was not a task that Cugno relished, but
he accepted it as part of the job. As he neared retirement, he began to
regret the repos he had performed in his youth. “It makes me sad to think
I did stuff like that,” he said, “but I was young then and thought differently.
But repos? That’s what you do when you’re young. It was part of the job.”
If loan officers had to embarrass the customers into paying by visiting them at the office in front of their supervisor, that’s what they did.
“You would try to get the boss’s money back any way you could,” he
said. Whatever Cugno and his fellow loan officers were doing seemed to
work for Beneficial. By the time he left the company in 1979, the firm’s
losses on residential loans were a scant 1 percent. This was on $4 billion
in residential second liens that the company held on its books. By the
mid-1970s Beneficial was earning record profits of $100 million a year
through all sorts of interest rate cycles.
These were the roots of a business that Wall Street, in the new century, was so hungry to get into.
*
*
*
Beneficial’s success was lost somewhat on Angelo Mozilo. In the early
to mid-1970s he and his partner, David Loeb, were busy managing a
very young mortgage banking company called Countrywide Credit
Industries, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange in
1969, raising $450,000. (They were hoping for $3 million.) The two
men, who had met while working for a home lending company
that Loeb owned part of, launched the first version of Countrywide
on Loeb’s kitchen table in his apartment at 99th Street and Park Avenue
in Manhattan. To hear Mozilo tell it, the owners of Loeb’s previous
company had itchy fingers—they couldn’t keep their hands off of the
lender’s escrow accounts, which legally belonged not to the company
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33
but to the customers who had borrowed money from it. “They wanted
to play games with the cash accounts, so I quit,” said Mozilo.
Six months after selling its stock to the public, Countrywide’s
shares were trading for less than $1 apiece. Mozilo and Loeb were
struggling to keep the company afloat. “There were periods when
we had no capital at all,” remembered Mozilo. The housing market
in the New York area wasn’t exactly on fire. Countrywide, it might
be said, was risk averse; when it made mortgages it wasn’t taking any
chances. Countrywide was not a bank or savings and loan. In its early
years it was a nondepository (nonbank) mortgage company that lent
money to consumers not by using deposits (it didn’t have any) but borrowing money from larger money center banks. (These lines of credit
to Countrywide were called “warehouse” loans.) Its lenders included
Bank of America (a company Ken Lewis would later lead) and Chase
Manhattan Bank of New York.
Under Mozilo and Loeb, Countrywide originated only first lien
mortgages that were insured by two government agencies: the Federal
Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA). If
a mortgage went into foreclosure, the government—not Countrywide—
would take the hit. That may seem like an easy way to make a living,
but it wasn’t. As a nondepository mortgage banker, Countrywide had a
ton of competition, namely 6,000 S&Ls that had a lock on the business
of originating first mortgages. Savings and loans could either keep the
mortgages on their books or sell them off to two government-chartered
investing companies—the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation,
also known as Freddie Mac, or the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae).
At the time (though this would change), Countrywide didn’t have
access (the ability) to sell its mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
To keep the company afloat, Loeb remained in New York while Mozilo
left his wife and kids back east, at least for a little while, and moved
to Los Angeles to open branches for Countrywide. There was one central reason for being in Southern California in the 1970s. The housing market was hot. “We have to be in California, because that’s where
25 percent of the business is,” Mozilo told Loeb.
While in California opening retail branches, Mozilo wasn’t paying
any attention to Beneficial. Mortgage banking companies that borrowed
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chain of blame
money from big banks to make residential loans to mom-and-pop
Americans didn’t fund second liens. This left the second deed of trust
industry wide open for Beneficial to snatch up. Even though Mozilo
wasn’t paying any attention to Beneficial, that didn’t mean other businesspeople weren’t watching and following in its footsteps.
By the early 1970s, other consumer finance companies had sprung
up to originate second liens. The term subprime still had not reared its
head in the mortgage industry or the rest of the world at large. If a
second lien lender like Beneficial was funding a mortgage, it was called
“nonconforming,” which meant it didn’t conform to conventional “A”
paper standards set by government-sponsored Fannie Mae and Freddie
Mac. The term subprime did not become widely used until the early
1990s. And even then, the phrases B&C lending and hard money lending that preceded subprime were used to distinguish these second liens
from “A” paper loans eligible for sale by lenders to Fannie and Freddie.
As Cugno knew, “A” paper firms like Mozilo’s Countrywide “did not
want to know us. We were lepers, scum of the earth. That’s how we
were viewed.”
Lepers or not, soon enough other consumer finance companies
had begun to come out of the woodwork to originate second liens.
Another phrase to describe what these consumer finance firms were
doing was “home equity” lending, which meant a borrower could get a
loan as long as he or she had spare cash (equity) locked up in the value
of the house. In the early 1970s, on the East Coast a consumer finance
company called The Money Store (TMS) was beginning to gain traction. Founded by New Jersey businessman Alan Turtletaub, The Money
Store began to advertise heavily on television and radio. Its TV commercials, shown often during Yankees games and on the independent
station WPIX, featured Yankee Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto. Rizzuto,
as every Yankee (and Met) fan knew, was also the team’s play-by-play
commentator who spent half the game regaling listeners about his
glory days with the Bronx Bombers of the 1940s and 1950s and saying
hello to his old neighbors on 188th Street.
As a shortstop, Rizzuto’s nickname was the Scooter, and he was the
kind of pitchman who gave viewers the warm fuzzies. You trusted
the Scooter. After all, how could you not trust a Yankee all-star who
played alongside giants of the game like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey
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Mantle, a man who made sliding catches and diving throws? In a
Money Store commercial that ran frequently in the 1970s, Rizzuto,
hair graying, his eyes beaming through an oversized pair of aviator
glasses, stood in front of a retail store window, The Money Store name
emblazoned in big black letters, the Scooter telling viewers, “If you
need money.” An 800 number would be superimposed on the bottom
of the screen. It worked.
The Money Store, under Alan Turtletaub and his oldest son, Marc,
began to expand east to west, branching out in the hottest market of
all: California. Mozilo and his partner Loeb weren’t the only ones who
realized that California accounted for one-quarter of the U.S. home
loan market. The Money Store found enough success in the Golden
State that Marc Turtletaub opened a second (“dual”) headquarters in
West Sacramento, just outside the state capital. It leased a 400,000square-foot gold ziggurat-shaped office building on the Sacramento
River. In time, the younger Turtletaub, like many lending CEOs, would
become a generous donor to federally elected officials. He was also a
friend of Bill Clinton and, like other FOBs (friends of Bill), got to sleep
in the Lincoln bedroom.
The Money Store and Beneficial were far from being the only consumer finance companies with loan officers (management trainees)
pounding the pavement in search of credit-impaired customers who
needed to borrow against the value of their homes. As the 1980s wore on,
companies like Associates First Capital Corporation of Dallas,4 Household
Finance of Illinois, and United Companies in Louisiana (among other
firms) were making second lien home equity loans as well as personal
loans, issuing credit cards, offering lease financing, and selling other products that were a little bit too scary for the banking industry.
Banks and S&Ls that offered deposit and checking accounts to
the public were at somewhat of a competitive disadvantage to consumer finance companies, because they were subject to a usury law
that capped how much interest they could charge for loans. The whole
point of being a hard money lender was that you took on risk and
4 After Beneficial, Associates was the second oldest consumer finance company in the
United States.
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chain of blame
expected to be compensated for that risk, whether it was five, six, or
seven points above the “A” paper loan rate. And there was yet one more
advantage to being a consumer finance company: There were no pesky
federal regulators in Washington to deal with.
Depending on where they were located, consumer finance companies also might be subject to usury laws, but Beneficial, Cugno’s
employer, found a way around them. “If you worked for Beneficial,”
said Cugno, “you got a ‘personal property broker license,’ which was
exempt from state laws,” which meant usury laws. Consumer finance
companies and all their management trainees or loan officers would
get state licenses. And there was yet one more advantage to being
a consumer finance company, especially one that was making loans
(second liens) secured by a house. Congress passed the Tax Reform Act
of 1986—signed into law by President Reagan—which eliminated the
ability of consumers to deduct interest payments on credit cards, auto
loans, and all types of personal loans. Worried about a growing budget
deficit, the politicians were hoping that by eliminating the tax deduction, this newfound money would feed the federal coffers.
At first, it looked like the law might spell trouble for Beneficial,
Associates, The Money Store, and the rest of the consumer finance
industry. If consumers could no longer deduct the interest payments
on their cars, credit cards, or personal loans, they might stop spending,
which ultimately might hurt the consumer finance industry. Instead,
it shifted borrowing—to some degree—away from personal loans to
an asset class where Americans could still deduct the interest payments:
the home.
*
*
*
Before he began a second career as a stock analyst covering the world’s
largest mortgage lender (Countrywide) for Sandler O’Neill in the
investment bank’s West Coast office, Mike McMahon was a warehouse
lending executive. As a warehouse official for First Interstate Bank in
Los Angeles, McMahon’s job was not to lend on warehouses (as the
layman might think) but to find nondepository mortgage banking
firms (like Countrywide) and extend large multimillion-dollar loans to
them so these nonbanks could in turn make mortgage loans to Joe and
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Mary Sixpack. (Remember, nonbanks or nondepositories didn’t have
savings accounts that they could pool together to make mortgages.)
McMahon’s father was a Realtor, and from dinner table conversations he learned the basics of the housing finance system of the pre1980s era. When someone bought a house they typically made a down
payment of 20 percent. If they couldn’t come up with a down payment that large, sometimes they’d borrow the money from a consumer
finance company. Besides being in the business of making second liens
(loans) for paying off credit cards, medical bills, and car loans (all these
categories fell under the rubric of “debt consolidation”), some consumer finance companies were beginning to get involved in helping
their customers buy homes. One of those firms was Aames Financial,
a consumer finance company, managed and partly owned by a former
actor named Gary Judis.
Judis, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal, was the son of
a “business minded” mother and jeweler who taught him how to play
piano. At age 20 he was part of a repertory company that included
actors Richard Chamberlain, Sally Kellerman, and Leonard Nimoy.
He had bit roles in the television series Doctor Kildare and a theatrical
movie called Zebra in the Kitchen, which wasn’t exactly Academy Award
material. Judis did a short stint in the Air Force, and after his discharge
he found himself driving his Thunderbird down Wilshire Boulevard
from Beverly Hills to downtown Los Angeles. As he motored by the
palm trees and wide streets, he sized up the buildings.
“I realized that all the big buildings were owned by banks, life insurance companies, and S&Ls,” he later told the Business Journal. “They
were the wealthiest corporate entities in the world.” It appealed to
Judis. Acting was fine, but even though he was handsome with the face
of a cherub, he wasn’t leading man material. He saw those tall buildings
and said, “I had to be the captain of something.”
He gave up acting and started a small mortgage firm called Capital
Home Loan, which he later merged with an existing consumer finance
company called Aames Financial. Those early years weren’t always easy
sledding. At one point Aames was on the verge of bankruptcy. Judis
gathered up all his corporate papers and made it over to his attorney’s
office at Slate & Leoni on Wilshire Boulevard. According to one version of the story—which he told to a fellow mortgage banker—he was
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chain of blame
sitting in the waiting room, hoping to see his attorney, when an old
lending client and friend came walking down the hallway. “What are
you doing here?” asked the friend.
“I don’t think I can make a go of it anymore,” Judis said.
“How much do you need?” the man asked.
“About a million dollars,” said Judis.
“Let’s get out of here. I’ll lend it to you.” The man was Berry
Gordy, the music producer and founder of Motown Records.
When Gordy was a struggling young music producer, Judis had lent
money to him to buy a house in Los Angeles. (The mortgage industry has
a long history of not exactly being color blind when it comes to making home loans to minorities, African-Americans in particular. Redlining,
the practice of not making mortgages in certain zip codes, was a common practice up until the 1970s, and some say longer. When it came to
making mortgages to minorities, Aames was among the more liberal.)
Under Judis’ stewardship, Aames recovered. He was one the first
mortgage executives to aggressively advertise on television and radio.
(Countrywide was another.) Even though he had hung up his acting
spurs, he used his talents—good looks and a booming voice—to star
in Aames’ commercials. He hired topflight agencies like Chiat/Day
to produce the commercials. By the late 1980s, Aames was originating $80 million in loans, a very respectable volume. At this time subprime lending was still mostly second-lien based, representing less than
5 percent of all mortgages originated in the nation. But even though
volumes were small, profits (and profit margins) were high.
With the S&L industry beginning to fail, Aames and other subprime firms were beginning to get more attention from large regional
banks that were looking to expand their business lending units.
Consumer finance companies fit the bill. Enter Mike McMahon of
First Interstate. McMahon was an avid reader of the trade press. One
article he saw sparked his interest in Aames: that Wall Street firms might
soon start securitizing second deeds of trust (home equity loans) that
were being originated by consumer finance companies. Being based in
Los Angeles, McMahon was familiar with Aames and Judis from the
commercials he saw on television. He started doing some research.
Large commercial banks, to some degree, were already lending
money to consumer finance giants like Beneficial, Household, and
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Associates, but the smaller firms such as Aames weren’t as fortunate—at
least not yet. Aames, McMahon discovered, was making second deeds
of trust to credit-impaired consumers at 14 percent. These home
equity loans averaged $15,000 or so. Where did Aames get the money
to lend out to the consumer? From “doctors and dentists,” McMahon
discovered.
Rich professionals who were looking to put their extra cash to work
were the backbone of the subprime industry in the 1960s, 1970s, and
early 1980s. “Aames would make a loan at 14 percent, clip the coupon,
keep 1 percent for themselves, and pass on the 13 percent to the end
investor,” said McMahon. (Presumably the principal amount of the loan
would be repaid, so Aames was keeping 1 percent as its monthly fee. The
rest went to the investor.) One day while visiting Aames’ chief financial officer, McMahon saw him signing a stack of checks. He asked the
CFO what he was doing. The reply: signing checks for Aames’ investors,
the doctors and dentists. Judis, who played Dr. Vincent on the TV show
Dr. Kildare, was using doctors to fund Aames’ operation. TV had taught
him well: Doctors had tons of discretionary income and weren’t exactly
content to put their hard-earned money into low-yielding certificates
of deposit.
McMahon saw an opportunity. He would replace all those individual checks that Aames had initially received from its investors (the
doctors and dentists) with one big check from First Interstate. First
Interstate had already been making warehouse loans to other mortgage banking firms. This would be one of its first subprime clients.
But McMahon never got to make his pitch to Judis. Right before he
was ready to pounce, the Los Angeles office of Prudential Securities, a
midsize Wall Street firm, swooped in and offered Aames what was then
considered a stunning amount of credit: a $90 million warehouse line.
“I was only going to offer Judis $10 million,” said McMahon. (Years
later, telling the story, McMahon couldn’t remember the executive’s
name at Prudential, just that “he was a chubby German guy who once
took me to lunch at Spago.”)
Prudential wasn’t just lending money to Aames and making a
profit on it. The Wall Street firm had cut a deal with Judis to buy all
the second liens it was funding. Prudential began pooling the loans
and securitizing them into mortgage bonds. A decade earlier, a bond
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chain of blame
trader from Salomon Brothers named Lewis Ranieri had pioneered the
securitization of mortgages, but that product involved only the purchase of “A” credit quality loans, not subprime mortgages or second
liens. Prudential saw dollar signs for two reasons: First, the loans
Aames was originating carried much higher yields, five or six percentage points higher than “A” credit quality; and second, it could bypass
Fannie Mae and its sibling company, Freddie Mac, entirely. Prudential
took Ranieri’s idea and ran with it—focusing on a whole new type of
loan: subprime seconds.
If Aames had originated a $10,000 second lien, Prudential would
offer “105” for it, which meant it paid five points (5 percent) or $10,500
for it. Aames would still retain a fee to service the loans it sold to
Prudential. The Wall Street firm paid those five points because after figuring out all those years of interest payments, five points was a bargain.
Subprime loans did not refinance very often for one very good reason:
Lending money to people with bad credit was a risky proposition, and
there wasn’t much in the way of competition.
Aames was still a retail lender, which meant it only made loans
directly to consumers through its storefront branches—most of which
were in California. Thanks to the money Prudential was lending, it
began to grow rapidly, increasing its branch network to other states.
Its loan volume took off. Word began to spread about the AamesPrudential alliance, and soon new mortgage banking firms were springing up to copy what the consumer finance companies like Aames,
Associates First Capital Corporation, Beneficial, and the other old-line
firms were doing.
Instead of using the money of private investors like dentists and
doctors, these lenders could turn to Wall Street. Dan Phillips of Dallas,
Texas, a former loan officer at Beneficial who went through the same
management trainee program that Cugno cut his teeth on (he, too,
started out as a repo man), came up with a slightly different wrinkle on
the second lien subprime formula. He created a company called First
Plus Financial that would lend borrowers up to 125 percent of the
value of their homes.
To some lending professionals it sounded like an insane concept—
lending up to 25 percent more than a house was worth? Phillips was
hardly crazy, though. He didn’t lend to homeowners with bad credit;
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instead he lent to people with good credit, ones who had high FICO5
scores (a credit rating that acts as a report card grading the borrower’s ability to pay personal debts). First Plus didn’t make first liens, only
seconds, and charged 12 percent and 13 percent at a time when “A”
paper lenders were charging about 8 percent. If a consumer had a
house worth $100,000 with a $90,000 mortgage on it (meaning it had
an LTV of 90 percent), Phillips was willing to lend another $35,000.
However, the LTVs rarely got as high as 125 percent. “It was usually
about 110 percent to 112 percent,” said Barry Tennenholtz, who served
as the company’s treasurer. Asked about the high interest rates on the
second liens, Tennenholtz said First Plus’s customers didn’t mind paying
it. “It was still cheaper than using a credit card.”
Thanks to Prudential opening the subprime door for Wall Street,
First Plus found willing lenders in New York at the investment banking
houses of Bear Stearns & Company and Deutsche Bank. Loan originations took off, and by 1996 First Plus was a publicly traded company. The
lead underwriter on its initial public offering (IPO) was Bear Stearns.
Phillips became close with a managing director at Bear Stearns named
Warren Spector who worked on the fixed income side of the firm. Fixed
income meant bonds. Even though Spector wasn’t directly involved with
the mortgages that First Plus was securitizing through Bear, he (according to Phillips) was directly involved in negotiating the lender’s warehouse lines. “Any problems that I had with warehouse or ABS,6 I would
call Warren and he would take care of it,” Phillips said.
Spector, who was rising rapidly in the hierarchy at Bear Stearns,
never flew to Dallas to spend time with the First Plus management
team. But Phillips frequently traveled to New York. The two men
5 Developed
by Fair Isaac & Company, a FICO score is a numerical grade based on a
consumer’s past history of paying bills. (The higher the score, the better.) Fair Isaac, which
began developing scoring models in the late 1950s, has never fully disclosed what exactly
goes into its computations, but the scores are based on credit reports developed by the
three national credit reporting repositories: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. The use of
FICO scores to judge a borrower’s credit did not become a standard practice in the
residential mortgage industry until the 1990s.
6 ABS
stands for asset-backed security, a bond backed by subprime loans. The term ABS is
used to distinguish subprime bonds from conventional mortgage-backed securities (MBSs)
backed by “A” paper credit quality loans bought by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
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chain of blame
golfed together and played poker—sometimes with Miami Dolphins
quarterback Dan Marino, who was the lender’s version of Phil Rizzuto
except for being younger and better looking. (Marino also didn’t dress
in checked pants and striped suit jackets.)
It appeared for a while that First Plus was a cash machine, blowing
away earnings expectations. It was borrowing money from Wall Street
at 6 percent and lending it out at 12 percent. Its stock hit $62 a share in
1997 and then began to creep down in early 1998. During the first half
of 1997, First Plus earned $68 million while originating just $2 billion in loans. By comparison, Norwest Mortgage of Minneapolis,7 a
bank-owned mortgage company, earned $69 million on $23 billion in
originations. (During that same period Mozilo’s Countrywide earned
$66 million on loan originations of $18 billion.) It appeared that by
originating just a fraction of what Norwest and Countrywide were
doing, First Plus was a virtual money machine. (And there is nothing
Wall Street likes more than being associated with money machines.)
Phillips bragged to stock analysts that his company was so good that
he wouldn’t sell out, not even at $100 a share. All that changed in the
summer of 1998.
One afternoon Phillips called Paul Muolo, a reporter he knew at
National Mortgage News, and posed a blunt question: “What the hell is
going on out there? The bond market has gone wacky.” A few days
later the answer came. Russia had devalued its currency, the ruble, placing a moratorium on all its international debt payments. This event,
quickly dubbed “the Russian debt crisis,” caused Wall Street firms—
Bear Stearns, Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, and others—to rethink
all their bond sales activities, including their business loans to nonbank
subprime lenders that were selling their mortgages into securities.
With Prudential’s relationship with Aames paving the way, several
Wall Street firms had rushed into the subprime market mid-decade,
taking nondepository mortgage companies (old and new alike) public.
Firms like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers managed the IPOs for
them, bought and securitized their subprime mortgages, and lent them
money through warehouse lines of credit. Companies that went public or
7 Norwest later merged with Wells Fargo Bank, the resulting institution taking the Wells
Fargo name.
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raised new equity during this first subprime bull market included Aames,
Amresco Residential Credit, Cityscape Financial, ContiMortgage (owned
in part by a grain company), Delta Funding, IMC Mortgage, The Money
Store, and a handful of others. Subprime, a tiny business that had started
with repo men like Peter Cugno, was now big business.
But throughout 1998 the share prices of all these newly minted
public firms began to crumble. It wasn’t because the loans they were
making to credit-impaired borrowers were going delinquent at an
astronomical rate. That wasn’t the case at all. Three short years earlier,
stock analysts at the very same Wall Street firms that were financing
these subprime upstarts were giving the new breed of subprime nonbanks “buy” ratings.
In 1998 the term hedge fund was somewhat new. A hedge fund
was a private investment company that didn’t have to disclose anything to the public, because its shares were privately held. Hedge
funds didn’t issue bonds (usually). However, they invested in bonds.
Many were managed by former investment bankers at the big boys:
Salomon Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns.
When nonbanks like The Money Store and First Plus securitized subprime loans in the mid-1990s, they would carve up the cash flow on
the underlying mortgages into different bond classes or tranches. The
senior or least risky bonds would be sold by Wall Street firms to their
best clients, including the hedge funds. The “B” pieces often would be
kept by the nonbank lender. On a $100 subprime bond, $90 million
in senior bonds would be sold, with $10 million being kept by the
lender. Gain-on-sale (GOS) accounting rules allowed the lender to
book all the future cash flows on the risky bonds the lender retained.
The reason they were risky? The lender kept the piece where all the
interest payments were. If the loans wound up being prepaid earlier
because consumers refinanced, the lender potentially could be in a
world of hurt.
How much (in dollars) these future cash flows would be worth and
how long the “B” piece would last were open to interpretation. And since
the lender was allowed to book earnings on money it hadn’t actually
collected, it was one big guessing game—openly encouraged by the
Wall Street underwriters and warehouse lenders that were financing its
operations: firms like Bear Stearns.
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chain of blame
As long as First Plus, The Money Store, and the others conservatively valued the “B” pieces they kept, everything would be fine—in
theory. But that’s not what happened. The assumptions made by First
Plus (and many other publicly traded lenders) during this era were
overly optimistic. The biggest mistake many of these firms made was
that the subprime mortgages they had securitized would stick around
for years longer than they had forecasted. Mike McMahon, the stock
analyst, saw the problem coming. “They were way too optimistic on
the life of the loans,” he said. “Everyone was guessing with limited historical data.” Historical data? As far as securitization went, subprime
mortgages had no history. “Everyone was guessing,” said McMahon.
“These weren’t Fannie, Freddie, and FHA loans where there’s 40 years
of past data to look at on how they’d perform.”
When the Russian debt crisis began to unfold, hedge funds stopped
buying the least risky bonds. That was trouble enough. With no hedge
funds buying the good subprime bonds, that meant there would be no
place to put subprime loans. (Banks and S&Ls weren’t about to own
them, at least not back then.) Complicating matters was the collapse of
Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), a huge private hedge fund
operated by John Meriwether, a former star bond trader at Salomon
Brothers. Under Meriwether, LTCM was speculating in international
bond markets and had bet the wrong way on Russian debt—just as
that nation was devaluing the ruble. LTCM’s biggest problem: It had
borrowed $125 billion from commercial banks and investment banking firms. It had lost so much money that the Federal Reserve Bank of
New York stepped in and orchestrated a rescue plan for LTCM.8
Between the Russian debt crisis and the collapse of LTCM, some
Wall Street firms grew skittish and began cutting back on how much
money they would lend to subprime nonbanks. But something else was
afoot: Many subprime loans funded the previous two years began prepaying (refinancing) much faster than The Money Store and First Plus
ever anticipated. (And yes, delinquencies were starting to creep up a
bit.) All the gain-on-sale (GOS) assumptions that had been made by
8 The
rescue plan was unprecedented. The Fed had never before stepped in to rescue a
nondepository, but, worried about all the bank loans extended to Meriwether’s firm, the
Fed felt compelled to act.
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these public firms turned out to be wrong—very wrong. The earnings
they had booked through GOS never materialized. Short sellers
(investors who make money by betting that a stock will go down in
value) began targeting the subprime sector. In April 1998 First Plus’s
shares traded as high as $50. By early 1999 they would be worthless.
In 10 months’ time the share price for Cityscape Mortgage went from
$32 to zero. Others followed in their tracks, slipping into bankruptcy as
their assumptions about how long their mortgages would stick around
evaporated.
This first subprime crisis got little attention in the general media,
including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which were
busy covering the Russian debt crisis and meltdown of LTCM. When
a hedge fund managed by a former Salomon Brothers star bond trader
like Meriwether blows up, it’s sexy news. (Meriwether was also a friend
of mortgage-backed security inventor Lew Ranieri.) The subprime
industry of the 1990s was still relatively small, accounting for just under
10 percent of all mortgages funded in the United States.
But investors in First Plus and two dozen other public subprime
firms lost hundreds of millions of dollars. One after another, the nonbank
subprime lenders fell like outdoor Christmas ornaments being swept
off the tree in high winds. Subprime executives like Dan Phillips were
stunned. An industry that looked highly profitable 12 months earlier had
been just about wiped off the map. Phillips was finished in the business. He appealed to Warren Spector, his friend at Bear Stearns, for help,
but to no avail. “Warren was there when you needed him,” said Phillips,
“but there was nothing he could do.” First Plus filed for bankruptcy, and
its assets were sold. The buyer: Angelo Mozilo’s Countrywide.
Phillips and his competitors were sunk by their assumptions on
prepayments—plus a new unwillingness on Wall Street to lend them
money. (Again, subprime delinquencies were not all that bad during
this era.) Historically, subprime loans never refinanced very quickly.
The average 30-year “A” paper loan that Fannie Mae bought from
lenders had an actual life span of seven to eight years. (Homeowners
rarely keep the same loan for 30 years because of personal relocations,
opportunities to refinance, and other such reasons.)
Subprime loans were supposed to last even longer, because, historically, homeowners with bad credit had a harder time getting a
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chain of blame
new loan. But all that changed with the rise of this new class of subprime firms in the 1990s. Beneficial Finance, Household Finance, and
Associates First Capital—all the old-line consumer finance/subprime
lenders—had for the most part stuck to a simple strategy of only originating loans on a retail basis through their branches. All three also held
on to their loans. They didn’t securitize them, so there were no fancy
gain-on-sale rules to worry about.
First Plus, Cityscape, ContiMortgage, and others were not retail
storefront lenders. They relied heavily on a whole new breed of freelance mortgage officers called loan brokers. Brokers were not full-time
or even part-time employees of First Plus. Instead, they worked for
themselves, bringing loan packages to Dan Phillips’ doorstep. It was then
up to Phillips and his crew to approve the mortgage. If the loan looked
good, First Plus would pay the broker a fee, usually one or two points of
the loan amount (the fees could vary).
The use of loan brokers had started in the 1980s, pioneered by,
among other people, Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide. As the subprime industry began to spiral down in 1998–1999, Countrywide was
just then sticking its toe in the water. It had avoided the sector entirely.
When it began funding what were called “A–” loans (the highest quality of the subprime spectrum that includes A– to D), Countrywide
didn’t use brokers. It made subprime loans only through its retail loan
branches. When executives at First Plus and elsewhere began seeing
their loans refinance years earlier than expected, they pointed the finger in one direction: loan brokers. They discovered that because brokers
worked on a commission basis only, they would take customers they
had brought to The Money Store and refinance them six months later
over at Cityscape Financial or ContiMortgage, or anywhere else for that
matter. “The broker has a ‘little black book’ of customers,” said Mike
McMahon. “He makes a point on every loan. If he makes a point on
every loan, he will refinance that customer again and again and again.”
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Chapter 3
The Death of the Bailey
Building and Loan,
the Rise of
Millionaire Loan Brokers
and Countrywide
T
o use loan brokers or not to use loan brokers—it was a
Shakespearian dilemma that Angelo Mozilo was having with
his partner David Loeb in the early 1980s. Born 14 years apart
in New York City, the two men were business partners as well as close
friends. During their early days running Countrywide out of Loeb’s
kitchen in Manhattan, they’d go the opera together with their families,
including Loeb’s parents. Mozilo once described his friend as “sort of
introverted—he had an accounting degree,” but when it came to
discussing the company’s business strategy with Mozilo he was anything
but. The reason the two men were having this debate in the first place
had its roots in a watershed event in the history of housing finance—and
the American economy—called the savings and loan crisis.
47
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chain of blame
In 1984 Countrywide Credit Industries was still a nondepository
mortgage banking firm that relied on warehouse lines of credit from
large commercial banks. (It was about 15 years away from buying a federally insured bank.) Like most mortgage bankers of that time, Mozilo’s
shop offered only two main loan products: government-insured Federal
Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) loans,
and conventional “A” paper mortgages that could be sold to Fannie
Mae, the government-chartered mortgage investing giant headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Up until 1970 Fannie Mae could only purchase FHA/VA loans
from lenders, but Congress—in a attempt to help a money-losing
Fannie Mae—amended its government charter, allowing it to buy
other types of loans, in particular good credit quality “A” loans as long
as these mortgages had 20 percent down payments on them or private
mortgage insurance that covered early losses. In the 1970s Countrywide
was headquartered on Wilshire Boulevard in Pasadena, a suburb of Los
Angeles. Right across the street from Mozilo’s suite was the California
regional office of Fannie Mae. As savings and loans (S&Ls) began to fail
in record numbers, Countrywide found itself with more business than
ever before, which pleased Mozilo and Loeb no end. Countrywide sold
its non-government-insured “A” credit quality loans to Fannie Mae
and then later on to Freddie Mac as well.1
Something, though, had to be done about all the dead S&Ls that
were piling up. In 1982 President Ronald Reagan stepped through
the French doors of the White House Oval Office into the sunlight
of an autumn morning, strolled to the podium, made a short speech,
and signed a bill called the Garn–St Germain Depository Institutions
Act of 1982. It was the second year of Reagan’s presidency. The former
California governor told an audience of S&L executives, bankers,
1 Freddie
Mac was chartered by Congress in 1970 to buy mortgages from S&Ls exclusively.
Fannie Mae was originally set up to purchase only government-insured—Federal Housing
Administration and Veterans Administration—mortgages. Eventually nonbank mortgage
lenders sued to gain access to Freddie Mac and won. In time nonbanks like Countrywide
began selling their conventional mortgages to both these government-chartered
enterprises.
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members of Congress, staffers, and journalists that the bill—which bore
the names of Republican Senator Jake Garn of Utah and Democratic
Congressman Fernand St Germain of Rhode Island—would cut S&Ls
loose from the girdle of old-fashioned regulation. One of Reagan’s
campaign platforms was deregulation, to get government off the
backs of businesses to help the struggling economy create new jobs.
When Reagan took office in 1981, mortgage rates were in nosebleed
territory: 14 percent. (And this was for home buyers with good credit.)
A year later rates would be even higher—16 percent.
For well over 50 years S&Ls—which in some quarters were called
building and loans (B&Ls)—financed most homes purchased by
Americans. For decades the system worked flawlessly. And because it
worked so flawlessly, it appeared that Loeb and Mozilo’s Countrywide
was destined to be a bit player. The American lifestyle was centered
around the single-family home, funded by S&Ls that made 30-year
fixed-rate loans. S&Ls pooled together the deposits of their customers
and lent the money out in the form of mortgages. Nonbank mortgage firms like Mozilo’s Countrywide were hemmed in, more or less,
to making FHA/VA mortgages while the S&Ls dominated the market
for loans to Americans with good credit. At best, FHA/VA represented
15 percent to 20 percent of the entire mortgage business, relegating
Countrywide and other nonbank mortgage firms to second-class citizen status. There Mozilo and Loeb lived at the back of the bus, eking
out a decent living in government-backed loans.2
Besides being a small part of the housing finance business, FHA/
VA mortgages always had higher delinquencies than the “A” paper first
mortgages that S&Ls made. But the delinquencies on FHA/VA loans
didn’t keep mortgage executives like Mozilo up at night for one very
good reason—they were insured by the government. If a mortgage
went south, Uncle Sam would step in and make the mortgage firm
that serviced these loans whole again. It was a nice little business—
but it was a little business. In the 1990s when FHA and VA delinquencies began to soar into the stratosphere, mortgage executives jokingly
2 Again, this second-class citizen status ended in 1970 when Fannie Mae was allowed to
buy non-government-insured “A” paper loans.
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chain of blame
began to refer to FHA/VA as “the government’s subprime program.”
Subprime loans, historically, went bad at a higher rate than “A” paper
loans and at about the same rate as FHA/VA loans.
It’s a cliché, but owning a home became sacred like Mom,
Chevrolets, and apple pie. It’s hard to pin down exactly when the
phrase “the American dream of home ownership” became part of
the political and housing lexicon, but by the 1980s any mortgage executives trying to curry favor with Congress would always use the phrase
when addressing their business concerns, which might include too
much regulation for them (so they believed), or too little regulation
of their competitors. It helped if those executives’ companies donated
money to the campaigns of members of Congress and senators who sat
on committees with oversight authority over their business. Donations
gave them access, an ability to be heard in Congress. Lobbying was a
cost of doing business, and any lender that didn’t lobby in Washington
probably didn’t do as well as those that did.
Industry trade groups comprised of companies and their executives who made their living off of either housing or mortgages created an informal political alliance to beat down any type of legislation
that might harm their bottom line (whether or not it was good for
consumers). The alliance included, first and foremost, the National
Association of Home Builders (whose members made their livings
from home building); the National Association of Realtors (new and
existing home sales); Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the purchase of
mortgages from mortgage bankers, S&Ls, and commercial banks); and
the Mortgage Bankers Association. All of these trade groups had permanent management staffs but each year elected an annual president
who became the face of that industry, traveling the nation making rahrah speeches, meeting politicians, and getting their photographs in the
newspaper. Being the annual president of a housing or mortgage trade
group meant being the chief public relations (PR) person for spreading
the good news about the American dream of home ownership.
Depending on the issue, two other trade groups might join this
alliance: the National Association of Mortgage Brokers (catering to
nonbank, nonfunding intermediaries) and the National Home Equity
Mortgage Association, which was a more PR-friendly way of saying,
“We represent subprime lenders.” The message of these groups—all
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based in the nation’s capital—was clear and went something like this:
“Don’t pass any bills that will hurt our bottom line and ability to grow.
If you hurt us you will hurt the home buyer. You don’t want to do
that. Don’t mess with housing and mortgages. It’s like spitting on your
mother or that Chevrolet sitting in the driveway.” If Congress and the
White House didn’t go along, they’d wind up looking like communists. What was there not to like? As long as the political donations kept
flowing into their campaigns, it seemed like a perfect symbiotic relationship between the private sector (housing and mortgages) and the
elected officials who governed them.
The building and loan as an institution was immortalized in the
Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart starred as
George Bailey, the head of a neighborhood thrift called the Bailey
Building and Loan. When panic set in during the Great Depression and
depositors commenced a run on the Bailey B&L, George tried to calm
the fears of his Bedford Falls, New York, customers, explaining that he
didn’t have all of their money right there in the branch—their deposits
were invested in each other’s homes.3 As the Depression lingered,
Congress in 1934 established the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance
Corporation,4 which insured deposits up to $5,000—an enormous sum
of money in those days. After the Depression ended, the S&L industry
enjoyed what might be called its golden days of being a so-called 3-6-3
business: Thrifts paid 3 percent for deposits, lent it out in the form of
6 percent 30-year loans, and drove to the golf course at 3:00 in the
afternoon for a quick game of 18 holes and a cocktail afterward.
The S&L industry—12,000 institutions strong in 1920—hit the
skids in the 1970s for two reasons: By law S&Ls were capped at paying just 5.5 percent for deposits, and inflation by 1979 was running
at 13.3 percent per year. Because they could pay only that much to
3
Under the original building and loan model, all those tiny deposit accounts would be
pooled. Once a critical mass was achieved, the cash was used to finance the construction of
a house. When the home’s construction was completed, the builder would be paid off and
the end loan wound up at the B&L. Homes were built one at a time, not in huge tracts.
4 The
FSLIC, as it was known, eventually went bankrupt during the S&L crisis, its
obligations taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the deposit
insurer for commercial and community banks.
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chain of blame
their depositors, those once-loyal customers turned in their passbook
accounts, trading them for money market accounts offered by
investment banking/brokerage firms like Merrill Lynch. Over a few
years $250 billion in deposits had walked out the doors of the nation’s
S&Ls. By 1980, 85 percent of savings and loans were losing money.
Factor in the higher mortgage rates of the late Carter/early Reagan
years, and it was an ugly stew.
And that’s not all. S&Ls held on to many of the mortgages they
originated. This was a time when Americans didn’t move and refinance their loans so often. Two years before the Garn–St Germain Act,
Congress passed a law freeing S&Ls from having to cap their deposits
and money market accounts at 5.5 percent. The removal of the rate
cap solved one problem but created another: All those little old ladies,
waving their passbook accounts, returned to their neighborhood Bailey
Building and Loan, depositing their savings but at a new, much higher
interest rate. The S&L executives were happy because they were getting their lost deposits back, which they could presumably lend out
at more than they were paying the little old ladies. The difference
between the interest rate that the S&L was paying each year for deposits and receiving from its mortgages was its gross profit before expenses
were deducted.
In a perfect world, if an S&L was paying 7 percent for its deposits
but lending all that money out at 10 percent, it was making 3 percent
or 300 basis points. (One percent equals 100 basis points.) But in the
S&L industry nothing was perfect. Because S&Ls held on to most of
their mortgages, keeping them in their portfolios, they were now lending money out at, say, 14 percent, but they had existing mortgages that
they had funded years earlier yielding 6 percent or less. This created
a huge mismatch between their cost of funds and existing mortgages,
making an already precarious situation all the more treacherous. When
Reagan signed the Garn–St Germain5 bill, he said the legislation would
create more housing, more jobs, and growth for the economy. “All in
all,” he proclaimed, “I think we’ve hit the jackpot.”
5 Garn
was chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, St Germain his counterpart on
the House Banking Committee. Both received large political donations from industry
executives and trade groups for which they had oversight responsibility.
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The bill, which applied only to S&Ls that were incorporated using
a federal charter, allowed these insured depositories to invest 40 percent
of their assets in nonresidential real estate. This was a huge change
for an industry that had done one thing and one thing only for 150
years—have all of its deposits in home mortgages. It also allowed S&Ls
to have just one shareholder,6 and in a move that attracted real estate
developers of all stripes, it permitted an entrepreneur to purchase an
S&L and capitalize it using noncash assets such as land. The developers
noticed. They began buying thrifts or starting them from scratch (de
novo). And there was one last ingredient that led to the S&L mess: State
legislatures saw their power (and donations from real estate and financial service businesses) begin to decline because the federal S&L charter
had been liberalized. (Why give money to state pols when the power
rested with the feds?) Some states decided to best the Garn–St Germain
Act by offering owners of state-chartered S&Ls even greater investment
powers. That’s where California assemblyman Pat Nolan came in.
Two things were golden in California: its hills and its housing market, a market that was financed by S&Ls. A Republican from
Glendale, Nolan7 was an associate of a number of S&L executives. He
sponsored the Nolan Act, which became state law in early 1983, a few
months after Reagan signed the bipartisan Garn–St Germain bill. The
Nolan Act made Garn–St Germain look conservative by comparison.
To motivate entrepreneurs to open new (or buy existing) Californiachartered S&Ls, the law allowed virtually anyone to own a thrift,
attract as many deposits as they could, and invest 100 percent of those
deposits not just in real estate (commercial or residential) but in an asset
class called “direct investments.” What was a direct investment? Answer:
anything you wanted. Really.
The Nolan Act ignited a rush by real estate developers to open new
S&Ls—from south of San Diego up north to small nook-and-cranny
6 Previously, the rule mandated that there be a minimum of 400 shareholders with no one
owning more than 25 percent.
7 In
1988 Nolan, who had become California Assembly minority leader, resigned his
position amid reports that he and other state legislators had been targeted by an FBI sting
operation investigating influence peddling and political corruption. Nolan denied all
wrongdoing.
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chain of blame
towns scattered around Santa Rosa in the Napa Valley. The only thing
the state required—besides a valid application—was that the person or
persons owning the new thrift have a minimum net worth of $2 million
(and land counted). “Can you imagine?” later remarked Edwin Gray,
chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB), the nation’s
federal S&L regulator. “Any business, any entrepreneur [in California]
could get a charter and could run whatever operation he wanted on
the credit of the U.S. government. Imagine that. You could choose any
business you wanted to be in. Just incredible.”
Gray, a former PR man for Reagan when he was governor of
California, was stuck with the job of overseeing a whole new breed
of S&L operator.8 He had one major disadvantage—a lack of bank
examiners. The philosophy of the Reagan administration was that
deregulation meant fewer regulators and examiners, so their numbers were cut. At the same time, many states trimmed their examination staffs as well. This new generation of S&L operator—particularly
in California—had nothing in common with George Bailey. Few of
them would make home mortgage lending their mission. After Garn–
St Germain and the Nolan Act, it wasn’t long before a whole new
round of S&L failures rippled across the United States like a trail of
fallen dominoes. The autopsy of each looked much the same as the
others: A developer buys or starts a savings and loan and begins financing commercial projects that he has a stake in, usually paying himself
huge development fees and not worrying much about the financial
viability of the deal.
In time, the S&L crisis—thanks to federal and then state deregulation—would cost the American taxpayers $150 billion, and that
didn’t even include the interest costs on the government borrowing
that much money. Wall Street had a role in the crisis as well. When
deregulation came along, Merrill Lynch saw a business opportunity and jumped on it. S&Ls accepted two types of deposits, retail
accounts from their neighborhood customers (the little old ladies
8 Gray
inherited the job in May 1983 from Richard Pratt, a college professor from Utah
and a crony of Senator Garn’s. After leaving the FHLBB, Pratt would become a top
executive at Merrill Lynch. His tasks included, among other things, convincing S&Ls to
securitize residential mortgages through Merrill.
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with their passbook accounts) and so-called brokered deposits, where
a large investment banking house would bundle together accounts
of $100,0009 and shop this money nationwide to fast growing S&Ls
that were in search of funds they could use to finance their commercial real estate projects. Merrill was among the largest of all deposit
brokers working the phones on Wall Street. When the FHLBB’s Gray
tried to rein in rogue S&L operators he felt were abusing deregulation, he clashed repeatedly with Reagan’s Treasury secretary, Donald
Regan. Who was Don Regan? Answer: the former head of Merrill
Lynch. One thing he had claimed credit for was creating a market for
brokered deposits.
Charles Keating was a big fan of brokered deposits. Not only would
Keating’s Lincoln Savings use federally insured (brokered) deposits to finance luxury hotels and housing developments in the scrubbrush desert of outer Phoenix at the foot of Camelback Mountain,
but he would put these developments (direct investments under the
Nolan Act) on the books of the S&L, assigning a value multiple times
their true worth. (Lincoln Savings was based in Southern California,
ACC in Phoenix where Keating lived.) In the late 1980s Keating and
Lincoln became the public face of the S&L crisis, thanks partly to large
donations the press-shy Arizonan gave to five U.S. senators, including Republican John McCain. Prodded by Keating, the five senators
lobbied and pressured the FHLBB’s Gray and his senior examiners in
California to go easy on Keating, portraying the developer/S&L operator as a misunderstood businessman who had saved a failing savings
and loan, Lincoln.10 Gray’s examiners informed the five senators that
Keating, in their belief, was a crook who was about to become the subject of a criminal investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation
for accounting fraud and booking profits that weren’t there. In April
1989 federal examiners working for the Federal Savings and Loan
Insurance Corporation seized control of the S&L. Lincoln’s failure
alone would cost the government $4 billion. A year later Keating was
9 In
1980, Congress, in a late-night session, increased the federal insurance on deposits to
$100,000 from $40,000.
10 By the time Keating took control of Lincoln Savings in 1984, the S&L, which had been
losing money, was profitable again.
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chain of blame
convicted on state charges of defrauding Lincoln’s customers by trying
to pass off retail-sized junk bonds as insured deposits.
*
*
*
If anyone in the mortgage industry thought Mozilo and Loeb weren’t
watching the meltdown of the S&L industry, wondering what it meant
for Countrywide, they were mistaken. Mozilo was an avid reader of the
trade press and the Wall Street Journal, and was an FNN junkie. (FNN,
available only on cable TV, stood for Financial News Network. In 1991
NBC bought FNN, renaming it CNBC and later branding the station
“America’s Business Network.” Maria Bartiromo, a favorite anchor of
Mozilo’s, joined CNBC in 1993.) Mozilo would rise at four in the
morning, drive to his Wilshire Boulevard office, don his sweats, and
work out while watching FNN. Then he hit the phones, selling loans,
deciding where to open Countrywide’s next office, or figuring out
how to get more capital into his company.
In the mid-1980s Mozilo and Countrywide were no longer being
entirely ignored by the titans on Wall Street. The chief reason had to
do with the creation of a new financial instrument called the mortgage-backed security (MBS). At Salomon Brothers, Lew Ranieri, who
had worked his way up from the mailroom to the trading desk, had
pioneered a security, a bond that was backed by the monthly payments homeowners made on their residences. Ranieri, a product of the
rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn, took
those cash flows and had Salomon carve them up into (generally) four
tranches. Each tranche was a slice of the larger bond and carried a different yield and risk. Ranieri felt comfortable with the collateral for
these bonds because the loans (the collateral) backing them were conventional loans eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“These types of loans had a 30-, 40-, 50-year history,” he would say.
“You could figure out how they would perform based on decades of
history.” In other words, conventional home mortgages made to consumers with good credit were not risky assets.
During the early days of the MBS revolution (1980 to 1983)
Salomon Brothers, along with another pioneer in MBSs, First Boston,
had the mortgage securities market to itself. Larry Fink, the head
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of mortgage trading at First Boston, took Ranieri’s MBS idea and
perfected it by creating an instrument that was more predictable—the
collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO)—by setting up a trust, a
legal entity that guaranteed payments to bondholders. (The original MBS that Salomon came up with didn’t have this.) It wasn’t long
before other Wall Street houses noticed what Ranieri and Fink were
up to, and began competing against them. All this played into Mozilo
and Loeb’s fortunes. Investment bankers, seeing that S&Ls were falling into a black hole, began paying more attention to nondepository
mortgage banking firms like Countrywide. Why? Because they—not
the S&Ls—were now the ones dominating the business of originating
home mortgages to the nation’s consumers.
Mozilo, that chip firmly planted on his shoulder, left the task of listening to Wall Street’s pitches to Loeb. “He would go out to ball games
with them,” said Mozilo. “He loved that stuff. He was our trader.”
While Mozilo spent his time in California finding ways to originate
more loans than his competitors, Loeb went out to dinner with investment bankers in New York. “At this point the Street was fighting over
them,” said one Countrywide executive. “Chuck Ramsey from Bear
Stearns had this limo with horns on the grill. In his suit jacket he’d
have a couple of beers. He’d pick up David and they’d go out to the
best restaurants in town.”
When Countrywide went public in 1969 it had hoped to raise $3
million in seed money, but, as Mozilo told it, the initial public offering (IPO) market “hit a hole.” Countrywide raised just $450,000. Until
S&Ls started failing en masse, it didn’t have any luck with the Merrill
Lynches of the world. In 1981 (the year before S&L deregulation)
Countrywide raised $3 million more. In 1983, its prospects looking
up, Bear Stearns came in and sold $11 million in convertible preferred
stock for Countrywide. It was good to be a nonbank mortgage lender
that didn’t take deposits like the Bailey Building and Loan did.
And then there were those failing S&Ls. When a savings and loan
collapsed, all its employees, including the mortgage loan officers, lost
their jobs. With dozens of S&Ls closing every week, loan officers
steeped in the knowledge of how to correctly originate and underwrite a residential mortgage began walking the streets, looking for
work. “They had no place to go,” said Mozilo. “I saw an opportunity.”
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chain of blame
Loan officers working in Countrywide’s retail branches had their
marching orders: produce or consider a career elsewhere. (It was part
of Countrywide’s corporate culture to be “AC,” always closing.) It was
stressed to them from on high (Mozilo) that they should milk leads
from Realtors to find customers. Realtors were at the point of sale
where the rubber met the road, where the customer made the decision
to sign a contract to buy a house. It was something Mozilo had spotted
early on in his career after he had graduated from messenger boy darting around Manhattan to a young loan officer: At the Realtor’s office
was where the chain reaction of housing began. After a husband and
wife signed a sales contract to buy a house, the man and woman would
turn to each other and say, “Now we need to get a loan.”
“I had Realtors as customers already,” Mozilo said. If he could use
independent, newly laid off loan officers who had years, in some cases
decades, of experience to be freelancers for Countrywide, he could
really ramp up the company’s origination volume. “In the late 1980s
the S&Ls were letting some terrific people go,” said Mozilo. He told
Loeb, “They have ties to Realtors, too. There is a whole new business
developing out there, and we need to be in it. But we don’t have a
mechanism for it.”
Loeb didn’t like the idea one bit. He had grave concerns about
using these independent loan agents and was worried that they would
wind up competing against Countrywide’s retail branches. “Don’t do
it,” he warned Mozilo. The publicly traded Countrywide was now,
after more than a decade, beginning to be taken seriously by Wall
Street. Independent loan agents working for Countrywide? The idea
was to pay these agents, these loan brokers, one point if they brought
Countrywide a loan it could fund. On a $100,000 loan (remember that
this is 1980s prices in California) that would be a $1,000 commission.
When Mozilo figured how much it cost the company to maintain
a retail branch, pay the staff (including its own loan officers), pay their
health and insurance benefits, and pay utilities, and factored in the cost
of advertising and marketing to the public, giving the broker a point
was a pretty good deal for Countrywide. If the independent loan broker (a former loan officer for a now-defunct S&L) didn’t produce, then
he (it was mostly a male-dominated field then) didn’t get paid. It would
cost Countrywide nothing. Mozilo liked that equation. Loeb feared
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that because the broker had “no skin the game” (the broker could not
be forced to buy back a bad loan he facilitated), there could be major
loan quality issues.
Loeb stood firm against using brokers. “They’re crooks,” he told
his younger friend. But Mozilo insisted that Countrywide open up
a wholesale division using loan brokers to sell its mortgage products.
Loeb had one last thought on brokers, telling Mozilo: “I think it’s going
to be a big mistake.”
*
*
*
The movement away from retail loan officers working as salaried
employees for S&Ls, community banks, and mortgage bankers to an
industry dominated—beginning in the 1990s—by loan brokers didn’t
start with the implosion of the savings and loan industry. But the
demise of neighborhood thrifts ignited what’s called “the broker movement”—the rise of independent sales agents working as commissiononly freelancers for Countrywide, Chase Home Finance, Wells Fargo,
Washington Mutual, and dozens of other mortgage giants. Depending
on whose version of history you subscribe to, loan brokers were in
existence as far back as the 1940s. David Gold, a loan broker from
Florida, remembered that his father started his own brokerage firm
in Fort Lauderdale in 1955. Five years later Florida launched one of
the first trade organizations to represent loan brokers. Where did
these Florida brokers come from? They used to work at S&Ls, community banks, or even at consumer finance companies like Beneficial,
Household Finance, TransAmerica, and others. Just how much experience did a loan officer or broker need in this era? In Peter Cugno’s
opinion, the basic requirements were these: “You had to be a high
school graduate. You had to be clever, mature, and have an upbeat
personality.”
In the 1970s and early 1980s as more Americans graduated from
college, the requirements to become a loan officer increased to include
not only a college degree but preferably a major in business administration or finance. Newbies, as they were sometimes called, would
start on smaller-balance mortgages or assist an experienced loan officer
before they could go it alone. It was a craft that had to be learned,
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chain of blame
an apprenticeship, like being a bricklayer, plumber, or electrician. Angelo
Mozilo did not invent loan brokers. He just liked them, or at least what
they could do for him: help Countrywide take its loan originations to
a whole new level. “The loans were coming to us,” said Mozilo. In his
mind you never turned down something that good. It was business.
Countrywide’s retail office could sort through the loan applications,
underwrite some, and reject the ones that didn’t meet its standards.
Loan brokers were around prior to the S&L carnage days, but were
hardly a force in the business. They were a speck in the eye of a much
larger industry. Few mortgage professionals noticed them, because their
ranks were so small. But lending executives who recalled the early
days of brokers remembered one distinct thing about them: Many brokers (again, pre-S&L) did not specialize in easy “A” credit quality mortgages that could be safely originated and then placed on the books of
an S&L. They originated hard-to-place loans, ones that had something
wrong with them, making them ineligible for sale to Fannie Mae and
Freddie Mac. Loan brokers specialized in subprime mortgages where
they could earn two or three points per deal.
In 1984 Countrywide officially launched its wholesale division
where it would originate mortgages brought to the company by
brokers. It was what Mozilo called a “slow build,” but he was determined to see it through. Even though Loeb had lost the battle, Mozilo
recognized his friend’s concerns and agreed to proceed cautiously in
the new venture. As S&Ls continued to fail, more former loan officers
went into business for themselves, working out of their homes. A movement was born. Wholesale lending began to pick up at Countrywide.
Mozilo instituted an incentive program for brokers. “We offered them
volume discounts,” he said.
The loans that brokers brought to Mozilo’s shop were either eligible for sale to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac or insured by the FHA or
VA. Countrywide was still a nonbank, relying on warehouse lines of
credit. As soon as it funded a loan it would pledge the mortgage into
a security, which would be sold through Wall Street. “We turned those
loans over as quickly as possible,” said Mozilo. Countrywide didn’t
have a balance sheet to keep loans on. The only thing it retained was
the servicing rights. On a 7.25 percent loan, for example, Countrywide
would keep 0.25 percent (25 basis points) of that yield and pass the
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rest of the monthly payment on to whichever party owned the loan or
end bond.
As Countrywide began to increase its reliance on brokers, other
companies that originated mortgages began to take notice. Some had
even started using brokers before Mozilo, blazing the trail to some
degree. One of those early innovators was the husband-and-wife team
of Russell and Rebecca Jedinak of Huntington Beach, 40 miles down
the California coast from Los Angeles. The Jedinaks were part of the
rush of real estate developers who had heard about the Nolan Act and
realized that owning an S&L was like a gift from heaven. They named
their thrift Guardian Savings and Loan.
Russ and Becky, as they were known throughout the California
lending community, worked different ends of the business. Russ was
the developer who found plots of land to build on, the idea man who
cut the deals, while Becky, a Realtor by training, handled the bookkeeping on the back end. Greg Bowcott, who did business with them,
described the pair like this: “Russ was classic frat boy: teeth, grins, and
handshakes. After that you ended up talking to Becky, who was very
attractive but with all the warmth of a porcupine.”
Prior to getting into real estate, Russ was a pharmaceutical salesman for American Home Products, the maker of Robitussin and Advil.
By the time he turned 23 he was already a national sales manager. Jude
Lopez, who worked for them, described Russ as “one of the most charismatic men I’d ever met.” Russ ran marathons and was a pilot with a
four-seater Citation. “Flying was his passion,” said Lopez. “If we had
a meeting in San Diego we’d take the jet.”
By the time Russ met Becky (they were neighbors) he was on wife
number four. For a while he lived in the Bahamas and owned a yacht
that he sailed through the Panama Canal on extended vacations. As
one friend put it: “Becky came into the picture as his secretary [bookkeeper] and was promoted to wife and partner. He was tall and handsome, and she didn’t trust him any farther than she could throw him.
They even shared the same office. If she saw a woman looking at
him, she’d get someone to fire her.”
Before Russ and Becky started Guardian Savings and Loan, he
made a reputation for himself around Huntington Beach building fourplexes with a partner named Frank Mola. In his real estate office he
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chain of blame
had an old phone booth with a Superman outfit hanging in it. At their
home there was a life-size portrait of Russ in knight’s armor. It was the
first thing visitors saw when they walked into the home.
Using Guardian’s money (thanks again to the Nolan Act), the
Jedinaks bought a 15-story office building on Beach Boulevard in
Huntington Beach. The price: $55 million. (The building was—and
still is—the only high-rise building on the boulevard and in most of
Huntington Beach.) According to Rich Tachine, who worked as a
broker for Guardian, the building was more than half empty. Lacking
tenants, Russ and Becky decided to populate its floors with Guardian
employees. They also were allowed to contribute the building’s value
(the $55 million the S&L had paid) to Guardian’s capital. Deregulation
could be a wonderful thing.
Instead of making “A” paper loans that could be sold to the
government-chartered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Russ and Becky
jumped right into what they called “hard money” lending—making
mortgages to consumers who were hard up for money. The Jedinaks
focused solely on the value of the underlying house or the equity
in the property. Guardian began using brokers, but limited the loanto-value (LTV) ratios to 65 percent, 70 percent tops. “Russ had no
problem taking back the property,” said Tachine. “He was quite okay
with that.”
And Becky? She ran the collection effort, which included pouncing on borrowers the moment they were late. As a practice, Guardian,
under Becky’s watch, would send out a “notice of default” letter to the
borrower after the mortgage became 30 days or more late—a practice unheard of in the subprime world of the 2000s. “You have to be
aggressive—put the hammer down early,” said Jude Lopez, who held
the title of vice president at Guardian. “In this kind of business [subprime], if you get three months behind it’s difficult to catch up.”
One broker who worked with Guardian said of Becky Jedinak,
“She was beautiful and she was tough.” Employees who worked at the
S&L knew her as a woman who watched Russ’s money like a hawk.
“The ex-wives burned through a lot of his money,” said a business associate. She told employees to be careful how they spent the S&L’s cash.
“One time she told me I was to make only half a pot of coffee to
save money,” said an employee who worked for the Jedinaks at one of
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their companies. Once he traveled with the couple to New York on
business. At dinner Becky made him pay for his own beer and put him
up in a low-rent hotel where he heard the elevator cables banging all
night. One of her favorite sayings was “I worry about the pennies, and
the dollars take care of themselves.”
Guardian was not only the first S&L to aggressively move into
subprime (hard money), but it was doing so with an army of unregulated loan brokers. As the S&L crisis worsened, state regulators from the
California Department of Savings and Loans (CDS&L) began to take a
close look at its operation. Examiners weren’t so concerned about the
subprime end of it, but the office building that Russ and Becky had
contributed to the S&L as capital set off some alarm bells. Even though
they had paid $55 million, state regulators valued the property, at best,
at $38 million. Examiners from CDS&L “hated Russ and Becky for
their arrogance and style,” said a former employee.
On Christmas Eve 1991, regulators from the Federal Home Loan
Bank of San Francisco messengered to the Jedinaks’ home the legal
documents removing them from Guardian’s management.11 Russ and
Becky must’ve seen it coming to some degree. Eight months later
Tachine ran into them in the fall at the annual convention of the
Mortgage Bankers Association, which was being held in San Francisco.
He was on his way to a cocktail party at the St. Francis Hotel in
downtown. He stepped into the elevator and found himself face-toface with the couple. “Russ was wearing a thousand-dollar suit, and
on his breast pocket was one of those plastic name tags,” said Tachine.
“He had crossed out the words ‘Guardian Savings’ and written ‘Quality
Mortgage’ in pencil.” Becky was at his side, wearing a blue dress.
The Jedinaks were back in business, this time in nearby Irvine, a
few miles to the south. Russ and Becky took their army of loan brokers from Guardian Savings and shifted them over to Quality Mortgage.
Tachine and other brokers gladly followed. Guardian was now a ward
of the government, but Quality Mortgage picked up where it left
off, sans the office building on Beach Boulevard. An executive who
11 Not
only did the FHLB remove the Jedinaks from Guardian, but in 1995 the two signed
a government consent order banning them from the S&L industry and agreeing to pay
$8.5 million in damages in regard to Guardian’s failure.
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chain of blame
worked for Quality Mortgage noted that the Jedinaks didn’t own
Quality Mortgage outright, but through a holding company, “because
of the Guardian thing,” he said. (The regulators were after their money,
but the two reportedly had pumped at least $2 million into Quality
Mortgage to get it off the ground.) One manager later revealed to a
reporter at the Orange County Register how a top executive at Quality
Mortgage helped keep loan delinquencies low. “He backed payments
off of current accounts at month’s end, applying the money to delinquent accounts. After the first of the month he would reverse the transactions.” He added, “Russ and Becky always felt actions like that were
signs of initiative and loyalty.”
The Jedinaks were not alone in funding Quality Mortgage’s startup. One of their backers was the Wall Street firm of Donaldson, Lufkin
& Jenrette.12 DLJ provided Quality Mortgage with warehouse lines of
credit and securitized most of its loans, according to Laura Pephens, an
accountant who once did work for the Jedinaks. “DLJ was their primary partner,” said Pephens. After a few years, with so many new firms
springing up and copying their model of using brokers to fund subprime loans, the couple decided to call it quits. In 1996 they sold the
lender for about $65 million to Amresco Inc., a publicly traded subprime firm based in Dallas.13 A private sale, it was unclear how much
of the money wound up in the hands of Russ and Becky, but shortly
thereafter the couple left California and moved to a ranch in Nevada,
leaving the mortgage industry behind. “Vegas was really more of Russ’s
style, anyway,” said Laura Pephens.
In 1991, the year the Jedinaks were thrown out of the S&L
industry, Countrywide reached a milestone, one it happily added to its
12
In 2000 DLJ was bought by Credit Suisse, which became a top-ranked securitizer of
subprime loans as well as a leading warehouse lender.
13 Amresco eventually ran into financial trouble and stopped funding loans. Lehman Brothers
bought what was left of the company. Because of their regulatory problems concerning
Guardian, the Jedinaks tried to lie low while managing Quality Mortgage. The two top
day-to-day managers of the company were Evan Buckley and Neil Kornsweit. After the sale
of Quality Mortgage, the two managers went their separate ways—Buckley launching BNC
Mortgage of Irvine, which Lehman Brothers also eventually bought, and Kornsweit starting
a subprime lender called One Stop. In the mid-1990s Aames Financial, Gary Judis’s company,
bought One Stop. When Judis retired, Kornsweit took over management of Aames.
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growing corporate history in its museum lobby: It was now the largest
residential lender in the United States. It reached that milestone for two
chief reasons: It was picking up tons of new business because hundreds
of S&Ls—especially in California—had failed. The other reason? It
was now the largest originator of home mortgages using loan brokers.
Other mortgage banking firms—banks, S&Ls, and nondepositories
(Countrywide was still a member of the latter)—were imitating its lead.
Where Mozilo went, others followed.
Loan brokers were now squarely on the map. If a residential lender
wanted to ramp up its loan volume, there was one surefire way to do
it: brokers. All a lender would need was a license to lend in a state and
a loan broker on the ground to find customers. Dan Perl remembers
when he first started out in the business in the mid-1970s. Brooklyn
born and raised, he moved west as a teenager, where he became an
avid surfer and then an English teacher at Santa Monica High. His best
friend was William Ashmore, the same Ashmore who would rush to
withdraw his money from Countrywide in the summer of 2007.
Ashmore was a professor teaching at the College of the Canyons.
Perl, also the assistant baseball coach, was making $900 a month—
chump change, he figured. With a part-time lifeguard job he pulled
down a few more dollars a week, but it was no way to make a living
or support a family, he thought. He and his friend took their real estate
license test and quickly discovered that they could use it not only to
sell homes but to broker loans. Perl learned that loan brokers working
the California market could get by with a real estate agent’s license. (To
broker loans in the state, an individual needed a license of some type—
either a real estate agent’s license or another type.)
The two men started brokering loans for Anaheim Savings and
then became broker representatives (reps) for All State Savings, another
California S&L. Perl went door-to-door to different Realty firms in
search of leads. Realtors sold homes. He, like Mozilo and others before
him, figured their home buyers would need loans, right? In those early
years, he would call on Realtors. “I’d tell them, ‘I’m a mortgage broker,’” he said. “And they’d looked at me and say, ‘What’s a mortgage
broker?’” They formed a small brokerage firm called Perl-Ashmore,
and soon enough every residential lender on the West Coast began to
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chain of blame
realize what a mortgage broker could do for it, thanks in large part to
Countrywide and Guardian Savings—Mozilo and the Jedinaks.
*
*
*
By the end of 2006 there were 53,000 loan brokerage firms open
and operating in all 50 states. By comparison, the Mortgage Bankers
Association had just 2,300 members—and its dues-paying companies
were the ones actually funding the loans brought to them by brokers.
When Countrywide—thanks to brokers—became the number-one
home lender in the United States in 1991, there were just 14,000
brokerage firms in existence. Those figures came from David Olson,
an economist who made his living conducting research on the loan
brokerage industry through his firm Wholesale Access of Columbia,
Maryland. Olson had actually started his career in the industry at
Household Finance in the early 1970s. “I’m the one who got them into
mortgages,” he later recalled. “Back then Household’s largest consumer
loan was $600.” From there he moved on to Commercial Credit of
Baltimore (which Citigroup eventually swallowed), working in planning and research, advising the subprime and consumer finance company on acquisition targets.
Any mortgage executive or company that was seriously interested
in brokers or subprime lending turned to Olson,14 who launched
his research firm just as the subprime and brokerage industries were
beginning their ascent. According to Olson’s calculations—disputed by
few—sometime in the early 2000s brokers accounted for 60 percent to
70 percent of residential loans originated in the United States. Under
his definition, a loan brokerage firm included companies that acted as
intermediaries in the mortgage process (using money delivered at the
closing table by giants like Countrywide) and small mortgage banking
firms that actually funded the loan themselves and then sold it right
away to an investor such as Countrywide, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, or any
other of a number of wholesale giants. In the new century, the days of
savings and loans dominating the home lending process were long gone.
14
Olson’s client list read like a who’s who of the mortgage banking industry’s elite,
including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
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It was now a business that George Bailey would hardly recognize—one
where a broker took a loan application, sent the paperwork (usually
electronically) to a wholesaler (which underwrote it to some degree),
and then arranged for its sale into a large security through Wall Street.
It was, as Mozilo would declare many times, a “capital markets”–driven
business, one that danced to the tune of Wall Street.
Loan brokers dominated the business on the front end, Wall Street
on the back end. In the late 1990s there was concern that as lenders
began to market loans over the Internet, brokers might go the way of
the horse and buggy. In theory, a lender could go directly to the consumer, cutting out the broker entirely; but it didn’t turn out that way.
Brokers started advertising and listing their rates (which came from a
wholesaler), too. Mozilo was a fierce defender of brokers, telling the
trade press, “Listen, you can have all this Internet stuff, but they’re not
going anywhere. They go out there and they find the customer and
they say, ‘Don’t waste your time—I’ll find you the best rate.’”
When Dan Perl and Bill Ashmore became brokers, they could
get by with a Realtor’s license. By 2006 all states required individual
loan brokers (a flesh-and-blood loan officer) to be licensed or registered—but that didn’t mean they were regulated. Unlike banks and
S&Ls, which took federally insured deposits from the public and were
regulated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal
Reserve, or another agency, mortgage brokers reported to no one. They
had no regulator. The only one loan brokers reported to was their
wholesaler, their Countrywide.
Brokers and the firms they worked for were not publicly traded.
They also did not disclose their loan originations or income to any
agency or regulatory body. In 1998 mortgage lending became a $1 trillion a year business—that’s a lot of loans. If loan brokers earned on
average one point (1 percent) and accounted for 70 percent of all loans
originated each year (Olson’s estimate), that worked out to $7 billion
a year in fee income. At the beginning of 2007 there were roughly
200,000 individuals who worked for those 53,000 loan brokerage firms
that Olson spoke of—and they were earning a lot more than one point
per loan. On subprime loans, the fees paid to brokers were a lot higher
than the old standard one point. When Dan Perl graduated from PerlAshmore and moved on to managing a series of subprime lenders,
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chain of blame
some brokers he dealt with in California wouldn’t do a deal unless they
could make at least $10,000 on a loan. “Then on top of that they’d
throw in $1,800 in junk fees, adding in bogus stuff like processing fee
and delivery fees.”
The income of individual loan brokers became the talk of the
industry, with some intermediaries supposedly earning $1 million a
year or more. No one knew for sure, because brokers didn’t disclose
that type of information to the public. (The negative PR implications
of a broker earning $1 million making subprime loans to the public is
self-evident.) One way a broker could earn large fees was through an
arrangement with the wholesaler called a yield spread premium (YSP).
Yield spread premiums had been around for years but didn’t become
a popular practice until subprime lending volumes began to accelerate in 2003. A YSP worked like this: A consumer (usually subprime)
buying a home or refinancing and trying to keep closing costs low
would agree to pay a higher interest rate on the mortgage in return
for paying no points (or fewer points) at the closing table. The higher
yield on the loan made that mortgage more valuable to the wholesaler
(Countrywide, Wells Fargo, Washington Mutual), because the wholesaler
could sell it to Wall Street at a better price than a lower-yielding loan
would garner. In the world of Wall Street, the higher the interest rate
on a loan, the more valuable it became. Why? Answer: because the loan
would be pooled into a bond, and bond investors loved higher-yielding
assets. A higher yield of even just 1 percent more on a billion-dollar
bond would translate into millions extra in income for the bondholder.
To compensate the broker for that higher-yielding mortgage,
Countrywide and others would pay the broker additional points—two,
three, sometimes even four. (On a $500,000 mortgage, three points
would work out to $15,000 in income for the broker—on just one
loan.) It also gave brokers an incentive to talk customers into deals where
they could save money on the closing by agreeing to a higher interest
rate.15 The YSP paid to the broker for arranging a higher-yielding
15 In
the fall of 2007, in an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe, Harvard law professor
Elizabeth Warren likened YSPs to a “bribe” being paid to brokers from wholesalers, setting
off a firestorm in the mortgage brokerage industry. Thousands of brokers took to Internet
sites and message boards, calling for the professor’s scalp.
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loan was disclosed in the loan documents the customer signed, but it’s
questionable how much customers understood that the broker had a real
incentive (the YSP) to bring in the loan at a higher note rate.
But who were these millionaire earners? One was Joyce Jenise
Jackson, a former stripper turned loan broker.16 Jackson, a curvaceous
African-American woman who ran a small loan brokerage company
called the Metropolitan Money Store (MMS)17 in suburban Lanham,
Maryland, specialized in brokering loans to subprime borrowers who
were in danger of losing their homes. Business appeared to be good
for Jackson. In June 2006 she threw an $800,000 wedding for herself
and husband Kurt Fordham, also her business partner. At the historic
Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, she played
host to 300 guests who sipped Moët and Cristal champagne. A friend
with a video camera captured the 38-year-old as she descended the
Mayflower’s ballroom stairs in an elegant handmade silk wedding gown
and gold tiara. During the reception, singer Patti LaBelle serenaded
Jackson and her new husband with “Lady Marmalade” and other hits.
Within a year of her nuptials, though, Jackson would be out of
business and accused by criminal investigators of running an equitystripping scam on hundreds of homeowners, buying their houses on
the cheap and taking out larger, new mortgages, walking away with at
least $60 million. The Metropolitan Money Store advertised on roadways in predominately black communities in Prince George’s County,
Maryland, which bordered the nation’s capital near the Anacostia
River. One loan that MMS facilitated was to the Proctor family of Fort
Washington. Melvin Proctor and his wife, Nadine, who were having
trouble making their home payments, spotted one of MMS’s roadside
16 According to the Washington Post, Jackson worked as a stripper in the Legends nightclub
in Temple Hills, Maryland, from 1997 to 2003. She danced under the name “Night Rider.”
One of her most popular routines was riding into the club on a white stallion à la Lady
Godiva.
17 The Metropolitan Money Store had no business ties to the Turtletaubs’ The Money
Store. In 1999 First Union Bank of Charlotte, North Carolina, bought the Turtletaubs’
company for $2.1 billion and then a year later wrote down the entire value of the lender to
zero, making its investment practically worthless. The bank closed The Money Store in
June of 2000 and First Union’s longtime CEO, Ed Crutchfield, resigned. The reason: The
Money Store acquisition.
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chain of blame
signs and then heard an ad on the radio. Jackson, who worked the deal
herself, laid out to the family how the foreclosure rescue would work.
It went like this: The family, who owed about $163,000 on the house,
would transfer ownership of the house to a friend of Jackson’s. (The
friend, Linda Jones, was later accused of being a so-called straw borrower or a front for MMS and Jackson.) The Proctors were allowed
to live in the house for at least a year until they repaired their credit.
Then they would get their house back. The Fort Washington home was
worth about $327,000. Jackson and her future husband, Fordham, then
went out and remortgaged the house for its true market value, paying off the family’s original loan, which was in danger of going delinquent. The profit on the transaction was $164,000 ($327,000 minus
$163,000). The Proctors, according to a lawsuit they later filed, saw little of that money. Jackson, Fordham, and MMS walked away with at
least $100,000. (Affiliated companies and a handful of title firms shared
in the largesse.) Jackson and Fordham had no intention of rescuing
Melvin and Nadine, but as part of the transfer to Jones (fronting for
MMS) they executed a loan document where it appeared the Proctors
were getting some of the money—via a loan where the interest rate
was an eye-popping 40 percent.
When enough families began losing their homes to MMS, state and
federal investigators began looking into the loan broker’s supposed rescue operation. (The scheme worked only if the troubled homeowner
had a decent amount of equity in the house.) By the summer of 2007
Jenise and Fordham were nowhere to be found, and even the Secret
Service was taking an interest in the case. The Metropolitan Money
Store was not your typical loan brokerage operation. There were many
legitimate brokerage firms pounding the pavement, offering subprime
and conventional loans to borrowers like the Proctors.
During the housing and mortgage booms, millionaire brokers
were not necessarily the norm, but they existed, according to several
interviews conducted by National Mortgage News and highlighted in
some of its stories. Few brokers were willing to admit they earned $1
million or more a year. A survey conducted by the newspaper found
that 25 percent of brokers it surveyed claimed earnings of between
$200,000 and $400,000 in 2006. Eight percent said they earned north
of $400,000. A broker named Kelly Stanfield contacted the newspaper
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71
and told a reporter the story of her company, Lake Mortgage. “I
personally have not been lucky enough to get in on it, but we have a
‘winners’ list in our company,” she said. “Some made over $100,000 a
month. During the boom it was $200,000 [a month].”
The rescue mission that MMS was peddling could not have come
about without a wholesale lender bringing money to the closing table.
Without closing table funding from bigger fish, brokers would not
exist. In the case of the Proctors of Fort Washington, the mortgage
banking firm providing the check at the closing table was an Orange,
California–based lender called Argent Mortgage, a company controlled
by Roland Arnall.
And therein lies another story.
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Chapter 4
The Beach Boys
of B&C
How Roland Arnall Became the
Johnny Appleseed of Subprime
We’ve got to stay under the radar.
—Ameriquest owner Roland Arnall
to Craig Cole, one of his executives
A
ngelo Mozilo doesn’t remember the exact date he entertained
a competitor named Roland Arnall in his Calabasas office, but
he recalls that the meeting took place in either 2001 or 2002.
“He came up to my office with some of his people,” remembered
Mozilo. “He came to talk to me about the business, how I did business.
He was here for quite a while. I’ll do that from time to time, talk to people even if they’re my competitors. It was the strangest conversation I’d
ever had. He thanked me for my time and then said good-bye.”
Mozilo had met Arnall a few times before, and took an interest in
him for two reasons: One of Arnall’s former companies, Long Beach
Mortgage, had run into problems with regulators who were trying to
73
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chain of blame
hold it responsible for what Mozilo called “disparities in loan pricing”
on loans made to whites versus minorities. To hear Mozilo tell it, Long
Beach was being held responsible for the behavior of one of its freelance loan brokers. “He eventually won the case,” said Mozilo. As the
century turned, Countrywide had retained its title as the biggest user of
loan brokers in the United States. Anything that might damage its lock
on that business was of paramount concern to Mozilo and his cadre of
senior executives.
The other reason Mozilo took an interest in Arnall was that Arnall’s
current lending venture, Ameriquest Mortgage, a retail nondepository
based in nearby Orange, was beginning to accumulate a huge market
share in subprime mortgages, a product niche that Countrywide had
avoided for most of its 30-plus-year history but was now slowly but
surely gaining traction in. Arnall was also on the verge of launching a
nationwide wholesale lender called Argent Mortgage that was gearing up to sell subprime loans through loan brokers in as many states as
possible—and as quickly as possible. If there was one thing that Mozilo
paid careful attention to, it was market share. It was a given that he was
going to let Arnall have some of his time. It also didn’t hurt that Arnall
was politically well connected, having donated hundreds of thousands of
dollars to federal and local politicians over the years. Former California
governor Gray Davis officiated at his wedding in 2000. It was the second trip down the aisle for Arnall, a middle-aged mortgage executive
who looked a bit like retired Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.
“I’ll do that,” Mozilo said about the meet and greet. “I’ll talk to
competitors. There always could be something in it for me. I believe
that on a level playing field, even if you know what I’m doing I can still
beat you. Even if you know my play, I’m not afraid of any opponent.”
*
*
*
Roland Arnall was not just any opponent. Like Mozilo’s grandfather, he
was an immigrant to the United States, but Arnall took a slightly more
circuitous route. Only one thing seems certain about his early years:
that he was born in 1939 in Europe. His family was Jewish, which
meant their lives were in danger as Hitler came to power and Nazi
Germany expanded its borders by invading other nations. His official
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The Beach Boys of B&C
75
bio has him born in Paris on the eve of World War II. An unconfirmed press report says it was Poland. (Arnall has never given any type
of extensive interview about his past, or about anything else for that
matter.) To avoid detection by the Nazis, the family said they were
Catholic, according to one attorney who did business with Arnall. After
the war his family moved to Montreal and then immigrated to the Los
Angeles area in the late 1950s. Southern California was on the rise.
During those early cold war years the defense and aerospace industries were thriving in nearby Long Beach, one of the largest deepwater
ports in the United States. The Brooklyn Dodgers had decamped to
Los Angeles from New York, which at the time was in somewhat of
an economic decline. The New York Giants left as well, breaking the
hearts of Yankee haters in all five boroughs. In his teens Arnall and his
brother Claude began selling flowers on the streets of Los Angeles. In
time they parlayed it into a flower shop. That’s where the public information about his early years ends.
In 1979, four years before the Nolan Act became law (which led to
the stampede of real estate developers owning S&Ls), Arnall obtained
a thrift charter from the state of California. His shop was called Long
Beach Savings (LBS), reflecting the hometown of its headquarters. By
1983 the Jedinaks were in nearby Huntington Beach, 15 miles to the
south. While Russ and Becky toiled with a handful of small commercial projects and then went full force into subprime residential lending, Long Beach concentrated on mostly commercial lending—projects
that Arnall was involved in as a real estate developer. Thanks to the
Nolan Act, developers could own an S&L and use its deposits to fund
office buildings, apartments, whatever they liked. “Roland was a visionary guy,” said Craig Cole, who once worked for him. “He saw a lot of
things in the business before the other guys did.”
Long Beach Savings embarked on a business plan of funding mostly
commercial loans—apartments and office buildings—leaving the residential business to the state’s George Bailey–like thrift owners, the ones
who still liked housing, people like Herb and Marion Sandler up in
Oakland, who operated World Savings. According to Cole, a former
Freddie Mac executive, LBS “was used for the personal development of
its owners.” That would be Arnall. “He used it as a piggy bank. But it
made a lot of money.”
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Unlike some new thrift owners who also happened to be real estate
developers (or wannabe developers), Arnall knew how to read a balance sheet. He didn’t like losing money and he didn’t cook the books
(engage in financial fraud) of the S&L. Those who worked for him
back then said most of his commercial projects at LBS made financial
sense. “His were actually viable,” said Cole.
But as the S&L industry began its historic collapse in the mid to
late 1980s, Arnall became nervous. He saw too many developers with
S&L charters, few of them doing well. One of his employees characterized Arnall’s mood like this: “He wasn’t thrilled with guys getting into
his business, and the regulators kept getting younger and younger.”
The “regulators” meant the examiners at the Federal Home Loan
Bank of San Francisco, one of 12 regional branches of the Federal
Home Loan Bank Board1 in Washington. Arnall began to see developerowned thrifts being taken over by the government and feared that even
though his projects were mostly viable, he might be next. According to
friends, he made the only sensible decision available to him—he took
his S&L charter and turned it in to the federal government, or, as one
employee bluntly described it, he told the examiners at the Federal
Home Loan Bank of San Francisco to shove it.
“He actually burned the charter, lit it on fire,” said Cole, who went
to work for Arnall in 1995. Cole remembers walking into Arnall’s
office in Orange, California, and seeing a large urn on the credenza
behind his new boss’s desk. “I asked him what it was,” said Cole. The
response: the S&L charter of what used to be Long Beach Savings.
“He was very proud of that urn. People would ask him about it and he
would tell them.”
In 1994 when LBS went up in flames (so to speak), Arnall named
the new company Long Beach Mortgage (LBM) and began borrowing
1 Prior to 1989 the 12 Federal Home Loan Banks served a dual role of both being a
regional regulator of S&Ls and serving as a cooperative wholesale bank where each S&L
could borrow money. In 1989 president George H.W. Bush passed the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act, which split the functions. The FHLBs
became the wholesale lenders to thrifts in their geographic regions, while a new regulatory
agency, the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), a successor to the Federal Home Loan
Bank Board in Washington, was given the task of being the chief regulator. The OTS has
six regional offices.
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money through Wall Street and commercial banks. He was now the
owner of a nonbank that had just about no regulators to deal with, only
bankers to answer to. When he burned his S&L charter he also burned
his bridge to using low-cost federally insured deposits. That was just fine
with Arnall, Cole said. Before LBS was transformed, Arnall had already
begun to dabble in subprime lending, partly because of the success he
saw down the coast at the Jedinaks’ Guardian Savings. (Remember that
Guardian’s downfall was its commercial loans, not its subprime residential business.) “He was segueing into subprime,” said Cole. “The way the
regulators saw it, he was exchanging one risky venture [commercial] for
another [subprime]. They didn’t like it.”
Without federal examiners to worry about, Arnall hunkered down
and began to work on what Cole called his “vision of mortgage lending.” Arnall liked the subprime business, said Cole, because LBM could
charge eight or nine points on a loan and make a ton of money. (Eight
points on a $100,000 loan would be $8,000.) “Roland thought big,”
Cole said. Asked why any borrower in their right mind would pay
eight points to LBM, Cole painted a picture of a borrower in distress,
saying, “People wanted the money [that LBM could provide]. A lot of
these were refis. In some cases borrowers wanted to strip out the equity
in their homes.” LBM was more than happy to please the borrower, he
said. Some of the lender’s customers would come in and make their
payments in cash—“with wads of cash,” remembered Cole. “We had a
very good collections department.”
Long Beach Mortgage under Arnall became obsessed with avoiding loan delinquencies. “We had a loan committee of four to five top
executives,” said one LBM officer. “We were expected to look at every
deal. Roland liked to be able to kick a limited number of asses if things
were not up to his expectations.” His top secondary market manager
(the one responsible for selling loans to investors) was a man named
Yankee Dinovitz, an Orthodox Jew with a penchant for guns. Dan Perl,
who did business with Arnall, remembered visiting LBM and being
invited out to the shooting range with the secondary chief. “Yankee
said, ‘Let’s go shooting,’ so we did.”
Arnall also liked technology, a trait that he had in common with
Mozilo at Countrywide. Running LBM, it is believed that Arnall was
the first mortgage executive to take subprime borrowers and break
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them down into subcategories that would one day result in them being
considered A–, B, C, or D—just like a student’s report card. LBM’s customers were no longer thrown into a big bucket and labeled “people
with bad credit.” Arnall, according to Cole, built an Excel spreadsheet
on his computer. “He created a system to grade loans,” said Cole. “He
put them in risk buckets. What bucket you were in determined the
rates and fees.”
Putting borrowers into certain risk categories appealed to Arnall’s
sense of order, said Cole. Arnall, he noticed, was a creature of habit
who ate the same Chinese meal every day for lunch: orange chicken
with rice. “He did this like clockwork,” said Cole. (Another employee
remembered Arnall’s favorite lunchtime culinary dish somewhat differently as “sautéed vegetables over white rice. He would put this hot, red,
oily sauce on it. He would put spoonfuls in his mouth and sweat profusely. I think he was on a kick to lose weight.”)
Cole was hired in 1995 to help Arnall launch a wholesale “A” paper
network that would originate government-insured and prime loans for
sale to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. What better person to hire than
a former salesman at Freddie Mac? After Arnall tossed the S&L charter
overboard, he relied mostly on freelance loan brokers to bring mortgages into LBM, another practice he copied from the Jedinaks. Cole
had been a top salesman at Freddie Mac whose job it was to keep the
customers of that government-chartered enterprise happy while convincing them to sell as many loans as possible to Freddie, as opposed to
its chief government-chartered rival, Fannie Mae.2
The name Arnall had picked for the new “A” paper wholesale network that Cole would help manage was Ameriquest Mortgage. His
marketing department chose the name because, according to Cole, it
sounded “like a good old-fashioned American name” (the Ameri- part)
and described Arnall’s “quest” to be national in scope. Long Beach
Mortgage’s wholesale division, headed by Jack Mayesh (and later on by
Wayne A. Lee), would concentrate solely on using brokers to find subprime customers. By 1996 LBM, through a network of 7,500 freelance
2
Fannie Mae was chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1938, Freddie much later in 1970.
Their mission, according to their charters, was to free up capital for residential finance by
purchasing mortgages from lenders. The lender would then use that cash to make new loans.
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loan brokers, was “table funding” loans in about 30 states. It recruited
brokers by holding parties at regional trade shows and taking out
advertisements in industry magazines and newspapers.
Cole’s job was to help put Ameriquest on the map in “A” paper
wholesale. One of the first people at the company he got to know after
being hired was Loretta, Arnall’s secretary. “She protected him like a
mother hen,” said Cole. Arnall wanted the former Freddie Mac salesman to grow the new “A” paper wholesale network quickly. “Roland
would call you days, nights, weekends. It would always start with
Loretta saying, ‘It’s Mr. Arnall.’ Whenever he had an idea about something, anything, he would call.”
To those who worked for Arnall at his various mortgage companies
over the years, there was one trait that stood out: his ability to manage
what appeared to be one of the most successful mortgage companies in
the nation and avoid the media entirely—including the California dailies, the Wall Street Journal, and the trade press. Until the early 2000s he
was for the most part invisible, keeping his picture out of the papers as
best he could. On occasion there might a story about the Los Angeles–
based Simon Wiesenthal Center,3 which Arnall helped found, but not
much else. His avoidance of the press was intentional. Arnall, to the dispute of no one, shunned publicity with an almost religious zeal. Cole,
an LBM employee for just under two years, remembers a conversation
he had with Arnall when he said, “We’ve got to stay under the radar.”
Added Cole, “He was very secretive. He shunned publicity. Roland
does not give press interviews.”
*
*
*
The best way for a man to avoid public scrutiny is to not take his private mortgage firm into the public market. In 1997 a company called
Long Beach Financial Corporation (LBFC) sold 22 million shares on
the New York Stock Exchange, raising roughly $141 million. But Arnall
3 The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has offices in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto,
Palm Beach, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Jerusalem, is an international Jewish human rights
organization dedicated to defending the safety of Jews worldwide and teaching the lessons
of the Holocaust.
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was nowhere to be found in the IPO documents. Jack Mayesh, his righthand man at LBM, was now in charge of the company. Years earlier the
two had met in the flower trade; Mayesh’s father was a wholesaler. Jack
Mayesh’s first line of work was politics. He started his career as a staffer
to California assemblyman Howard Berman, managed a few political
campaigns, and became reacquainted with Arnall just as he was starting
LBS. Arnall hired him as a political consultant, doing what one source
called “advocacy” work in Washington.
Long Beach Financial Corporation’s chief asset was Long Beach
Mortgage, Arnall’s company. Prior to LBFC going public, he had created a holding company (Old Long Beach Holdings) and put LBM
under it. He then took the subprime wholesale operation—which
Mayesh ran—and isolated it into LBFC, the unit that was going public. Long Beach Financial Corporation was now funding $1 billion a
year in subprime loans, most of it through loan brokers. Arnall kept
the holding company, the retail division, and the servicing operation
(which processed the monthly mortgage payments from consumers).
When all was said and done, the holding company owned 70 percent
of LBFC. When it went public, the holding company (which Arnall
controlled) walked away with $100 million and Arnall got to keep his
name out of the public record.
Coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, Arnall was in the
process of divorcing his wife of 37 years, Sally. The couple had two
children. Executives who worked for Arnall described her as a stay-athome mom who didn’t know much about her husband’s business or
what it was really worth. When they divorced, Sally walked away with
about $11 million, a fraction of what Arnall’s holding company made
on the LBFC IPO.4
When LBFC first filed its registration papers with the Securities
and Exchange Commission, it initially had hoped to raise $300 million
by selling 25 million shares at $12 apiece. By IPO time the price
was down to $6 a share and the number of shares trimmed. But two
years after going public, Mayesh turned around and sold LBFC—in
4 In
2005 Sally Arnall sued her former husband to reopen the divorce case. A trial was
scheduled for October 2007. According to her attorney, Vicky Greene, Roland Arnall
settled after the third day of trial. Both parties agreed to keep the settlement private.
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a crumbling market—to Washington Mutual (WaMu) of Seattle, a
publicly traded savings and loan that was about to embark on a fiveyear buying spree of gobbling up a dozen or so mortgage companies
or S&Ls. LBM would be Washington Mutual’s first foray into subprime.
The purchase price was $360 million.
Mayesh was able to sell the firm at double its IPO price because
LBFC had avoided the carnage suffered by its competitors. By early
1999 publicly traded subprime lenders—Cityscape Mortgage, First
Plus, The Money Store, and many others—were sliding toward bankruptcy because they had securitized hundreds of millions of dollars in
mortgages using gain-on-sale accounting where they overestimated
the longevity of their bonds. All the future income they had anticipated never arrived. But under Arnall and Mayesh, LBM (and LBFC)
had avoided the securitization market entirely. Mayesh was close
to Greenwich Capital in Connecticut, an investment banking firm.
Instead of securitizing mortgages through Greenwich (or another Wall
Street firm), Mayesh (with Arnall’s blessing) cut a deal to sell its subprime mortgages to Greenwich on what’s called a “whole loan basis.”
This meant that LBM received cash right away for its subprime loans
and didn’t have to play around with assumptions about how long the
loans would stick around on its books. (That would be the problem of
Greenwich and the institutional investors that bought the bonds issued
by Greenwich.)
When Washington Mutual bought LBFC, Mayesh hung around for
a few months in a transitory role, signed a three-year noncompete clause
with the S&L, and then left. By the time Arnall showed up on Angelo
Mozilo’s doorstep early in the next century, LBFC was now a wholly
owned subsidiary of WaMu, which was also a competitor to Countrywide
both in California and nationwide, vying for the same customers in
50 states. WaMu kept the Long Beach Mortgage name and continued its
strategy of using loan brokers to originate subprime loans. Not only did
Mayesh have a three-year noncompete agreement that prevented him
from getting into the subprime wholesale business, but Arnall had a noncompete, too (in regard only to subprime wholesale).
The year 2000 was a particularly bad one for the residential loan
industry. In one interview in the summer of that year Mozilo, when
asked how things were, put his Bronx spin on the situation, telling a
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reporter from National Mortgage News: “It sucks.” Countrywide was
funding mostly “A” paper loans—a business it dominated—but had
slowly risen in the rankings among subprime originators. Among A– to
D lenders, it ranked seventh nationwide with originations of $5 billion, which gave it a market share of 4 percent, about half of what it
had among prime lenders that sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Countrywide was originating subprime loans, but only through retail
branches of a division it had created called Full Spectrum Lending.
In the post-LBM era, Arnall’s Ameriquest Mortgage was originating “A” paper loans through its wholesale network (using brokers) and
whatever retail offices it had retained when Mayesh and LBFC were
spun off from the mother ship. But because 2000 was such a bad year
for originating new loans (“A” paper mortgage rates were at 8 percent), Ameriquest’s profit margins suffered. “Roland threw in the towel
because of the margins,” said Cole. He converted Ameriquest from a
wholesale “A” paper lender into a mostly retail one, with one important difference: It was now funding only subprime loans. (When he
spun off LBFC, Arnall’s noncompete didn’t prevent him from owning a subprime retailer. In that regard he could do whatever he liked.)
Conventional lending, as almost any mortgage executive knew, was a
sucker’s bet; it was a business rife with razor-thin profit margins. There
was just too much competition.
Arnall and his executive team, which included Kirk Langs as the
head of subprime retail, began expanding its reach into new states as
quickly as possible. Langs, like his boss, was not the loquacious type,
at least when it came to giving press interviews. He was a relatively
young man, mid-30s, and did exactly what Arnall asked of him—grow
Ameriquest quickly into the largest originator of subprime loans in the
United States. “Kirk was our leader,” said one area sales manager who
worked under him. “He was charismatic. He knew the industry inside
and out. He pushed growth.”
Just two years after Ameriquest had begun opening retail branch
offices to sell subprime loans directly to home buyers (and homeowners looking to refinance), the company had almost 40 regional sales
managers spread out across the United States. But opening offices was
only part of the equation. Now it had to motivate the retail loan officers (LOs)—the men and women who worked with the public. The best
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way to do that? Offer incentives. “Incentives” meant commissions. The
more loans retail LOs brought into Ameriquest, the more money they
made. It was as simple as that.
The process of making mortgages at LBM and the new Ameriquest
was all about selling. When it came to sales—the origination of mortgages through brokers or LOs—Arnall was hardly a patient man. Early
on, Cole remembers giving the LBM chief a status report, informing
him that the new company had opened eight new offices, equipping
each with new computer systems. “That’s not good enough,” Arnall
said. “I want to be in all 50 [states].” Another sales manager remembers
that Arnall was always thinking broadly—he wanted the lender to be
a one-stop shop for all types of loan products, not just subprime. He
wanted it to be like Countrywide.
Arnall also could run hot and cold with his senior executives. Pat
Flanagan, who ran some of LBM’s branches, was one such executive. One
day he got a better job offer and went to tell Arnall about it. “Arnall suddenly decides he can’t live without him,” said another executive familiar
with the story. “He says, ‘What can I do?’ And Flanagan says, ‘Pay off my
house.’ So Arnall cuts him a big check. Later Arnall fired him.”
The men and women who brought in the loans using brokers
were called account executives (AEs). During their best years, wholesale AEs at LBM and other Arnall affiliates might earn anywhere
between $30,000 and $50,000 a month, or $600,000 a year—and that
didn’t even include bonuses. Throw in the bonus money, and some AEs
earned anywhere from $1 million to $2 million. If that couldn’t incentivize the troops, then nothing would.
Arnall also believed in rewarding his top performers with junkets. It was a sales culture where the company’s top AEs (the ones who
brought the most loans in through brokers) were treated like royalty,
being wined and dined at four-star hotels. Those who didn’t perform either quit under pressure or were fired. Long Beach Mortgage,
Ameriquest, and Argent employees were treated to weeklong cruises
in the Caribbean. “It was nonstop drinking, gambling, and partying,”
remembered one former executive. Loan volumes (and profits) were so
good during those years, he said, that Arnall threw a huge bash in Las
Vegas for the company’s top salespeople, giving away $1 million in cars,
motorcycles, and cash.
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Tim Hughes, an account executive at one of Arnall’s shops, remembers what he calls “lavish three-day sales meetings” where once a quarter the top AEs dined on shrimp and filet mignon “with all the alcohol
that one could possibly want to drink.” He remembers a sales meeting
where the company flew in 700 AEs “and we weren’t exactly staying
at a Motel 6. My boss told me that each sales meeting would cost well
over $2 million.” When it came time to give out the sales awards, salaries weren’t mentioned but the loan volumes that the AEs had brought
in using loan brokers were openly displayed on a large scorecard for all
to see. “I did the simple math. A few of the AEs were earning a couple
of million dollars a year.”
For Ameriquest’s retail loan officers, the event of the year was a
party at the Atlantis in Las Vegas called “The Big Spin.” Arnall would
start the event off with a short, 15-minute speech and then leave the
honors to his top lieutenants, including Langs, the head of retail. At one
“Big Spin” party, an Arizona sales manager witnessed the company giving away 10 cars, including Porsches, and $10,000 in prizes. Depending
on the year, the entertainment included a cross section of singers and
actors, including LL Cool J, Penn & Teller, and comedian Jay Mohr.
The motivational speakers—designed to prime the sales pump—
included former New York mayor (and eventual presidential candidate)
Rudolph Giuliani, Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, boxer Sugar Ray
Leonard, and others. But Arnall would rarely stick around for the show.
He would make a short speech, start the event, and be on his way. “He
was not a partier,” said Cole. “He shunned the limelight. When it came
to speaking he was quite awkward.”
“It was all about selling,” said a regional sales manager who worked
the Southwestern states for Ameriquest. The manager, who didn’t want
to be identified, painted a portrait of Ameriquest’s retail operations as
such: “The idea was to fill every desk in your branch [with loan officers], whether it was three desks or 18 desks. It was high pressure on
sales.” To incentivize area managers, Ameriquest paid them on head
count. The more LOs that managers had under them, the more they
earned. Area managers could earn well over $1 million a year, he said.
But because the pressure to push loans to the public was so great,
employee turnover could be tremendous. “I was interviewing people
all the time for jobs,” the regional sales manager said. Ameriquest even
had what were called “internal recruiters” whose job it was to hire new
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loan officers (and processors who actually handled the loan application
files) using the web site Monster.com. The internal recruiters screened
prospective LOs over the phone. If they passed muster, the branch manager took over the hiring process.
If the LOs and sales managers made their sales goals, they got to
stay and were rewarded. “If you had a good month and did $10 million
in loans, he [Arnall] would say, ‘Great. When are you going to do $20
million?’ That was the new benchmark.” This sales manager said that
one month he missed his sales quota by one loan and was let go.
*
*
*
Arnall’s timing concerning Ameriquest’s rapid expansion into subprime
retail couldn’t have been better. The Russian debt crisis and abuses of
gain-on-sale accounting (booking tomorrow’s profits today on loan
securitizations) that blew a hole in the subprime industry in 1998 and
1999 had decimated the ranks of subprime originators across the land.
The lenders that escaped relatively unscathed from this minicrisis were
the old-line consumer finance companies: Household Finance (which
now owned Beneficial Finance); Associates First Capital Corporation,
which had just been bought by Citigroup; and Arnall’s old firm, Long
Beach Mortgage. The market was wide open. Wall Street firms—Bear
Stearns and Lehman Brothers being the most aggressive—had dusted
themselves off from those bad subprime days of 1998 and 1999 and
begun lending money to the nonbank subprime lenders, Ameriquest
being at the top of the list.
There was one other thing Arnall had going in his favor: the recession.
Shortly after President George W. Bush took the oath of office, the
nation found itself mired in a recession, which was partly caused by
the dot-com bubble. High-flying Internet firms with interesting ideas
on commerce (but little or no revenue) began to fail—many of them
publicly traded. To head off this economic flu, the Federal Reserve,
chaired by Alan Greenspan, began to cut short-term interest rates.
When short-term rates go down, long-term rates (like mortgage rates)
always follow. It never fails. In 2000 the average rate on a 30-year fixedrate loan for Americans with good credit was 8 percent. In 2001 the
rate was at 6.91 percent and dropping fast (and would continue to fall
for the next three years).
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In the mortgage business, recessions are good for two things: refinancing booms and creating more subprime borrowers. A bad economy creates financial problems for consumers, causing them to go late
on any number of bills, including credit cards and their existing mortgages. To Arnall, the immediate future probably never looked brighter.
He had been a pioneer in using Excel spreadsheets to grade customers in the mid to late 1990s; he now had some new technology tools
to play with: automated valuation models (AVMs) and underwriting
software that relied heavily on FICO scores. AVMs were electronic
appraisals based on property information gathered on the ground in
neighborhoods and then disseminated over the Internet.
Seeing that the market was about to turn, Ameriquest’s executive team
tweaked its business strategy. It would continue to make subprime mortgages to home buyers with bad credit, but it liberalized how much equity
or down payment they would need. Documents the company had given
to its investment bankers at Bear Stearns showed that in 2001 its average
loan-to-value (LTV) ratio was 74 percent. Two years later it was 81 percent. Gone were the days when a subprime lender wanted a cushion of
40 percent to 50 percent in a home before it would extend a mortgage.
But that wasn’t the biggest underwriting change Ameriquest had
made under Arnall and Langs. It had begun originating a brand-new
type of home mortgage, basing its decision to originate on those
much-loved technology tools: the AVM and the FICO score. It was
called a stated-income loan. If a customer came into an Ameriquest
branch and told a loan officer he or she made $100,000 a year (even if
he or she might be a truck driver, gardener, or waitress), the company
would fund the loan as long as the FICO scores, AVM, and whatever
real appraisals the LO ordered up checked out. Ameriquest believed in
technology. “Roland loved technology,” said Cole. Technology didn’t lie.
That might be so, but people lied. In time, stated-income loans would
earn the industry nickname “liar loans” because the borrower could
claim to earn $200,000 even if he or she didn’t, and the loan would go
through as long as the FICO scores checked out.
In 2001 Ameriquest had funded $6 billion in subprime mortgages—
28 percent of them either stated-income loans or a similar product
called limited-documentation mortgages. In other words, Ameriquest’s
trusting executives had given their blessing on $1.7 billion worth of
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loans (mortgages that would be packaged into bonds and sold on Wall
Street) because borrowers said they earned a certain amount of money
and they believed them.5 Not even George Bailey of Bedford Falls was
that trusting.
By 2003 Ameriquest and its various affiliates were originating
$40 billion a year in mortgages across the nation—30 percent of them
stated-income or limited-documentation mortgages. In dollars and cents
that came out to $12 billion. Mozilo, who prided himself on knowing
the lay of the land in the mortgage industry, took note. Speaking about
Arnall he said, “He plays by his own rules. He’s the guy who started
stated-income [loans], the guy who started no-documentation loans.
All his people were on commission.” It irked Mozilo. Countrywide was
the top banana when it came to funding all types of mortgages, but
in the subprime sector—which was beginning to account for a bigger
piece of a $2 trillion a year pie—it was far behind Arnall’s shop. Mozilo
didn’t like it. He also discovered that some of his top LOs and AEs were
being wooed away by Ameriquest. “We were losing them in substantial
numbers,” he said. Countrywide’s troops were being raided by Arnall.
* * *
By paying a retail loan officer a commission to bring in mortgages, a
lender walks a tightrope: The bonus money spurs the LO to produce,
which is great for both the company and the LO. But the incentive
money has the potential to corrupt the process, because it offers cash
rewards for volume. It stands to reason that when you have thousands
of salespeople peddling loan products in 50 states, somewhere along the
line LOs will jam loans through the system regardless of the borrower’s
ability to repay. When a company makes a loan without caring about
being repaid (it earns points and fees on the mortgage before selling
it to an investor in the secondary market), this is often referred to as
“predatory lending.”
5 Ameriquest spokesman Chris Orlando denied that Arnall was an innovator in statedincome loans. However, company figures released by Ameriquest at a Bear Stearns
conference in late 2004 highlighted its involvement in stated-income lending as far back as
2001, with originations in that category increasing each year up until (at least) 2004.
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chain of blame
In 2001—just as the lender’s loan volume was beginning to take
off—federal prosecutors in San Diego indicted seven Ameriquest loan
officers for arranging fraudulent appraisals on 64 home loans in the
San Diego and Riverside areas. The total dollar amount was $9 million.
All seven were friends brought to the company by Chris Zennedjian,
who was the first to become an LO there and then graduated to
branch manager in San Diego. Prior to working at Ameriquest, one
of the friends had been selling sunglasses on the street. After a year on
the job, the group’s members were driving around in BMWs and earning $20,000 a month. Zennedjian and another LO, Jarrett Pugh (and
others), allegedly created false values on the homes by forging appraisal
forms—but used the name of a real appraiser who had been approved
by Ameriquest management. They were also accused of forging documents that overstated how much the borrowers earned.
Why would the defendants overvalue the homes? Answer: because
the higher the house value, the larger the loan Ameriquest could fund.
The larger the loan, the higher the commission the friends could
earn. On $9 million in retail loans that Ameriquest had extended on
the 64 homes, the seven friends earned $172,400, which works out to
almost two points (2 percent) per loan. The loan officers, most of whom
were in their 20s, found the borrowers by going through the company’s “turn-down files” where LOs stored the names of customers who
had previously been rejected for loans. But the borrowers didn’t receive
kickbacks from the LOs—they were just happy to get a mortgage.
Ameriquest sold the mortgages to WaMu, the S&L that was kind
enough to pay $360 million for Long Beach Mortgage back in the
spring of 1999. WaMu conducted a follow-up review on the loans,
and discovered that the home appraisals on some were too high. The
S&L wasn’t happy. Executives there told Ameriquest and asked for their
$9 million back. Many of the loans went into foreclosure. Ameriquest
told the FBI and then sued its former employees, whom it had (of
course) fired. All things being normal, the story should have ended there;
but it didn’t. It’s not uncommon in the mortgage industry for loan officers or brokers to bend or break the rules so they can make more money.
In an industry where 10 million new loans are funded every year, there
are bound to be bad apples. All of the defendants in the San Diego case
either pleaded guilty or were convicted—except for Carlos Campillo.
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Campillo was friends with the others; that’s how he had been
brought into the company in the first place. But according to his attorney,
Kevin Elmore, the young man was dragged into the case only because of
his friendship with the group and because on one of the loans where
he served as LO he used an appraiser whose name had been forged on
a document. All of Campillo’s friends were convicted or pleaded guilty,
and settled the civil charges Ameriquest filed against them. Campillo,
though, walked away from the criminal case with the allegations against
him dismissed—as long as he completed one year of community service.
In trying to work out a deal with Ameriquest, attorney Elmore
said he sat down with Adam Bass, an outside attorney for Ameriquest,
and Wayne Lee, a top executive at the company. Bass, who chaired
the mortgage and litigation practice at the Los Angeles law firm of
Buchalter Nemer, was also Arnall’s nephew.6 Elmore said he and his
client told Bass and Lee that the lender had major quality control problems. “We said managers at Ameriquest condoned and promoted fraud,”
said Elmore. But Bass, according to Elmore, was a bit taken aback by
what the two had to say. “He refused to believe a word of it. His attitude was: ‘None of that goes on here.’ Normally in mediations, attorneys can see their client’s weaknesses; not the case with this guy. The
documentation and testimony of fraud my client had from working in
the branch for just six months were astounding.”7
*
*
*
6 Bass
is the son of the sister of Arnall’s first wife. As a technical matter, he was Arnall’s
nephew prior to the divorce.
7 Adam Bass declined to comment directly on Elmore’s characterization of the meeting.
However, Chris Orlando, a spokesman for Ameriquest Capital Corporation, disputed
Elmore’s version of the meeting. He said Ameriquest provided “significant assistance” to
the FBI in the case. “To say the company was ‘not responsive’ or ’dismissed’ the claims is
patently false and defamatory.” Joanne Davies, an attorney at Buchalter Nemer, also
questioned Elmore’s opinion of Bass’s reaction regarding the matter. Elmore later clarified
that Bass “refused to believe Ameriquest and its policies, procedures (or lack thereof ), and
climate contributed to fraud.” Carlos Campillo, according to Elmore, to this day continues
to be employed in the mortgage industry. Elmore served as Campillo’s attorney during the
early stages of the case before another lawyer, Todd Moore, took over the matter. Moore
said he does not think Ameriquest executives turned a blind eye to fraud but said, “They
took a hands-off approach as long as the loan met their guidelines. Ameriquest’s reputation
was such that they’d make a loan to anyone with a pulse as long as the LTV was okay.”
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By 2004 Roland Arnall’s world had changed. He and his second wife,
Dawn, were gaining attention as major political donors to both parties. His three-year noncompete agreement that prohibited him from
entering the subprime wholesale business had ended. Shortly after
his powwow with Mozilo, he launched Argent Mortgage, which, like
Ameriquest, was housed in Orange. A few miles away was the city of
Irvine, the financial epicenter of Orange County, California. Arnall
had been in the savings and loan or mortgage business for well over a
decade, and many of his former employees were following his lead by
launching subprime firms of their own. “Ameriquest became a spawning ground for others who go on to start their own subprime companies,” said Cole.
As the Federal Reserve continued to lower interest rates in the wake
of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, new subprime companies swelled across
Orange County. With office rents down amid a still somewhat weak
economy, many of these upstarts could afford premium office space
normally reserved for corporate lawyers and accountants. Arnall housed
Ameriquest (a subprime retail lender) and Argent Mortgage (a wholesaler using loan brokers) under a holding company called Ameriquest
Capital Corporation (ACC). He was its chairman. The company
boasted at least 14,000 employees. It also had expanded its brands.
Besides Ameriquest and Argent, it started other mortgage affiliates that
funded, more or less, the same type of subprime and stated-income
loans as Ameriquest/Argent. One was called Town & Country Credit,
and another Olympus Mortgage, the latter of which was managed by
Roland’s brother Claude. (There was also an auto lending division called
Long Beach Acceptance Corporation.) And Adam Bass, the lender’s outside counsel? He was now working for ACC as well—as a top executive.
The formation of Olympus caught some of Argent’s wholesale AEs
by surprise, so much so that many found themselves competing against
Olympus salespeople without even knowing that this new competitor
was also owned by Arnall’s ACC. Higinio Mangual, a former Olympus
AE, said Olympus was Arnall’s “brainstorm” to get his brother involved
in the red-hot wholesale business. After several months, Argent AEs
began complaining to their boss, Wayne Lee, that with Olympus now
in the market they were competing against themselves. Lee eventually convinced Arnall to merge Olympus into Argent. Claude left the
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company (with an undisclosed payout) and opened the Punch Grill
in Los Angeles.
While the subprime business boomed, Claude Arnall joined his
brother and sister-in-law in donating thousands of dollars to politicians’
campaigns. Their largesse to candidates would make Charlie Keating’s
donations during the S&L era look like peanuts. Dawn Arnall donated
$5 million to the Progress for America Voter Fund, a political group
backing the reelection of President Bush. Dawn, who was given the official title of co-chairman of ACC in mid-2002, was also a Bush “ranger,”
having raised at least $200,000 for the Bush campaign. A search of
federal campaign databases shows such generous gifts at these: $1 million (Republican National Committee by Dawn Arnall); $360,000
(Democratic National Committee by Roland); and $250,000 (DNC by
Dawn). The list went on and on.
On occasion all three Arnalls and their employees gave to campaigns
of the same politicians, some of whom sat on committees overseeing
their business, and some didn’t. However, on the federal level, the Congress, Senate, and White House were of no real threat to Ameriquest
and Argent. There were occasional discussions of federal legislation that
might crack down on the lending practices of subprime firms, but as far
as a bill actually passing (even on the committee level) was concerned,
nothing came close. And if something did actually pass, Arnall had a
friend in the White House.
It was on the state level that Ameriquest, Argent, and Countrywide
faced their biggest threat to doing business. One way to influence
the debate was to donate money to state candidates. In 2001 Georgia
passed the Fair Lending Act, which required residential lenders to prove
that on a refinancing that was less than five years old the new mortgage
would provide what was called a “tangible net benefit” to the borrower.
Ameriquest and other subprime lenders began lobbying state politicians
to remove that provision. They feared it would harm their business. (In
the early days of subprime lending, when consumer finance companies
dominated the industry, most of the loans originated were either second liens or refinancings. In the modern era of subprime, lenders still
relied heavily on refinancings, though the purchase of new houses was
a growing part of their business. Ameriquest, by pioneering the use of
stated-income and limited-documentation loans, created a whole new
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class of borrowers who could buy homes without having to prove they
actually earned what they stated on their loan applications.)
Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort would later tell the Wall Street
Journal that “Ameriquest was very, very engaged,” adding that Adam
Bass, Arnall’s nephew, who was now on board at the company fulltime, lobbied him directly. Senator Fort said he accused Bass of victimizing minorities, which, according to the newspaper, angered the
attorney. Ameriquest’s spokesman would only say of the meeting that it
was “a very candid conversation about complex policy issues.” After the
Georgia law passed, Ameriquest began donating money to state legislators. One donation, for $2,500, went to Lieutenant Governor Mark
Taylor after he emerged as a pivotal figure in the debate over whether
parts of the bill should be overturned.
Many subprime lenders were threatening to pull out of Georgia,
Ameriquest among them. Rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and
Moody’s Investors Service said they would have trouble putting a rating
on subprime mortgage-backed securities (MBSs), because any loan that
violated the new law might spur litigation, thus tainting these bonds.
(The last thing in the world an investor wanted was to buy a bond that
might be the subject of litigation.) Within a few months, a new law was
passed that neutered the tangible net benefit clause. Ameriquest and its
competitors won. Money, in this instance, talked. Over the next few
years the same scenario would play out in other states—Illinois, New
Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, to name a few—with antipredatory
lending laws being either passed or discussed, and lobbyists from subprime companies or trade groups trying to kill or beat back regulations
that hurt Ameriquest and their competitors, including Countrywide.
One lobbyist fighting the good fight for subprime lenders was
Wright Andrews, an attorney who ran a Washington-based lobbying shop called Butera & Andrews. (Andrews, a portly man with
ruddy cheeks, was directly involved in beating back the Georgia bill.)
According to the Wall Street Journal, the attorney also managed three
different subprime-related trade groups: the National Home Equity
Mortgage Association (Ameriquest was a member), the Coalition for
Fair and Affordable Lending, and the Responsible Mortgage Lending
Coalition. A cynic might argue that the names of the last two groups
were a bit ironic given all the allegations of abusive lending practices
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that subprime firms like Ameriquest were being slapped with—
outrageous points and fees and questionable appraisal practices among
them. Besides his partner James Butera, Andrews had another ally in
representing the industry, his wife Lisa. In 2003 Ameriquest hired Lisa
Andrews as its senior vice president for government affairs, a fancy way
of saying she was the subprime lender’s top lobbyist.
At this point Arnall had plenty to protect. Ameriquest was the largest retail subprime lender in the land, funding about $30 billion a year
in new loans through its 230 retail branches and thousands of loan officers. Argent, the wholesale division that relied exclusively on loan brokers, was originating just as much. Arnall’s entire ACC empire (most of
which was Ameriquest/Argent) was earning $1 billion a year pretax.
Wayne Lee, who had risen in the ranks at Long Beach Mortgage,
had molded Argent into an origination giant by hiring aggressive
account executives who gathered loans from a nationwide network of
loan brokers, many of whom were already familiar with the company
because they did business with Arnall’s LBM. Ameriquest was spending
millions of dollars in ads each year on television, radio, and the Internet.
One series of TV commercials was called, “Don’t judge too quickly. We
won’t.” In one ad a teenage girl and her friends are on the way to a
concert, the middle-aged father driving. The daughter asks the father
to pull over at a convenience store so she and her friends can get some
gum. As the girls run into the store, the father yells out that she’ll need
some money. The daughter, wearing a feathery pink waistcoat and a
short skirt—and looking like a young hooker—leans into the car as the
father, who’s waiting at the curb, hands her a $20 bill. Just as he’s doing
this a police car pulls up behind him. The dad, with an embarrassed
look on his face, and thinking what the cops are probably thinking,
mutters to the camera, “I’m her daddy.”
The ads—all of which portrayed situations that looked bad (but had
innocent explanations)—aired in selected markets but without 800 numbers or web site addresses. The idea was to brand the Amer iquest name
on anything that would give the company maximum exposure and make
its telephones ring. (As Cole had noted, it was all about selling.) Over
the years Ameriquest bought the naming rights to the Texas Rangers
baseball stadium, and advertised on the walls of major and minor league
stadiums. It sponsored a tour by the Rolling Stones, and even topped
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that by hiring (Sir) Paul McCartney to play the halftime show at the
Super Bowl—the Ameriquest name emblazoned over the TV screen as
the former Beatle finished “Live and Let Die.”
Argent, even though it didn’t deal directly with the public but
through loan brokers, sponsored NASCAR race car drivers Dario
Franchitti and Danica Patrick, the Argent name printed proudly on
their cars and uniforms. It sponsored athletes far and wide—Jim Furyk,
Chris de Marco (golf ), Michael Phelps and Amanda Beard (the U.S.
Olympic team), among others. Terry Rouch, who worked for several of
Arnall’s mortgage companies over the years, noted that the Ameriquest/
Argent name was “truly everywhere,” saying the company’s plan was to
create instant name recognition “not to just brokers and borrowers but
literally to the world and with all 50 state attorney generals.”
The mention of the AGs by Rouch was a joke, but that’s exactly
what happened. Ameriquest/Argent was nothing short of a mortgage
juggernaut. Not only was it the largest subprime lender in the nation,
but it now ranked 10th among all residential lenders. The industry knew it, Mozilo knew it, investment bankers knew it. Managing
directors from Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Friedman Billings
Ramsey had all knocked on Arnall’s door trying to convince him to
take the company public through an IPO. Year after year he resisted,
but then in late 2004 he began to think otherwise. Around this time
both the press and several AGs’ offices (California, Connecticut, Iowa,
and New York) began paying attention to a growing pile of allegations against the company—that some of Ameriquest’s retail loan officers were a little bit too high-pressure on the sales tactics, convincing
homeowners to take out loans they couldn’t afford. It was also around
this time that Arnall’s retail production chief, the man in charge of all
the LOs on the street, Kirk Langs, announced his retirement. Langs was
40 years old. The company, true to form, said little about the retirement. Rumors began to circulate in the industry that Langs might have
walked away with a retirement package worth $17 million. He, like his
boss, wasn’t one to give interviews.
A few years earlier, Elmore allegedly had warned Bass and Lee that
the company had major quality control issues—and that management
either didn’t know what was going on or didn’t take it all that seriously.
The branch manager who worked in the Southwestern region for the
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company swore that his employees were clean but admitted that elsewhere in the company “there was blatant fraud going on,” particularly
in its Florida office. Mozilo, who was always looking to buy branches
of competitors, said he hired a bunch of Ameriquest retail LOs who
worked in the lender’s New York area offices. “What I saw after a few
weeks led me to turn it over to Spitzer,” he said. (Mozilo declined to
elaborate. Spitzer was Eliot Spitzer, the New York AG at the time.)
The Los Angeles Times published a story quoting Lisa Taylor, a former
LO who worked in Ameriquest’s Sacramento branch, saying the atmosphere was similar to that portrayed in the movie Boiler Room, where
actors Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi played young hotshot stockbrokers working for a corrupt investment banking firm selling worthless
stocks to customers who were rubes. “That was homework,” said Taylor,
“to watch Boiler Room.” She said Ameriquest had a do-anything-to-getthe-deal-done mentality. One time she walked in on co-workers who
were using a brightly lit Coca-Cola machine as a tracing board where
loan agents were copying borrowers’ signatures onto blank documents.
In other offices, LOs were chugging down silvery cans of Red Bull,
working the phones deep into the night using lead-generation sheets
that the company had bought from outside vendors. (Lead-generation
sheets carry the names of potential customers.)
After a while the consumer complaints against Ameriquest started
to pile up. Chief among them was that Ameriquest executives had built
a sales machine where the selling of loans was paramount, and the ability of a customer to repay not so important. Between 2000 and 2004,
customers had filed about 460 complaints with the Federal Trade
Commission concerning how it did business. Countrywide’s retail subprime division, Full Spectrum Lending, was a somewhat distant second with 100. California newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the
Orange County Register began investigating the complaints, which ranged
from charging excessive and hidden fees and closing costs to pressuring
appraisers into inflating home values they were reviewing. Loan officers
sometimes would then convince borrowers to take out larger mortgages
than what they needed. Larger loan amounts meant higher points and
fees for the Ameriquest LOs.
While all this was going on, National Mortgage News reported
that Ameriquest had scrapped its plan to go public but was now
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considering an option that would allow Arnall to take cash out of the
company by selling $1 billion worth of bonds to institutional investors.
Friedman Billings Ramsey, a small boutique firm based in Arlington,
Virginia, right across the Potomac River from Washington, had
pitched the idea, its founder, Eric Billings, initially leading the negotiations. Ameriquest, through a spokesman, declined to comment. It also
declined to talk about another rumor making its way through business
and political circles in the summer of 2005: that Arnall, a big supporter
of the president, was seeking an ambassadorship, preferably to Israel,
Sweden, or the Netherlands. (Friends of Arnall’s told National Mortgage
News that Israel was his first choice.)
By this time, the IPO was definitely off. Wall Street firms had made
well over $100 million in fees from Ameriquest, Argent, and affiliated
lenders over the years by lending them money and securitizing their
subprime loans,8 but the biggest payday of them all—underwriting fees
from an IPO—likely would never materialize. Word of several state AG
investigations concerning its lending practices had killed that hope.
In late July the Bush White House made it official: Arnall was
being considered for the ambassadorship to the Netherlands. This time,
Ameriquest’s spokesman, Chris Orlando, finally decided to say something: “Mr. Arnall would be willing and honored to serve his country in any way he might be asked.” Even though Arnall and his wife
had made large donations to the Democratic National Committee over
the years, all eight Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee,
which had the first vote on ambassadorships, said they would vote no
because of the abusive lending allegations hanging over the company.
Republicans were inclined to vote yes. Republican Senator Norm
Coleman from Minnesota said of Arnall, “His personal actions had
never been called into question.”
In January 2006, and after several more months of rumors about
what the AG offices were up to, Ameriquest made it official, agreeing
to pay 49 states $325 million to settle charges that it engaged in abusive
lending practices. (Virginia was excluded from the settlement because
8
Even though Arnall’s previous subprime company, Long Beach Mortgage, avoided
securitizing subprime loans in the 1990s, Ameriquest was an active securitizer in the new
decade.
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Ameriquest didn’t lend there.) It was the second largest home lending
settlement in U.S. history.9 Roughly 750,000 loans that Ameriquest
had made through its Boiler Room–trained LOs were affected by the
settlement. On average, each Ameriquest customer would get $600.
One of the most damaging charges against the company was that its
LOs had engaged in a practice called upselling where the loan officer
was compensated extra money to originate mortgages at a higher note
rate or more points. In settling, the company admitted no wrongdoing
and boasted to the press that the settlement with the states in no way
restricted its ability to lend.
The deal also cleared the way for Arnall’s ambassadorship to go
through, though the vote was narrow. Shortly thereafter his wife Dawn
was named chairman of ACC, the holding company that oversaw
Ameriquest and Argent. Argent, the wholesale arm that used brokers,
wasn’t part of the settlement, though Iowa AG Tom Miller told reporters that the states would begin investigating wholesalers and brokers.
Adam Bass, who was now senior vice president of Ameriquest and
vice chairman of the holding company, told National Mortgage News
that the practice of upselling had ended three years earlier when the
company had installed new software to prevent it. He said some of
the company’s “bad apples” had been fired, but wouldn’t elaborate.
In May 2006 Ameriquest closed all 229 of its retail branches and
fired 3,800 workers, including a few thousand LOs. (Argent continued
to fund loans and was unaffected by the job cuts.) A few months later,
in May, Bass and company spokesman Chris Orlando visited National
Mortgages News’ Washington office to pitch a story idea to executive editor Paul Muolo and bureau chief Brian Collins about a new
retail strategy Ameriquest was embarking on. The retail offices had all
been shuttered, but Bass said that by using technology and advertisements on television and the Internet, the lender would be born anew
with four large call center operations that would handle applications
over the telephone. While he was talking about the plan in a conference room, Bass’s cell phone rang. It was his wife. “Honey, I’m here
9 In
late 2002, Household Finance—which now owned the old Beneficial franchise—agreed
to pay $484 million to several states to settle charges that it talked consumers into taking out
larger loans than they needed while saddling them with higher rates and hidden costs.
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with National Mortgage News explaining to them our great new retail
system.” To Muolo it sounded like a staged phone call. Four months
later the call centers were struggling, funding hardly any loans at all.
Employees began sending e-mails to reporters that they were sitting
around in offices the size of football fields doing nothing. The phones
weren’t ringing, even though Ameriquest was still running commercials
on television and the Internet. By early 2007 the call center experiment would be deemed a failure and ended. Ameriquest retail was no
more. Argent continued on for a few more months, trying to switch
from originating subprime loans (which Wall Street was no longer paying top dollar for and in some cases was shunning entirely) to a new
product called a 40-year loan where the loan payments were lower
than on an old-fashioned 30-year fixed-rate loan, the kind that George
Bailey used to make. Rumors began to circulate in the industry that by
midyear ACC’s mortgage operations had lost half a billion dollars, but
because it was privately held the company didn’t have to disclose anything to the public.
In January 2007 Wayne Lee sued Arnall’s holding company, ACC,
accusing the firm of reneging on a $50 million consulting agreement.
When Langs had quietly retired in mid-2004, Arnall had promoted Lee
to CEO of ACC, giving him responsibility to oversee both Ameriquest
and Argent. He’d already been managing Argent, the wholesale arm,
but the Ameriquest assignment was new. Shortly after taking control of
management responsibilities for Ameriquest, Lee didn’t find the situation to his liking. In his lawsuit, he said he tried to bring to Ameriquest
“the legal protocol and financial discipline that had characterized
Argent’s superior performance in past years.” In other words, Lee felt
that Argent (which used outside brokers) was a clean shop that wasn’t
gouging consumers on points, fees, and appraisals. (Investigators and
people who did business with Argent would later question this assessment.) But Lee did have one thing in his favor: Argent had not been
mentioned in the Ameriquest AG settlement or been a party to it all—
which left many professionals wondering.
Lee blamed Arnall for blocking his efforts to clean up Ameriquest.
Even though Arnall had appointed him to head the retail arm, a few
months later he told Lee that he shouldn’t “involve himself in the affairs
of Ameriquest.” In June 2005 Lee resigned, 11 months after being
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promoted. Arnall was not a defendant in the lawsuit, though he was
mentioned prominently. Upon Lee’s resignation, Arnall offered him a
$50 million consulting contract. ACC paid him a lump sum of $20 million, promising to pay five more installments of $6 million each. Lee
said when the first installment was due, the check never arrived. He got
tired of getting the runaround and sued. As usual, Arnall had no comment, but ACC’s attorney, Bernard LeSage, did. He called Lee’s claims
“a ridiculous work of fiction.”10
* * *
In the spring of 2007, after months of sale rumors, ACC made it official: It was selling Argent and what was left of Ameriquest’s loan servicing operation to banking giant Citigroup for an undisclosed sum.11
As a processor of loan payments, Ameriquest received a fee for doing
the monthly paperwork on $60 billion in subprime mortgages, most of
which had been originated by Ameriquest and Argent. On April 17, at
Citigroup’s annual shareholders meeting, chairman and CEO Charles
Prince stood alone on the stage of Carnegie Hall—just as his predecessor Sandy Weill used to do—and took questions from shareholders
and members of the community. Matthew Lee of Inner City Press, a
consumer advocate who had made it his mission in life to expose both
predatory lenders and companies overcharging minorities on loans,
questioned Prince about Ameriquest’s track record of abusive lending and whether Argent might have similar problems. Prince, who was
caught off guard by the question, said, “We’re not going to buy anything unless it’s cleaned up.”
The sale of Argent and the Ameriquest servicing operation closed
in the fall of 2007—with no details revealed, especially price. Nine
months earlier Citigroup, under Prince, had gone dark to the trade
press, refusing to tell Inside Mortgage Finance and National Mortgage News,
10 As this book went to press the lawsuit had been settled with neither side disclosing the
terms.
11 Once
again, Citigroup was rolling the dice on subprime even though two years after
buying Associates First Capital Corporation it paid $215 million to the Federal Trade
Commission to settle abusive lending allegations against the company.
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the two trade publications that each quarter collected subprime origination and servicing figures, what Citi was producing in the way of
A– to D loans. For 10 years Citi had gladly given over the figures. Here
Citi was buying Arnall’s last remaining subprime company—and acting
a bit like the ambassador himself, disclosing little. Argent was no more.
Citi dismantled the name. Arnall was now officially out of the mortgage business, hosting cocktail parties at the embassy in The Hague, far,
far away from the cities and beaches of Orange County.
* * *
When it comes to producing prodigies, Southern California is known for
two things: baseball prospects and subprime mortgage companies. At the
beginning of 2006—when the business of making loans to Americans
with bad credit still looked like a safe bet to many Wall Street firms that
were lending money to firms like Ameriquest—eight of the nation’s
top 15 subprime firms were headquartered in Southern California, the
land of the Beach Boys. Seven of the 15 were nonbanks that survived on
warehouse lines of credit from the likes of Bear Stearns, Credit Suisse,
Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch. The rest were owned by banks.
Part of the reason was the weather. “Heck, it’s warm here,” said Dan
Perl, the subprime executive who started out his career as a loan broker, briefly managed an S&L, and then launched his own firm, only
to pull the plug and then become a bottom fisher who bought delinquent mortgages on the cheap. “You can go surfing in the morning and
then drive 50 miles east and be in the mountains.” Perl, who had been
nicknamed The Big Kahuna by some of his employees, was born in
Brooklyn into a conservative Jewish family. Like Arnall, he moved west
in search of a better life. “There was no cabal here. We were all disenfranchised. In the 1970s and 1980s if you wanted money you had to go
to Wall Street with your hat in hand. The Street had the power, but a
bunch of guys who got into the business started by grabbing an S&L.”
Arnall was one of those executives, as were Russ and Becky
Jedinak. They entered the business using the cheapest way they knew
how: getting their hands on a savings and loan and then benefiting
from deregulation. When regulators made it too difficult for them, they
did the only sensible thing an entrepreneur could do—they got out
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from under the watchful eye of the examiners and started a nonbank.
Luckily for them, Wall Street had warmed up to the business, realizing
it could make big money by securitizing their mortgages—even if they
were made to homeowners and home buyers who had bad credit.
Even though Arnall was out of the business by 2007, he (as well
as the Jedinaks) had left behind a family tree of executives and loan
officers who had worked at one of his companies and then decided
to either start their own subprime shop or work for an existing one,
taking along with them the tricks of the trade—not all of them good.
In a way, Arnall had served as the Johnny Appleseed of the industry.
Jack Mayesh, Arnall’s right-hand man at Long Beach Mortgage, stayed
out of the business for three years after the company was sold to WaMu
and then reemerged with a brand-new lender called Residential
Mortgage Assistance Enterprise or ResMAE for short. (Note how it
sounds like Fannie Mae.) It was based in Brea, nestled in the foothills
of north Orange County, 20 miles from the Pacific. Its specialty—to no
one’s surprise—was subprime lending. Mayesh’s backers on Wall Street?
Lehman Brothers and Greenwich Capital, which promised to lend him
money and either buy or securitize his loans. Joining Mayesh in his
new venture were two other former executives who had worked for
Arnall: Edward Resendez and William Komperda. In its first year of
operation ResMAE funded $1 billion in loans, a phenomenal sum for a
company that a year earlier didn’t even exist.
Another former Arnall acolyte at Long Beach Mortgage was
Steven Holder, who went on to help start New Century Financial Corporation, a nonbank that eventually supplanted Ameriquest/Argent as
the largest subprime funder in the United States. Holder eventually left
New Century and formed yet another company, Encore Credit, which
Bear Stearns backed. Also out of Long Beach Mortgage came Frank
Curry, who formed Acoustic Home Loans. LBM alumni Pat Rank and
Bob Dubrish launched Option One Mortgage, which eventually was
sold to Fleet Bank of Boston, and then to H&R Block, the tax preparation giant. (In time Option One became a top five ranked subprime
originator.) Arnall employee Tim Walsh launched the retail arm of First
NLC Financial Services of Deerfield Beach, Florida. Eventually, more
than 100 Ameriquest employees, including several top sales managers
and LOs, would join him.
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The action was in Irvine and Orange or nearby edge cities, not
too far from the Pacific Ocean. New Century favored the commercial
hub between Orange County’s modest airport and the sprawling campus of the University of California at Irvine. This large commercial district, one of two in Irvine, has none of the density or hyperactivity
of New York or Chicago. The district was meticulously planned, with
each glass office building placed as carefully as a piece on a chess
board. Intermingled with the offices are French and Italian eateries,
upscale Mexican grills, luxury apartments and condos, and executive
gyms. On any given day a subprime office worker might go out to
lunch and run into three or four of his or her competitors. Though
mortgage companies occupied dozens of floors in various office towers, they crammed in as many warm bodies as possible. Everyone was
making good money—off of people who weren’t making good money
or had bad credit. As subprime lending boomed, the parking lots of
those office buildings increasingly were littered with the latest Porsches,
Ferraris, Mercedeses, and BMWs. And it was all located five minutes
from the beaches of the Pacific Ocean, and 30 miles from Angelo
Mozilo, who was battling all of them to be the king of subprime.
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Chapter 5
Angelo Rising
The Son of a Bronx Butcher Makes Good
There is a certain amount of hubris there. In terms of arrogance,
Countrywide is at the top.
—Former Sandler O’Neill analyst Mike McMahon,
who covered the company for nine years
P
hysically speaking, Angelo Mozilo is not an imposing man. He
is no taller than 5 feet 10 inches at most.There’s a tightness to his
skin that suggests that somewhere along the line there was
cosmetic surgery—nothing radical, just a nip or tuck here or there. He
has crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes, but what 69-year-old doesn’t?
And there’s that ever-present tan, the butt of jokes even by friends
who’ve known him for years. Few see him sitting on a beach in Malibu,
earning his George Hamilton copper skin tone the natural way.
He has a confident smile, and a voice that carries the intonation
of knowledge, one that suggests he knows more about one thing—the
residential mortgage business—than you will ever know, even if you
had 100 years and he had just one. Those close to him know that he
loves the business, often referring to Countrywide as his “baby” or his
103
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“daughter,” the latter a word he used when talking to politicians while
his company’s fortunes crumbled.
He is not the kind of man to chuckle at a joke to make you feel
good. He doesn’t need that, not in the twilight of his career, which
was fast coming to an end in early 2008. If you had seen him the year
before in Washington at the spring forecast conference of the National
Association of Home Builders—politically speaking, one of the most
powerful trade organizations in America—you would see a man dressed
in a suit and tie, sitting at lunch with home building executives, picking
their brains about a deteriorating market, one in which home prices
were falling and the inventory of homes for sale was quickly rising.
His suit jacket might be off, his sleeves rolled up. He wanted to hear
it from the builders themselves straight up—about declining sales, rising lumber prices, data points that would harm his business. He has
always been that way: not afraid to hear the worst of it. He believes if
there’s a train about to jump the tracks he wants to know so he can get
Countrywide safely out of the way. He has always been prepared for a
fight, prepared to survive.
Angelo is thin and trim. At 69 (in early 2008) he looks much the
same way he did 20 years earlier and even 20 years before that. As a boy
he had what’s called an asthmatic condition, and sometimes had to stay
in bed for a week until it passed. “There were no effective medications
for asthma in those days,” he recalls.
His hair is a silvery gray, closely cropped, combed from left to
right. It has been that way for decades. Even though he is not tall or
powerfully built, after a few minutes of talking to him you realize
that he’s tough and afraid of nothing. He has a quick answer to most
questions—at least from stock analysts and reporters. That toughness
started back in the Bronx, the poorest of New York City’s five boroughs, a place where poor Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants settled
during the turn of the previous century.
He tells a story of his youth: He was a young boy, two years old. He
had ear infections that wouldn’t clear, a mastoid infection that wouldn’t
subside. “There was no penicillin in those days,” he says. The first operation didn’t work. There were more. They didn’t work, either. His father,
first-generation Italian, owned two butcher shops in the Bronx. When
those early operations failed, the senior Mozilo sold one of the shops
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to pay for another operation. This one was done on the kitchen table
at the Mozilo household. This time the surgeon cut deep. “They had to
cut away part of it,” Angelo says and stops. “There was no penicillin,” he
repeats. “That’s why I have holes behind my ears. That operation worked.”
He didn’t learn the story of how his father had sold one of his
butcher shops to pay for the surgery until much later, when he was
14 or 15 years old. By that time he’d been working in the remaining
butcher shop, sweeping the floors and learning the trade, which included
cutting up chickens and making sausage. He wasn’t afraid to get blood
on his hands. Butchers who were afraid of blood were worthless. “I was
a pretty good butcher,” he says.
About his father, an Italian immigrant, he will say this: “He was a
terrific man. He’d drive around the neighborhoods in the Bronx, giving out packages of meats to the seniors who could no longer make it
into the shop.” He remembers it clearly.
About his mother, he would note her love of higher learning and
her insistence that her children should graduate from college. “She was
obsessed with education,” he says, an obsession he remembers when he
talks of his friend Lew Ranieri, the former Salomon Brothers bond trader
who started in the mail room and rose to the trading desk, then became
vice chairman of the firm. “I was awed by him. Here was a guy who had
raw intelligence. He never finished college and he was a genius.”1
By his own account, Angelo enjoyed helping out in the butcher
shop but had other ideas about a career. On his 14th birthday his
father woke him early and drove him down to the health department so he could get his working papers. He became a messenger for
Lawyers Mortgage and Title, a Manhattan mortgage company on West
43rd Street, continuing to work for his father on weekends. He attended
public school until the eighth grade, then switched to a Catholic school,
which meant there was tuition to pay—and he’d be paying it, not his
father. When it came time to attend college, he had to ask his father
for permission, which was reluctantly granted. “He wanted me to work
with him in the butcher shop,” Angelo said. His father died in the shop,
1 After
being promoted to the Salomon Brothers trading desk, Ranieri had not yet earned
his college degree. A few years later he finally took night classes, earning the final credits he
needed.
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chain of blame
never having enjoyed retirement. “An inspector came in and he had a
heart attack right there,” says Angelo. “He leaned against the counter and
fell.” Angelo attributes it to fear.
Any young man who grew up in the New York metropolitan area
before 1960 (and perhaps even after that to some degree) defined himself by his ethnic heritage. Mozilo was no different. He was Italian, and
when he traveled outside his neighborhood he was sensitive about
how he was regarded. (Despite all the jokes about his tan, Mozilo has
a dark complexion.) He worked at Lawyers Mortgage in midtown
from the time he was 14 to age 21, learning the business of funding
residential loans from the ground floor up. “I worked in every single
department—title, closing, and insurance. I ran the cash cage.” He was
the only Italian working at the company. “Everyone else was Jewish,”
he remembers, “but I felt no discrimination.”
In 1960 he attended night school at New York University while
still working at the mortgage company. He ached to be a trader on Wall
Street but was concerned how he’d be treated. “Italians on Wall Street
were relegated to one thing,” he said of the time, “Jews to another, the
Irish. The WASPs did the relegating. I felt it was an uphill battle.”
It was that year his boss, Edwin Katz, decided to merge Lawyers
Mortgage with a Norfolk, Virginia–based lender called United Mortgagee.
The owner of the company arrived in Manhattan to talk details with
Katz. “He sees this one goy kid running around the office,” says Mozilo.
“That was me. He looks at me and says, ‘I want that kid to merge the
two companies.’ So I have to go down to Norfolk.” The man who struck
the merger was named David Loeb, who just so happened to be a Bronx
native as well. “I didn’t want to go. The Bronx was gang-infested at the
time, but to go down South? I’d never left New York. I thought, why
me?” Katz offered Mozilo a deal that was hard to refuse—he offered to
pay his night school tuition.
Within a few days Mozilo, who was engaged to his girlfriend
Phyllis, found an attic apartment and began the task of combining the
two firms’ files and accounting records. He returned to New York,
where Loeb was now based, and declared to his new boss, “The job’s
done. They’re merged.” He wanted to stay in Manhattan. Instead, since
he’d done such a good job of combining the two companies’ operations, Katz told him to stay down in Norfolk and originate “spot loans,”
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which was the jargon used to describe mortgages on existing houses.
Loeb’s business was centered around making mortgages to buy houses in
newly built subdivisions. Angelo reluctantly complied.
He wasn’t sure where to start, so he began knocking on the doors
of realty firms. “I started calling on Realtors,” he said. To his amazement he found that “no one had ever done this before” in Virginia. He
worked until two and three in the morning, and presented his bosses
with what he called “a box full of loans.” They were pleased. This time
they sent him even deeper South, down to Orlando, Florida, where
there was a mini housing boom under way. With his new wife in tow—
“crying all the way,” he recalled, because she, too, wasn’t fond of that
part of the country—he began calling on both builders and Realtors,
but this time he came up snake eyes. “This was the deep South,” he
recalled. “I was making no progress.” He started to wonder if his last
name and the way he looked (a sharp-dressing Italian from New York)
had something to do with it.
He had a small office in Orlando. Across the way was an accountant
who saw him working late each night. “He was Jewish and asked
me how business was. I told him not good. He replied, ‘It’s because
you’re Italian.’” The next week the accountant introduced him to some
builders he knew who were Jewish and happened to have developments under way in nearby Brevard County, home to Cape Canaveral.
The year before, President Kennedy had announced the mission to the
moon. Space science engineers were pouring into the area along with
their families and needed housing. “They were literally living in tents
on the beach,” he said.
Mozilo got an idea: Why not finance a new subdivision to take
advantage of the land rush and make the mortgages on the homes? On
the day the subdivision was set to open models for viewing, heavy rains
pounded the coast. Furniture was floating in the models. Mozilo feared
that the idea would bankrupt the company or at the very least get him
canned. (His wife was now pregnant with the couple’s first child.) But
the demand for homes was so great he caught a break. The homebuying engineers, according to the future Countrywide chief, rolled up
their pants and signed on the dotted line anyway. “They needed a place
to live,” he said. “I couldn’t take their loan applications fast enough.” It
cemented his reputation within the company.
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chain of blame
In time, Mozilo worked his way up to executive vice president, but
never owned a stake in the firm. United Mortgagee belonged to David
Loeb and Edwin Katz. In 1968 the two men sold out to a conglomerate. “They didn’t know anything about the mortgage business,” Mozilo
said of his new owners. “Among other things, they were in the bra
business.” When Loeb quit in disgust with management (over the issue
of them wanting to raid the lender’s escrow funds,2 as well as other
differences), Mozilo hung on for a few months and then resigned as
well. He was 30 years old and had three kids. Almost immediately he
and Loeb teamed up to form Countrywide. Mozilo once again became
an advance man, but at least it was in California, whose warm, sunny
climate he quickly fell in love with.
One of the first branches Mozilo opened up for the young company was in Orange County, the future home of Arnall’s Ameriquest
and countless other subprime lenders. He legged it around Southern
California highways, interstates, and boulevards looking for shopping
centers with For Lease signs. He met with landlords and negotiated
the lease contracts. In the company’s formative years, he and Loeb paid
Countrywide’s loan officers on commission. Soon enough he discovered that “if the salesmen left us we’d lose business, because they took it
with them.”
In 1974 Mozilo was earning $2,000 a month. His only promise
of wealth, according to him, lay in whether Countrywide could prosper. The young company had a handful of offices but was looking to
expand into Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. Loeb was still back
in New York, serving as the firm’s trader, disposing of its loans in the
secondary market. (The primary market is the phrase used to describe
the origination of a loan to the consumer. When a mortgage is closed
and then changes hands, it is considered a secondary market transaction.)3
2
Escrow funds include money set aside in advance by the borrower to pay real estate taxes
and insurance. The money is held by the lender or servicer of the loan.
3 Not all mortgage originators sell their loans into the secondary market. Some—
depositories mostly (banks, S&Ls, credit unions)—might keep the loans on the institution’s
balance sheet, offsetting these assets with liabilities (deposit accounts). Secondary market
investors might include, but are not limited to, other banks, S&Ls, Wall Street firms, Fannie
Mae, and Freddie Mac.
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Mozilo had a formula for opening the offices. Each would employ
three to four workers—mostly women. Mozilo will tell you that he
is a happily married man. “It wasn’t what you might think,” he said.
There was a method to his madness. Early on, the lender was producing only one type of loan—a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing
Administration or Veterans Administration (FHA/VA), the federal government. “I wanted them to type well, and women could do that,” he
explained. “There were a lot of forms and a lot of typing. To process
loans, they had to type. That’s what I was going after. Guys? All they
wanted to do was sell, but they couldn’t type. Back then the FHA/VA
did all the underwriting for you.”
Finding women to “man” the offices could prove difficult. Mozilo
was driving around the state opening up new branches in towns and
cities where subdivisions were quickly sprouting up. He would conduct
employee interviews in motel rooms. “I set the interviews up in motel
rooms because I was coming into town and needed a place to stay,” he
said. “Sometimes, the rooms would have suites, but not always. I had to
laugh. A lot of time there’d be men standing in the doorways, pacing.
I remember one guy—I thought he was going to lose it, hit the wall
with his fist or something.” Employees in the early offices did exactly
what Mozilo first did when he arrived in Virginia—call on Realtors
because that’s where the home-buying process began.
The offices that Mozilo set up did everything from taking applications to underwriting and funding the loan. “It was a hub-and-spoke
approach,” said Mike McMahon, the Sandler O’Neill analyst who
made it a point to personally know Mozilo and study his methods.
Countrywide had a four-person office approach. “Once that office
couldn’t handle the volume anymore, he’d find a new location two
miles down the road and open another one to see if they could make a
go of it,” he said.
Because FHA/VA loans accounted for just 15 percent of all
mortgages originated in the United States, Countrywide could grow
only so much. Prior to the savings and loan (S&L) crisis, thrifts still
dominated the business. But all that changed in 1970 when President
Nixon signed a bill that allowed Fannie Mae, the congressionally chartered secondary market agency, to begin buying conventional loans—
that is, mortgages made to consumers with good credit who didn’t
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chain of blame
necessarily need FHA or VA coverage. Suddenly things were looking
up for the company, as well as for every nondepository mortgage banking firm that was tired of being kept down on the farm, making only
government-insured loans.
*
*
*
James A. Johnson had a blue-chip resume when it came to politics.
Born and raised in Minnesota, he was the son of a state house speaker
whose circle of friends included a onetime presidential candidate and
icon of the Democratic party, Hubert Humphrey. Before he was even
old enough to vote, he volunteered for his first political campaign. He
became a top aide to Senator Walter Mondale, Democrat of Minnesota,
and served under him for many years, eventually chairing the politician’s 1984 bid for the White House. After Mondale’s loss to Ronald
Reagan, Johnson married Maxine Waters, the campaign’s press secretary.
They became well known in Democratic circles. Columnist Matthew
Cooper of Slate once likened them to James Carville and Mary
Matalin, calling them a “hot political” couple. Cooper’s comparison,
however, was a bit off. Whereas Carville and Matalin might be viewed
as attention-seeking TV pundits, Johnson and his wife didn’t exactly
live to be in the media limelight. They had serious political connections inside the Beltway and could peddle influence plenty, but Johnson
was someone who expressed his views in private and went public only
when it made political sense. Of Norwegian decent, Johnson was tall,
trim, and fit with an intelligent face. He was also a heck of a lot better
looking than the cue-ball-headed Carville.
In 1980, after Jimmy Carter lost to Reagan, the Minnesota native
founded Public Strategies, a Washington consulting firm that gave advice
to business clients, including investment banking firms. His partner was
Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat. Eventually, the practice was bought by
Shearson Lehman Brothers and Johnson became employed by the investment banker, working alongside David Stockman, a former budget director in the Reagan administration. One of their clients was Fannie Mae.
Johnson was not a businessman himself—he never ran anything
but a consulting firm and political campaigns. But those who worked
for him describe him as someone who thought like a businessman.
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“He’s gifted,” said one former Fannie executive. “He has a strategic
mind. He understands how business works.” In the late 1980s Johnson
became a consultant and then a top executive at Fannie Mae, mostly
because of his political connections. The man who recruited him was
Fannie Mae chairman and CEO David O. Maxwell, a former mortgage insurance company president and a past general counsel at the
Department of Housing and Urban Development, the cabinet-level
agency that administered the FHA program and also served as regulator
of sorts to Fannie Mae and its sibling company Freddie Mac. (The two
men had been introduced by a mutual friend and hit it off.) Maxwell
had one other distinction—he had once written a letter of recommendation for an up-and-coming mortgage banker named Angelo Mozilo
and his partner David Loeb. Ticor Mortgage Insurance, where Maxwell
had served as president, had its headquarters just down the road from
Countrywide on Wilshire Boulevard.When Maxwell, nearing retirement
age, was searching for a successor to head Fannie Mae, he looked no
further than down the hallway toward Johnson’s office. There were
no other candidates for the position. Maxwell worked the company’s
board of directors, convincing them that the silver-haired Minnesotan
with the oversize horn-rimmed glasses was their man. Case closed.
When Johnson officially took over as chairman and CEO in
February 1991, he hit the road, spending much of his first two years
traveling the nation, meeting the company’s clients, who weren’t consumers (though Fannie Mae wound up owning their loans) but
mortgage banking firms and their top executives. “Jim,” said a friend,
“wanted to go out and learn the industry.” Inevitably, his travels took
him to California for the same reason any mortgage executive with
an ounce of business sense catered to the state: It had a huge market
share and a growing population that needed some place to live—which
meant mortgages. Mozilo’s Countrywide was already doing business
with Fannie Mae, selling its conventional loans to the governmentsponsored enterprise (GSE). “The Countrywide account,” as it became
known inside the GSE, was baby-sat by John Fulmer, who ran Fannie
Mae’s West Coast office on Wilshire Boulevard, conveniently located
right across the street from Countrywide’s headquarters and not too far
from the old Ticor office where Maxwell had once worked. Fulmer and
Mozilo were somewhat tight. Johnson wanted to be tight with him, too.
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One thing that Jim Johnson was known for—besides his political
talents—was his personal radar. A Fannie Mae executive who worked
under him for many years described him this way: “He knows how to
pick the right person who’s on the ascendancy. It’s a rare talent.” Or
maybe not that rare. The new CEO and the bean counters who tracked
the millions in loans the GSE bought each year spotted the fact that
Countrywide had been growing quite rapidly over the years and was
about to achieve the one milestone that any good mortgage executive
could dream of: becoming the largest residential lender in the United
States. And Countrywide wasn’t even an S&L.
With savings and loans continuing to fail at a record rate, Fannie
Mae executives knew the mortgages they’d be buying in future years
wouldn’t be coming so much from S&Ls but from nonbank mortgage
companies like Countrywide and a growing number of large commercial money center banks—like Norwest (later to merge with Wells
Fargo)—that after years of ceding the business to the S&L industry
finally realized that home lending, if done properly, wasn’t so bad
after all. And what a business it was becoming. In 1991, in the postReaganomics era, interest rates began to fall, which sparked both home
building and mortgage lending. It didn’t take long for Jim Johnson
to realize that Mozilo “was the guy,” said one of Johnson’s aides. “Jim
knew that he had to do everything he could to make Angelo think, ‘Im
his best friend.’ If Jim was traveling to the West Coast he’d say, ‘We need
to call Angelo and set up a golf game.’ He became a student of Angelo.
He knew his routine—that he’d be up at four in the morning, head to
the gym, and start watching FNN.”
Johnson wasn’t looking for friendship alone; he wanted Countrywide to sell all, or at least most, of its billions in loan originations
to Fannie Mae—and not to its crosstown competitor, Freddie Mac.
Fannie Mae’s executive team, Johnson included, knew that with the
S&L industry shrinking and loan securitizations through Wall Street
becoming a reality, they could benefit greatly by placing mortgages and
mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) on their balance sheet. They needed
volume, and Mozilo was the man who could deliver it. Johnson’s goal
was to cement the relationship between Countrywide and Fannie Mae
for years to come. “When Jim realized how much volume Countrywide
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was taking down, especially in California, he made it his mission to get
to know Angelo,” said the Johnson aide.
Being the fierce competitor he was, Mozilo could smell a snow job
a mile away. He knew exactly why Johnson was warming up to him.
He once told a reporter that Johnson was so slick “he could cut off
your balls and you’d still be wearing your pants.” He meant it as a compliment. (At the time he made the remark, Countrywide was having
some minor loan buyback disputes with Fannie Mae.) Over the years
he continually referred to Johnson as a “great guy” and a “good friend.”
Johnson, as he had planned, had become one of Mozilo’s closest confidants. But if his friend wanted Countrywide’s business, Fannie Mae
would have to pay for it in the form of lower fees. When Countrywide,
or any lender, sold a loan to Fannie Mae, the GSE subtracted from the
price paid what was called a “guarantee fee.” Typically, that fee would
be 23 basis points (0.23 percent) of the loan amount. Mozilo wanted
volume discounts from Johnson. He got them.4
Over the next 15 years Countrywide and Fannie Mae—Mozilo and
Johnson and then Mozilo and Franklin Raines, Johnson’s successor—
would be linked at the hip. Johnson invited Mozilo to attend and
speak at retreats for Fannie Mae’s top executives and sales team. The
Fannie Mae chief, in turn, frequently flew on the Countrywide corporate jet. They played golf together. Later on when Johnson retired
from Fannie Mae to chair the Kennedy Center, who would be sitting
in the box with him at plays and performances but Angelo Mozilo?
As Countrywide’s loan originations soared into the stratosphere, so did
Fannie Mae’s on-balance-sheet assets. As one firm’s earnings rose, so
did the other’s. Depending on the year, Countrywide might account for
10 percent to 30 percent of all the loans Fannie Mae bought. One joke
making the rounds in the industry was that Countrywide was really just
a subsidiary of Fannie Mae. When General Electric, Wells Fargo Bank,
Household Finance, and three other financial service giants formed
4 The guarantee fees that Fannie Mae charged to individual lenders it bought loans from
were a closely guarded secret; however, executives close to the company said at one point
Countrywide was being charged a guarantee fee of just 13 basis points, but only if it
delivered sizable volume. It was, if true, the lowest “g-fee” deal Fannie had ever granted.
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a lobbying group called FM Watch to fend off Fannie and Freddie’s
efforts to enter other mortgage-related businesses that they dominated,
Mozilo refused to join the group, defending the GSEs. “They [the FM
Watch group] don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “If Fannie and
Freddie catch a cold, I catch the fucking flu.” He was afraid that if anything happened to the GSEs it would screw up his business as well,
because he sold all of his conventional “A” credit quality loans to the two.
In 1992 Countrywide finally rose to the top of the heap. It funded
$30.5 billion in mortgages (thanks in part to its use of loan brokers),
becoming the nation’s largest originator. Mozilo was now king of the
industry and was crowned (elected) president of the Mortgage Bankers
Association (MBA), an annual honorary position where he toured
the nation making speeches about industry issues, reminding listeners
(including the media) how mortgage bankers were an integral part of
the “American dream of home ownership.” (A constant political battle
for the trade group was shooting down any effort to eliminate or curtail the tax deductibility status of mortgage interest payments, a favorite
target of Republicans.) The MBA was the largest trade association serving and lobbying on behalf of residential lenders to make sure Congress
didn’t pass any laws that might hurt their profits or prospects. Mozilo
took the job seriously (not all do). Frank Hattemer, a warehouse lending executive who worked for Bank United of Houston, an S&L controlled by Lew Ranieri, remembers attending the MBA convention in
Boston when Mozilo was installed as president. The convention officially started on a Sunday and ran to midday Wednesday. Many conventioneers arrived on Saturday to set up trade show booths or play
tourist. “A lot of us were out the night before, drinking too much,” said
Hattemer. “I came down for breakfast all bleary-eyed around nine in
the morning. There was Angelo in the lobby wearing a suit and Gucci
loafers, greeting people and shaking hands. He had that smile on his
face and looked like a million bucks.”
*
*
*
As the 1990s progressed, Countrywide and Fannie Mae (as well as
Freddie Mac) continued to grow rapidly. After costing U.S. taxpayers
$150 billion (not including interest payments), the S&L industry had
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been reregulated back into making mostly home mortgages. The
old-fashioned Bailey Building and Loan styled lender was still
around, but their numbers were greatly reduced. Thanks to mortgage
securitizations—pioneered a decade earlier by Lew Ranieri at Salomon
Brothers, as well as First Boston and Credit Suisse—the home lending
industry had been transformed into one where huge national lenders
like Countrywide could set up shop in any state by obtaining a lowcost license, originate mortgages (through either non-deposit-gathering
branches or loan brokers), and sell them to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac,
receiving cash for their loans. The cash would be used to make more
loans. Wall Street firms would sell the Fannie/Freddie-guaranteed
MBSs to institutional investors, which meant pension funds, life insurers, commercial banks, or even S&Ls.
The securitization of mortgages, as well as the trading of MBSs,
was a huge profit center for the likes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers,
Merrill Lynch, and several other traditional Wall Street firms that had
what were called “fixed income” departments. Fixed income meant
bonds. Not only did Bear, Merrill, and the others sell Fannie/Freddie
MBSs, but they also had set up business desks in New York where traders would buy whole loans (unsecuritized mortgages) from nonbank
lenders, S&Ls, and others, packing the mortgages into MBSs. Each
time a bond was sold, an investment banking firm made a commission. Wall Street couldn’t compete against Fannie and Freddie for “A”
paper loans, since the GSEs had government charters, allowing them
to borrow money at a cheaper cost, so instead they went after nonconforming loans, which included jumbo mortgages and the growing
subprime sector. Each year the GSEs’ regulator would set a loan limit
based on the average median home price in the nation. Anything under
that limit the GSEs could buy. Anything over it was considered jumbo,
which left that business to Wall Street.
Mozilo got an idea. He and one of his young lieutenants, David
Sambol, decided to open up a trading desk at the Pasadena headquarters to buy and sell (i.e., trade) jumbo loans and Community
Reinvestment Act (CRA) loans. (Under federal laws, banks and S&Ls
had to have a certain percentage of their assets invested in loans backed
by real estate within a few miles of their headquarters and outlying
branches.) Countrywide hired a bond salesman named Jonas Roth,
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who had worked for regional brokerage houses, to run the operation.
“You couldn’t do whole-loan trades on Fannie/Freddie mortgages
because you couldn’t beat their prices,” Roth later recalled. It was also
part of Angelo’s plan to get a 10 percent market share, he noted. (In
the 1990s Mozilo wanted a 10 percent share. By the next decade his
dream had grown to 20 percent, then to 30 percent.) Under Sambol
and Roth, Countrywide would originate jumbos and other nonconventional loan types and sell them to the highest bidder.
Typically, a mortgage firm that engaged in this strategy to originate
nonconventional (nonprime) loans would use Bear Stearns, Merrill
Lynch, Lehman Brothers, or another Wall Street firm for its trades.
But Mozilo, who was by no means a fan of the Street, wanted to play
in their game. Enter Roth. “On our first deal we sold $12 million in
Alaska loans to Goldome Bank, which needed loans for CRA purposes. We made double the profit we could’ve made by selling to
Goldome. We made a killing. Goldome needed those CRA credits. We
knew we had something there.” The unit’s profit goal that year was
about $30 million. The whole-loan trading desk brought in a net profit
of $95 million.
From 1993 to 2000 Roth served as Countrywide’s national sales
manager. The traders working under him could earn three to four
“sticks a year.” One stick was equal to $1 million. It didn’t take long
before word got out to Countrywide’s senior managers elsewhere in
the company that whole-loan traders working in its capital markets
group under Roth were raking in the dough, thanks to their commissions. “There was some resentment on the part of the managing directors,” said Roth. “Angelo was hearing a lot of complaints about it.”
Roth was summoned to Mozilo’s Pasadena office along with
Sambol. “We’re going to put a cap on what the salesmen can make,”
Mozilo told him.
“You can’t do that,” Roth implored him. “You can’t tap out the
salesman.” Mozilo stood up and walked over to the window. He signaled for Roth to come over. “You see that street down there?” Mozilo
asked. “That ain’t Wall Street, that’s Lake Street. We do things our way.”
Roth said the cap was placed on the whole-loan traders, but not
for long. “They found another way to pay by putting the money in a
separate account for them.”
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Shortly after Roth arrived on the scene in Pasadena, Countrywide
began dabbling in subprime. At first, Mozilo doubted the product.
“It was a different business than what we were doing,” he said. (Peter
Cugno, the former Beneficial manager who ran his own subprime
company, recalled that Countrywide had brokered a few loans to him
during the 1980s but never got very involved in the credit-impaired
business.) In 1994, while Long Beach Mortgage, The Money Store,
Aames, ContiMortgage, and others were beginning to ramp up their
subprime operations (including securitizing the loans they produced
through Wall Street), Mozilo stayed on the sidelines. In 1995 he stepped
into the game but Countrywide originated just $93 million. The next
year its subprime originations quadrupled.
Jonas Roth walked out of Countrywide’s headquarters, which had
been moved to nearby Calabasas, in 2000. “After a while they started
hiring a lot of Wall Street people,” said Roth. “I felt the Street people
were brought in to take over the trading desk.” He didn’t feel comfortable at the new headquarters, the former Lockheed Martin building,
which included a large campus with a running track and an in-company
restaurant that Roth described “as one of the best restaurants in
Calabasas.” (The traders had to have somewhere good to eat so they
wouldn’t stray too far from the trading desk.) In came traders from Bear
Stearns and Morgan Stanley. “When I started, there were five people in
the department. When I left there were 700.” Mozilo may not have liked
Wall Street so much, but he had no problem hiring its top guns.
Initially, Roth missed the “sticks,” the action. “The money was
good,” he said. He missed the sales retreats, staying at the best hotels,
and the rest of it. “The best beaches, the best food,” he said. Like Roland
Arnall, Mozilo treated his salespeople well. The one thing Roth didn’t
miss was the basement conference room in Calabasas. The former owners, Lockheed Martin, fearing a nuclear attack, had built a bomb shelter
down there. Mozilo had it converted into a conference room. “It was
like a vault,” said Roth. “The doors were two feet thick, airtight. When
they closed them you couldn’t hear a thing. It was strange.”
As the century turned, the mortgage market got strange, too.
In 1998 mortgage bankers enjoyed their best year ever, originating a record $1.5 trillion in home loans as rates on conventional “A”
paper loans fell to under 7 percent for the first time in three decades.
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Countrywide and its competitors ramped up to take refi applications,
but then volumes fell off the next two years as rates crept up again.
There were massive layoffs throughout the industry, including job losses
at Countrywide. Lenders folded. Loeb was now in retirement, chairing
a competing company that he and Mozilo had helped start. The two
men were no longer so close. In the summer of 2000 when Mozilo
was asked how the market was, he gave his best Bronx spin: “It sucks.”
Countrywide’s share price fell, as did that of just about every lender
associated with the mortgage industry. The hangover caused by the
Russian debt crisis and subprime meltdown lingered. For the first time
in the history of the company, he was seriously thinking about selling Countrywide. There were two companies whose offers he contemplated: Wells Fargo of San Francisco, which was managed by Richard
Kovacevich, and Washington Mutual, which had been growing rapidly in recent years by gobbling up other savings and loans. Its CEO
was Kerry Killinger. WaMu, as it was known, was headquartered up in
Seattle. Both had nationwide mortgage franchises, as did Countrywide.
Mozilo also had bought a small bank in Virginia to expand his funding sources for mortgages. Instead of relying on just warehouse lines of
credit and commercial paper borrowings from banks, he was now using
federally insured deposits.
Enter Warren Buffett, the venerated value investor who controlled
insurance conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway. Mozilo had gotten
to know Buffett because their insurance companies did business
together. In his efforts to mold Countrywide into a financial services
giant, Mozilo a few years earlier had bought Balboa Casualty & Life.
To sell life insurance, companies needed to maintain a triple-A rating
(meaning they had the best credit in the world). To achieve tripleA status, Balboa needed to take out an insurance policy itself. It got
two bids—one from American International Group (AIG),5 the other
from Berkshire Hathaway. Before Buffett would grant the policy, his
analysts at Berkshire did what was called a “mark” on Countrywide.
5 AIG’s
CEO was Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, considered by some to be a legend in the
insurance business for making AIG a giant in that field. However, Greenberg resigned in
2005 after AIG admitted to giving intentionally false information to regulators during an
inspection of its property-casualty business. AIG was also a founding member of FM Watch,
the anti–Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac group. Mozilo was a key ally of the two GSEs and
preferred not to give AIG any business if he could avoid it.
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A mark meant that Buffett’s bean counters went over the lender’s books
with a fine-tooth comb. Buffett liked what he saw. The policy cost
Mozilo $2 million. AIG’s quote was $10 million. According to Mike
McMahon, the Sandler O’Neill stock analyst who was then covering
Countrywide, Buffett then personally bought two million shares in the
company because he felt it was undervalued. (Berkshire Hathaway also
owned positions in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.)
The two men became friends. When both WaMu and Wells Fargo
came courting, Mozilo flew out to Omaha to see the “Oracle.” Buffett
put him up in an Embassy Suites Hotel. Mozilo was a Four Seasons
kind of guy. They met for breakfast at the hotel, standing in line in
the cafeteria with their trays. People were staring. (Mozilo later learned
that the reason Buffett wanted to meet at the Embassy Suites was that
as a frequent guest of the hotel chain he was entitled to a free breakfast
once a month. This was Buffett’s once-a-monther.) After breakfast they
went out to Buffett’s car, a Lincoln Continental. Tapes were scattered
about the dashboard. “The car was a dirty mess,” Mozilo said of the
visit. The Lincoln wouldn’t start. Buffett didn’t have a cell phone. He
called a tow truck by using a pay phone inside the hotel.
Back at Buffett’s office in Omaha, Mozilo noted it didn’t have a
computer in it. The two men talked about who might make a good
acquirer for Countrywide. Buffett advised him that the number-one
thing he should worry about was his people—his employees. Mozilo
feared that if Wells Fargo—his closest and toughest competitor—
bought Countrywide, Kovacevich would move to cut duplicative jobs
(potentially, there would have been thousands), which meant his people
would be out in the cold. The idea didn’t thrill him. He had about two
dozen top executives who had been with him 20 years or more. Some
of his kids worked there. “Angelo is extremely loyal to his people,” said
McMahon.
Mozilo, after hiring Goldman Sachs & Company to be his advisor, turned down Kovacevich’s overtures. When he looked at WaMu’s
offer closely, he didn’t like the idea that the giant thrift’s stock
looked a bit overvalued to him, trading at about 20 times earnings.6
6 Twenty times earnings meant 20 times the earnings per share (EPS) calculation. Earnings
per share is derived by taking a company’s profit and dividing it by the number of outstanding shares. On Wall Street it is standard practice to measure performance based on EPS.
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He saw little upside if he took WaMu’s stock in exchange for
Countrywide’s undervalued shares, which were trading at their book or
liquidation value. Over the prior three years WaMu had bought several
other S&Ls. Word had spread in the industry that Killinger in some
cases had overpaid and was having a tough time merging all the different computer systems that the S&L used to originate and service its
loans. Plus there was management to think about. Mozilo, for the most
part, respected Killinger, but wasn’t too keen on some of the executives running the mortgage department. Mozilo wouldn’t say, for the
record, what he thought about WaMu’s mortgage chief Craig Davies,
but executives close to him said Davies was the S&L manager that
Mozilo thought so little of he wouldn’t even let him run one of his
branches. According to McMahon, the Sandler O’Neill analyst who
had grown somewhat close to Mozilo (“He always returned my phone
calls,” said McMahon), WaMu sent a team of executives in to analyze
Countrywide’s books. (Wells Fargo never even got that far.) Ultimately,
though, Mozilo decided to keep Countrywide.
His decision not to sell the company was a stroke of good timing.
(Rumors about Wells Fargo, WaMu, and other potential suitors eyeing Countrywide would persist for years, some true, most not. Mozilo
would listen to offers plenty, but rarely did he take them seriously.)
Interest rates began to fall in early 2001 and kept right on dropping year
after year. Each year was better than the one before right on through to
2003. Countrywide followed Arnall and the rest of his competitors into
subprime, starting slowly at first and then ramping up by funding loans
through the company’s wholesale division. He was now using independent loan brokers to bring subprime mortgages into the company.
Countrywide also bought already-funded loans from other originators
on a so-called correspondent basis, offering smaller nonbank firms a
warehouse line of credit.
By 2004 Countrywide was funding—through its retail, wholesale,
and correspondent channels—$40 billion a year in subprime loans. Its
share price had more than doubled from two years earlier. Not only
was Mozilo’s company the largest lender and servicer of mortgages
in the United States (and the entire world), but it was now a top-five
subprime originator, encroaching on Arnall’s perch. Home prices kept
rising in the nation’s most populous markets: New York, Los Angeles,
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Boston, San Francisco, San Diego—places where there seemed to
be too many home buyers and not enough reasonably priced houses
for middle-income Americans. The coasts, as mortgage and housing
economists liked to call them, were on fire, values rising 15 percent to
25 percent a year, in some places even higher.
With Countrywide’s stock price almost quadrupling in value since
2000, some of Mozilo’s top lieutenants became millionaires (easily), at
least on paper: Stan Kurland, David Sambol, Carlos Garcia, Eric Seraki,
and Kevin Bartlett. The list went on and on. When talking to stock analysts and mutual fund chiefs who loaded up on Countrywide’s stock,
Mozilo liked to brag that many of the company’s top executives had
been with the lender for 20 years. He spoke of the company’s “culture”
where executives strived to be the top lender in every major city it had
branches in or brokers on the ground. If Mozilo and his origination
managers heard word of a loan officer or broker at another company
who was a top producer (who took in a dizzying amount of loan applications each year), they would make the LO an offer he or she couldn’t
refuse. Stories began to circulate about million-dollar signing bonuses
for LOs who would jump ship for Countrywide.
A woman who ran a small mortgage banking company in Fairfield,
Connecticut, recalled getting a recruiting call from a Countrywide
manager (a woman also) in 2005. Countrywide hadn’t yet expanded
into the southern coast of the state that gripped the I-95 corridor from
New York up to Rhode Island. “The recruiter told me that ‘we’re going
to dominate from Greenwich to Canaan, and we need managers.’” The
starting salary to manage a branch—excluding bonuses—was almost
$400,000 a year. “She warned me that it would be time consuming
and stressful and that if I couldn’t handle stress I shouldn’t take the job.”
The woman passed on the offer.
Within a year she saw Countrywide keep its promise about invading Fairfield and many of the suburbs that served as bedroom communities to commuters traveling both to New York and to New Haven
and Hartford, Connecticut’s largest city and its capital, respectively.
A Countrywide branch manager in nearby Danbury was reportedly
making $1.4 million a year. She also saw the company’s loan officers
cozying up to Realtors, taking a page from Mozilo’s early playbook,
on being there first where the rubber met the road—when the home
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buyer signed on the dotted line to buy a house. She remembered
dropping by a condo project to leave her card and was shown the
unit by a woman she thought was a Realtor. “She actually worked for
Countrywide,” said the woman.
Mozilo’s walking orders to all his managers boiled down to this:
dominate your markets. Roth, who ran the trading desk for seven years,
described it as “drinking the Countrywide Kool-Aid. When you go
to work there, it’s an amazing transformation. Angelo is a tremendous
leader, a tremendous motivator. It’s a proud, proud thing to work for
that company. Of course, a lot of people think it’s a sweatshop.”
*
*
*
In the modern era of mortgage banking—as opposed to the Bailey
Building and Loan days of yesteryear—it’s all about selling loans to
the home buyer or refinancing an existing customer. But originating
loans is only part of the equation. How mortgages should be originated, what standards a company uses, and what loan brokers a lender
chooses to do business with—the policing of all this falls on the compliance department. Any mortgage professional who ever attended a
compliance workshop or trade show hosted by the Mortgage Bankers
Association would, after sniffing an abundance of perfume in the air,
quickly realize one thing: It’s a field dominated by women, totally
dominated by women. Most of the men working in compliance are
there to manage the women.
Earlier in his career Mozilo saw the value of women in mortgages
because they could perform a key task very well: type information onto
paper loan applications a heck of a lot faster (and more accurately) than
most men. In Mozilo’s world back then, all guys wanted to do was sell
mortgages, but someone had to do all that typing. By the early 2000s
women increasingly were joining men in the ranks of professional loan
officers and brokers, but when it came to compliance departments—
and every lender had one—they remained mostly female.
Betsy Bayer started out her career in home finance working for
Belair Savings in 1982. “It was the S&L to the stars,” she recalled. Movie
producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber were on Belair’s board of directors. During her career she worked at First Interstate (where she met
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Mike McMahon) and then later on at IndyMac of Pasadena, which had
been started by Mozilo and Loeb in 1985 as a side project to originate
jumbo mortgages and morphed into a savings and loan that specialized in mortgage lending. The idea of the compliance department at
Countrywide (or any lender) was to make sure that its loan officers
played by the rules. Bayer was hired by Countrywide in 2004. As first
vice president, her turf was the lender’s wholesale department. “I was
the rules person,” she said.
As for Countrywide being a great place to work—as Roth and
others might testify to—she isn’t so sure. “It was a sweatshop,” she said.
“They had these posters all over the office. They were ‘work/life balance’ posters, like they were concerned about your well-being. What
a load of bullshit. It was a sweatshop.” Even though many of Mozilo’s
senior executives had been with the company 20 years or more, the
Countrywide she worked for had a high turnover rate where many
employees would leave before two years were out. “That’s a fact that
never gets published,” she said.
Bayer said that during the boom years from 2002 to 2006, new
hires at the company weren’t exactly handed a road map on the Countrywide culture. It took employees “at least a year to learn the company.
By the end of the second year you learn that change does not come
easily.” Managing wholesale compliance, she—and others—learned
that the idea was to produce as many loans as humanly possible. Bayer,
being the company’s “rules person” for loans brought in through its
broker network, didn’t think compliance was being taken all that seriously by Mozilo and his senior managers.
Chris Goode, who worked in compliance for the correspondent
group (the division that bought loans from other lenders), found the
same thing. “As a due diligence person you don’t want to say ‘The sky
is falling,’” said Goode. The idea, he said, was to produce volume—as
much as possible. “The due diligence folks were steamrolled by the
enormity of the money in the business.” His division, in particular, was
in charge of looking at all the subprime loans the company was buying
from other lenders.
Countrywide was producing plenty of subprime loans, all right.
Between 2004 and the end of 2007 the company originated $150
billion in mortgages rated A– to D. Of these, it was doing the monthly
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processing (servicing) on $100 billion, collecting fees from the investors
to whom it had sold the loans. Countrywide even securitized its own
subprime loans through its capital markets group, which acted more or
less like an investment banker—like a Merrill Lynch or Bear Stearns.
(It can be argued that Countrywide had a Wall Street firm inside its
own walls: itself.)
Betsy Bayer looked at what was going on inside the company
and didn’t like it. When it came to using loan brokers, Countrywide
had a hard time turning them down. “There were 44,000 brokers in
the U.S.—38,000 were approved and signed up to do business with
Countrywide,” she said. When it came to checking out loan brokers, “It
was fill out this application and we’ll approve you in 72 hours.” (Some
of the company’s background checks had been outsourced to a contractor in India. Data input on brokerage firms was done in India, said
Bayer, but the decision to approve brokers still remained at company
headquarters in Calabasas.)
Mozilo, in his thirst for market share, had followed Arnall’s company into the business of originating stated-income loans (where home
buyers state their income and the lender believes them as long as their
FICO score checks out). Stated-income loans came in two types:
prime and subprime. But when it came to the “A” paper credit quality
stated-income loans, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (for the most part)
wouldn’t touch them because of the lack of underwriting. Countrywide
also followed the crowd in originating another popular loan of the
2004 to 2007 period: payment option ARMs (adjustable-rate mortgages) (POAs), a product where the consumer was offered four different payment plans each month. One of these options included negative
amortization, where borrowers could keep their payments artificially
low by delaying large interest payments each month, thus adding new
debt onto the loan amount. It was what some lenders called an “I’ll
worry about it tomorrow” option. By 2006 Countrywide was the largest payment option ARM lender in the nation, originating $11 billion
worth a quarter.
“When you go for quantity, quality is what you give up,” said Bayer.
“To get volume, you lose quality—that’s what they did.” When she arrived
in 2004, the company’s compliance department was in what she called
“complete turmoil.” When pressed further, she said Countrywide wasn’t
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doing its homework when it came to underwriting. “They were relaxing
credit guidelines.”
She said that inside the company compliance staffers had a term for
stated-income loans: “liar loans.” Bayer said the only ones in the company who called them that were members of the compliance staff. No
one else in the firm used the phrase, at least not within earshot of the
production chiefs.
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Chapter 6
The Holy Roller
of REITs
REITs? They’re like pigs with lipstick.
—Angelo Mozilo
O
f the things that Patrick Flood loved the most in his life, there
were Jesus Christ, his wife and family, and baseball. As for real
estate investment trusts, or REITs as they are commonly
called, he wasn’t so sure.
In the mortgage industry Flood was known for his religious
fervor—he was a born-again evangelical Christian—but also as a handson manager who had the ability to ride the cyclical waves of the home
lending business, usually coming out on top. After graduating from
Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where he played
second base for the Eagles in the Big South Conference, he had done
nothing but mortgages. He worked in the residential loan department
of a small Atlanta-based savings and loan (S&L) called Home Federal
Savings of Atlanta, originating paper and working his way up to sales
manager and then chief operating officer. His college degree was in
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communications, not finance or business administration. “I’m what you
call a people person,” he would say of himself.
Under Flood’s stewardship, the tiny S&L grew to seven branches
and 120 employees. When it came to housing and mortgages, the
South (Georgia in particular) was a great place to be. The coastal city
of Savannah had one of the fastest growing deepwater ports on the
East Coast, and the state, thanks to a low corporate tax rate, boasted
of its “strong, vibrant business environment.” Georgia was home to the
headquarters of Coca-Cola, CNN, and Home Depot. Its climate was
warm, attracting retirees and baby boomers. As the population grew,
so did the housing and mortgage markets. Atlanta was a cosmopolitan
city. (Heck, even singer Elton John had a house there.) Home Federal’s
lending business performed so well that its owners sold off its branches
and converted the lender into a nonbank that relied on warehouse lines
of credit to originate loans.
The new company was called HomeBanc Mortgage.Year after year
it ranked among the top home lenders in the Atlanta metropolitan area.
People in the mortgage industry began to notice. In 1996 the nonbank
was sold to First Tennessee, a money center bank based in Memphis.
Then the national market began to sour in late 1998 as the Russian
debt crisis and the failures of dozens of subprime lenders began to take
their toll. In 1998 residential lenders originated $1.5 trillion in home
loans, their best year ever. By 2000 volumes were down by a third
to $1 trillion. Suddenly the business didn’t look as good, but Flood
thought otherwise. Using private equity money from a Chicago hedge
fund called GTCR Golder Rauner, he bought HomeBanc from First
Tennessee for $60 million. In the wake of 9/11 the Federal Reserve
began cutting interest rates, and suddenly Flood looked like a genius.
His timing couldn’t have been any better.
HomeBanc was now his shop. Out from under First Tennessee, he
began to grow the lender as he saw fit. He had a few chief business
tenets, one of which was to avoid wholesale lending through mortgage brokers. “I see no value in wholesale,” he told a reporter. “None.”
Another was to hire employees that he considered “ethical.”
Flood weeded out nondesirables by having applicants take a written
test that was custom made for him by a consulting/head-hunting firm
called Talent Mind. To zero in on which applicants might have the
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ethics he was looking for, he gave Talent Mind 100 personal disciplines
that he considered essential. He didn’t ask about their religious backgrounds, but did ask questions that zeroed in on character. One question HomeBanc asked was this: Would you call in sick on a Monday
in order to get a three-day weekend? “It was a ‘values’ test,” said Flood.
“We wanted to find out what their idea of ‘trust’ was. No one else in
the industry was doing this.” HomeBanc also asked applicants whether
they did volunteer work.
As HomeBanc began to grow, it went through a handful of human
resources (HR) directors before settling on Ike Reighard, a friend of
Flood’s who had attended bible studies at the company in the late
1990s. “We had been searching for an HR director for a year,” said
Flood. “We had gone through executive search firms and everything.
I couldn’t find anybody I liked.” Reighard was also a minister who had
founded the North Star megachurch in suburban Kennesaw (Cobb
County) outside of Atlanta. He had no financial services or HR experience, but to Flood that didn’t matter much. When asked about it, the
HomeBanc CEO replied, “He was a pastor. What’s better than that?”
As HR director, Reighard (and other chaplains) would visit
HomeBanc’s retail branches weekly. Some employees sent out daily
e-mail devotionals, and bible studies before work and during lunch
were not uncommon. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which once did
a story on HomeBanc, quoted a sales manager as saying the lender presented itself “as a faith-based organization but by no means did they
require or force anybody to follow their beliefs.”1 Or as Flood once
told the National Mortgage News: “We weren’t all a bunch of bible
thumpers. We spent a lot of time finding people to be LOs [loan
officers] who shared our values. I’m first a God-fearing Christian man,
but I don’t require people to be what I am.” That said, one investment
banker who worked with Flood noted that “Pat liked to cite from
scriptures in business meetings.” The investment banker added that
Flood also was fond of spending HomeBanc’s money on “extravagant
things” like corporate suites at Atlanta Braves and Falcons games.
1 CNN once aired a special report on religion and corporations. HomeBanc was one of
the companies featured.
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For retail (direct-to-consumer) lenders selling mortgages to the
public, loan officers are a company’s most important asset. By Flood’s
own account, some 90 percent of all HomeBanc’s employees had no
prior mortgage experience. Using a sports metaphor, he said proudly:
“We acquired through the draft.” In the mortgage industry there are
two schools of thought when it comes to hiring LOs. Some executives believe it’s preferable to hire LOs with experience, because they
already know the ropes, so to speak, of taking applications and working with the public, particularly on making legal disclosures about rates
and terms. Others see no problem with training workers from scratch,
because it gives lenders the opportunity to teach what they think are
good business habits and avoid undesirable skill sets that might have
been taught at other companies.
Flood and his staff trained HomeBanc’s LOs, focusing on service.
“We were competing against national banks. We had to treat the customer better than everyone else.” But before he would sign off on an
LO hire, the applicant had to provide a list of 150 contacts or what the
company called a “sphere of influence.” The contact sheet was considered a list of leads—people who might one day need a mortgage.
As HomeBanc expanded into other southeastern states, including Florida and the Carolinas, it needed more capital to grow. During
2002 and 2003 Flood spent time toying with the idea of HomeBanc
buying an S&L but said federal regulators from the Office of Thrift
Supervision in Washington weren’t keen on the idea. “They didn’t want
a private equity partner involved with an S&L,” he said. (The mortgage company was majority owned by GTCR Golder Rauner though
Flood had a stake as well.)
Instead, he found a man he likened to a preacher in his beliefs:
Eric Billings, the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Friedman Billings
Ramsey (FBR), a boutique investment banking firm based in Arlington,
Virginia, a 15-minute car ride from the nation’s capital. If HomeBanc
couldn’t buy an S&L (using its federally insured deposits to fund loans),
then it would go public—through either a traditional C corporation
structure or a real estate investment trust (REIT). What exactly was
a REIT? It worked like this: A company had shareholders. If those
investors owned shares in a C corporation (a plain-vanilla ownership
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structure used by most public firms), they weren’t necessarily entitled
to receive dividends each quarter. But a REIT existed to pay dividends.
It was a dividend junkie’s sexiest dream come true.
By design, REITs had to pay dividends—90 percent of their
earnings had to be paid out to shareholders each quarter. In exchange for
giving away that much of their earnings in the form of dividends, REITs
caught a huge tax break from the federal government. If they doled out
their corporate earnings in dividends, they avoided paying taxes to Uncle
Sam. In theory, a REIT was a valuable ownership structure, because by
paying out that much in earnings each quarter (while avoiding a huge
tax liability), it would attract investors who would line up to buy not
only the initial public offering (IPO) but additional offerings of stock.
At least that’s how it was supposed to work. And that’s how Billings and
other executives explained the idea to dozens of mortgage executives
over the years, Patrick Flood being just one of them.
In late 2003 when Flood finally made the decision to take
HomeBanc public through an IPO, J.P. Morgan Securities2 was the lead
underwriter in the deal, but Flood had heard so much talk in the industry about FBR’s expertise in mortgage REITs, he insisted that Billings’
firm be brought in to assist.
When it came to REITs, Billings was the mortgage industry’s go-to
guy, said Flood. “If you said the words ‘mortgage’ and ‘REIT’ in the same
breath, FBR was clearly the company that came to mind in the mortgage industry. We looked to FBR for validation.”
Regarding Billings, one of the firm’s founders, Flood likened him
to a preacher. “Eric was passionate about the whole thing,” he said. “I
love people who are passionate about their beliefs.”
For some of J.P. Morgan Securities’ bankers on the deal, Billings
was a little bit too passionate. According to Flood, J.P. Morgan’s
chieftains in its financial institutions group (FIG) discouraged FBR’s
coming on board. “They were concerned that they might steal the lead
away from them,” said the HomeBanc executive. “It was fascinating to
2 In 2000 J.P. Morgan Company merged with Chase Manhattan Bank. The amalgam of a
traditional Wall Street firm and a commercial bank was called JPMorgan Chase &
Company. Early on, after the merger, the name J.P. Morgan Securities was still in use.
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watch them fight. Investment banking firms have personalities. Some
are like golden retrievers; some are like pit bulls.” FBR was in the pit
bull camp, he said.
Flood wanted in the worst way to grow HomeBanc into a major
force in mortgage banking. And even though he admired Billings’ passion in regard to REITs, he later admitted to having major doubts
about the REIT structure. “I remember going on the road show to sell
the IPO to investors, and one of them [from FBR] said to me, ‘You
have to punch them in the head with it.’”
One of Flood’s concerns was the complexity of the REIT structure and something Billings and his executives called the “toggle”
concept, which Flood admitted he never fully understood. For one
meeting before going public, Flood and some of his top officers flew
into Reagan National Airport in Washington and then cabbed it across
the Potomac to Arlington where FBR had its headquarters. It was
raining that evening and the group arrived after six o’clock. “Manny
[Friedman] and Eric were sitting across from us at the conference table,”
said Flood. “They weren’t happy with us, because we were late. But
they then went on reassuring us about REITs, explaining the ‘toggle,’
how you can move back and forth with a REIT. It gave me the willies.”
(Three years after going public, Flood was still at a loss to explain how
a REIT “toggle” worked. It was a term used by FBR to explain how a
mortgage-lending REIT can set up two subsidiaries—one taxable, one
not, but both with identical lending licenses. Depending on a lender’s
strategy of originating and selling loans to Wall Street or holding them
in its portfolio, it can switch or toggle between the two units to minimize how much in taxes in might have to pay.)
In the end, HomeBanc’s transformation into a publicly traded REIT
did not go smoothly. The company was hoping to bring its IPO to market in the early spring of 2004. John Simmons, J.P. Morgan’s banker in
charge of the deal, told Flood in February that the IPO was a “slam
dunk.” Flood and his team went on what he called a “brutal” two-week
process of selling the deal to institutional investors such as the Fidelity
and Franklin mutual funds. (When a company sells shares to the public, its goal isn’t to sell 100-share lots to individual investors, but to get
mutual funds to buy huge blocks of stock.) In the spring, unemployment figures showed stronger than expected job growth, which meant
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the Federal Reserve might start hiking short-term interest rates—which
always spelled bad news for mortgage lenders.
Flood’s HomeBanc was a bit of an anomaly among nonbanks going
public using the REIT ownership structure. Most of the mortgagerelated REITs that had come to market were for subprime firms.
HomeBanc was mostly an “A” paper lender with one slight twist: It
specialized in interest-only loans where the customer didn’t pay off any
of the loan’s principal, only interest. It sold some of its mortgages to
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but a good many of its loans were sold
to Bear Stearns. “About $15 billion over eight years,” estimated Flood.
HomeBanc was not your typical prime lender, but it certainly wasn’t
subprime, either. It went public at $7.50 a share instead of its offering range of $14 to $16 a share. Still, Flood wasn’t totally disappointed.
HomeBanc had raised $290 million, not bad for a small regional lender
that was funding only $4 billion worth of loans a year. It also meant that
a company he and his partners had bought just a few years earlier for
$60 million was now worth more than four times that amount.
*
*
*
To those who have seen Eric Billings and FBR executive Rock Tonkel
run their REIT road show, or sales pitch, it’s an impressive sight. In
some cases 50 people would be in the room—10 from FBR; 10 from
the lender going public; an army of attorneys from FBR’s law firm,
Hunton & Williams; and accountants from Ernst & Young. If Billings
couldn’t be there himself, he would set up a live conference call where
attendees could see him on-screen. The idea was to convince mortgage
company executives and/or their owners to either convert into a REIT
ownership structure (if their firm was already publicly traded) or go
public using a REIT. The other part of the road show was selling the
concept to the mutual fund managers who would sign up (subscribe) to
shares before the IPO ever came to market. “It was like a revival meeting at a Southern Baptist church,” said a former managing director from
Bear Stearns who witnessed Billings’ pitches several times. “You walked
out of there, your hands in the air, shouting, ‘I believe! Hallelujah!’”
One attorney who worked for a Virginia-based subprime lender
and sat in on most of the meetings before his firm went public through
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a REIT brought to market by Billings described the FBR chief in
evangelical terms: “He was the Holy Roller.”
It wasn’t just Billings’ sales pitch, his passion for REITs, as Flood
and others would call it. FBR did not belong to the New York club of
investment banking firms that included Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers,
Merrill Lynch, and others. Unlike those firms—most of which had
long pedigrees, some as many as 150 years—FBR was less than 20 years
old. It was a newbie among decades-old giants, and to some investment
banking veterans, the firm never stood a chance. One Wall Street managing director who caught some of Billings’ REIT pitches remembered
quietly laughing at the presentation. “But Eric believed in it,” he said.
“He was the lead. After they took you public they wanted to do M&A
[mergers and acquisitions] for you. They thought they owned you.”
The biggest problem with the whole REIT concept? It sounded
democratic on paper (the earnings trickled down to every single shareholder), but when you gave away 90 percent of your net income, it left
little money for capital expenditures or future growth. Or maybe that
was the point. A mortgage REIT would have to keep on borrowing
to stay afloat and to grow—and where would a REIT turn to borrow? Answer: (likely) to the same investment banker that took it public:
FBR. Angelo Mozilo once looked at the concept and was floored by
it—and not in a good way. “REITs?” he once said of the idea. “They’re
like pigs with lipstick.” In one interview with National Mortgage News
he likened REITs to a coot. “Do you know what a coot is?” he asked
the reporter. “It’s a bird that shits and eats at the same time.” The reference was to the fact that mortgage-lending REITs are forced to pay
out 90 percent of their earnings to shareholders, taking away most of
their ability to retain cash—cash that might be used for M&A or to
weather a cyclical downturn in mortgages.
*
*
*
Friedman Billings Ramsey was the brainchild of Emanuel J. Friedman, or
“Manny” as everyone called him. Friedman was the son of a Wilmington,
North Carolina, rabbi. When he was 13 he used his bar mitzvah money
to buy 10 shares in P. Lorillard Company, a tobacco company. Two
months later he sold the shares at a $60 profit. He attended the University
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of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then moved to the Washington,
D.C., area and began taking night classes at Georgetown Law School. To
support himself he taught middle school geography. In 1972, the Vietnam
War still in progress, he tried to land a job with a brokerage house but
had little luck. Finally, in 1983 Legg Mason Wood Walker of Washington
hired him.3
Friedman’s first assignment was selling stocks in oil, gas, and
casino companies. (This was before the era of a revitalized Atlantic
City, Donald Trump, and Indian casino gambling in Connecticut and
Mississippi.) By his own admission he did not fare particularly well, later
telling the Baltimore Business Journal, “I had years of failure until I turned
37 when I met by partners.” In 1982, Eric Billings, a Boston native,
joined Legg Mason but left two years later, jumping ship for Johnston,
Lemon & Company, which also was headquartered in Washington.
Friedman followed. Within a few years both men had worked their way
up to become senior vice presidents in Johnston Lemon’s institutional
sales group (selling stocks to pension and mutual funds, the trust departments of banks, and the usual corporate suspects). During his five years
there, Friedman was one of the firm’s top revenue producers. In some
of those years he accounted for up to 40 percent of the firm’s revenue.
At Johnston Lemon the two men met Russell Ramsey, a former
salesman for Pitney Bowes who had attended college at George
Washington University. (Even though he was from Massachusetts,
Billings had graduated from the University of Maryland in nearby
College Park, right inside the Capital Beltway.) In 1989, two years after
the stock market crash of 1987, the three men left to start their own
firm, borrowing $1 million to get it off the ground. They spent $5,000
on used furniture that had been abandoned by another area brokerage
firm. Friedman Billings Ramsey Group, Inc. was born. Friedman was
the senior partner among the three, owning the largest stake.
While still at Legg Mason, Friedman—after not doing so well with
energy and casino stocks—began to focus on analyzing the shares of
small savings and loan companies, developing an expertise in the sector.
3 The
historical information on FBR was culled by the International Directory of Company
Histories,Vol. 53 (St. James Press).
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During its early years, FBR made a market in trading bank stocks but
also focused on being an asset manager for wealthy individuals and
institutional clients. (When the three men left Johnston Lemon, they
took with them a large chunk of that firm’s 25-person sales department. Chuck Akre, a well-regarded manager and stock picker, was
invited to join them but declined, only to be snatched away by FBR a
few years later.) In the 1989–1990 time frame, the nation’s S&L crisis
was accelerating. Because many troubled S&Ls had invested billions of
dollars in commercial real estate (Charlie Keating and Lincoln Savings
being just one of many), Friedman made a bold prediction, telling
clients to avoid or even short vulnerable banks and real estate stocks.
(Short sellers make money by betting that a stock’s price will decline.)
He was right.
But Friedman also had enough smarts to realize that the downturn
wouldn’t last forever. When the White House and Congress pledged
$150 billion to clean up the nation’s insolvent S&Ls, FBR jumped on
the bandwagon, or as one FBR executive put it, “They joined the vanguard of those raising capital for troubled institutions. Originally they
were on the short side. Now, they were going long.”
While at Johnston Lemon, Friedman had become familiar with a
large California S&L called Glendale Federal Bank, which had $18 billion in assets on its books, some of them in the form of bad commercial real estate projects. Even though the publicly traded Glendale had
$18 billion in assets, its market capitalization (stock price multiplied
by number of outstanding shares) was just $30 million. The nation was
in the throes of a recession, due in part to the S&L mess. S&Ls and
commercial banks had supplied billions of dollars in easy loans that
spurred overbuilding by developers. Southern California, in particular,
had been hit hard by defense industry cutbacks, especially in aerospace.
But Friedman figured that something with $18 billion in assets, even
at a discount, had to worth more than a $30 million market cap. FBR
raised $450 million to help rescue Glendale Federal, saving it from a
takeover by federal regulators.4 (FBR also raised additional equity for
4 In 1998 Glendale Federal merged with another large California S&L called CalFed. Four
years later Citigroup bought CalFed.
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other struggling S&Ls, including Dime Savings and Brooklyn Federal
Savings, both based in New York.)
The three men realized that their expertise in banking, S&Ls, and
real estate was a way for the young firm to make a name for itself
among the Merrill Lynches and Lehmans of the world. FBR became
one of the first investment banking firms to take the REIT concept,
convincing investors that they could use it to buy commercial real
estate properties of almost any type. After the government bailed out
the S&L industry,5 providing $150 billion worth of taxpayer assistance,
commercial real estate markets began to improve.
In the mid-1990s lenders learned their lesson in regard to commercial real estate. Like the S&L business, the commercial property market
(offices, hotels, shopping malls, and the like) regained its health—but
only after the days of easy credit (loans from banks and thrifts) ended
and executives once again began making their business decisions based
on the cash flow of a commercial property. Office buildings, hotels,
shopping malls, and another nonresidential projects all generated revenue from the rents they took in from the businesses that wanted their
space. In commercial lending there was a simple equation called “minimum debt service ratio” that loan officers used in determining how
much money they would be willing to lend on a property. If the owner
of an office building had a mortgage, for example, that cost $100,000 a
year, the commercial mortgage bank (or Wall Street firm) might require
that the property generate in rental income at least $120,000, which
meant the property had a minimum debt service ratio of 1.2. Less conservative lenders might allow for a ratio as low as 1.1. In the world of
commercial mortgage lending, it was all about cash flow. The beauty
5 The
nation’s commercial banking sector also suffered during those years, with the Federal
Deposit Insurance Corporation coming within a few billion dollars of going broke.
Banking executives, though, were a little brighter than their counterparts in the S&L
industry. Banks and S&Ls had different charters. The S&L depository insurance fund was
called the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC). Banks, by design,
made many types of loans, including commercial real estate and business loans. Up until
the Garn–St Germain Act of 1982, S&Ls did one thing and one thing only: make home
mortgages. After Congress realized what a disaster it had made of the industry with that
bill, it reregulated all S&Ls, forcing them to put a majority of their assets into home
mortgages. This happened in 1989 through the passage of the Financial Institutions
Reform Recovery and Enforcement Act, signed into law by George H.W. Bush.
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of owning an office building in a hot property market was this: Once
the lease expired, the landlord or building owner could jack up the
rent, increasing the cash flow. Increased cash flow from rents meant that
a property could support an even larger mortgage.
Billings and his partners at FBR were among the first to realize that with all the cash flow (rents) that office buildings, hotels, and
the like were throwing off, commercial properties were perfect vehicles for REITs. In 1994, FBR, with Billings as its point man, raised
$350 million for Prime Retail Corporation, a Baltimore-based shopping center owner. The REIT business quickly became a major part of
the young investment banking firm’s menu of activities. The firm was
now 200 employees strong. Manny, Eric, and Russ, as they were known
to their workers, were in their early to late 40s. Thanks to commercial
property REITs, the young firm had gained a reputation for being an
innovative investment banking boutique that didn’t need a New York
address to thrive. It attracted young deal makers and fostered a culture
where the dress code was ultracasual—jeans and shorts even—complete
with a company health club, sauna, and masseuse. The average age of its
employees was under 30. Employee turnover was light.
Friedman, meanwhile, began focusing his attention on what Wall
Street liked to call “specialized finance companies,” a code phrase for
residential subprime lenders. Prior to the Russian debt crisis of late
1998, which also hammered many publicly traded subprime lenders,
FBR took a handful of mortgage lenders public (including Long Beach
Financial, which had been spun off by Roland Arnall). According
to one senior Long Beach executive, FBR’s point man on the IPO
was Rock Tonkel, a former top regulator from the Office of Thrift
Supervision (OTS) who had left the world of government agencies
behind in 1994 and joined FBR. “When it came to REITs, Rock was
completely on board,” said one former FBR manager.
Tonkel, a heavyset man, had actually met Friedman while he was
still a regulator at OTS. One of his assignments was Glendale Federal.
Another was Dime Savings. Tonkel tried to push Long Beach president
Jack Mayesh to convert into a publicly traded REIT, but Arnall’s righthand man wasn’t buying into the idea, primarily because mortgagelending REITs had absolutely no track record whatsoever. Mayesh
knew Billings and admired his capabilities as a salesman but ignored
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Tonkel’s suggestions on becoming a REIT. Mayesh went for the
standard C corporation structure, tax breaks notwithstanding.
*
*
*
The downturn in the subprime market of the 1990s lasted roughly two
years. By cutting short-term rates dramatically, the Federal Reserve
under Alan Greenspan helped to prop up a struggling U.S. economy
that wasn’t quite in a recession but surely wasn’t booming and adding
jobs fast enough to please both the Fed and the Bush White House. In
2003 when 30-year “A” paper loans could be had for 5 percent with
just about no points paid up front (for a consumer with good credit),
residential originations by lenders of all different stripes (banks, S&Ls,
nonbanks, and credit unions) reached a record $3.9 trillion. Subprime
originations, for the first time ever, topped almost $400 billion a year—
or 10 percent of all home loans funded in the United States, also a
record. Suddenly, a business that had looked doomed just five years
earlier appeared to have a bright future. After all, if as a nonbank you
couldn’t make money by borrowing money from Wall Street at, say,
3 percent and lending it out to consumers with bad credit at 8 percent,
something was definitely wrong. In between the 3 percent and the
8 percent was a total of 500 basis points (5 percent) of gross profit, and
no matter how bad some of these borrowers were, there was plenty of
cushion to buffet delinquencies.
Thanks to their knowledge of how S&Ls (and therefore mortgages)
worked, Friedman and Billings as well as Rock Tonkel recognized the
potential and began pushing the REIT concept hard to the owners
of subprime lending companies. (However, they were now doing so
without the services of Ramsey, who had resigned from the firm to
start a venture capital fund that specialized in Washington-area technology, telecommunications, and media firms.6) Even though the REIT
market for mortgage lenders did not exist after the 1998 crash, FBR
had established itself as the premier investment banking firm when it
came to using commercial property REITs to buy buildings, raising
6 Ramsey left the firm but remained as a director with a 12 percent share. FBR did not
change its name.
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billions of dollars for investors through either IPOs or secondary offerings of stock.
*
*
*
When it came to mortgage REITs, Billings—according to both mortgage executives who listened to his pitches and former employees—was
a true believer. One former FBR manager remembers hearing Billings
singing the praises of mortgage REITs on several occasions. “Eric
would argue for REITs until he was blue in the face with veins popping out of his head.” In one company strategy session he remembered
Billings saying, “I will REIT-up commercial, I will REIT-up stadiums,
I will REIT-up telephone towers.”
Pat Flood clearly remembered Billings’ zeal. “Eric would tell you
that REITs made sense. He was adamant, convinced that this was the
best way for mortgage bankers to get out of the cellar.”
The “cellar” referred to the second-class citizen status of nonbank
mortgage lenders—subprime and prime alike. Investment banking
firms like Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns would
take nonbank lenders public from time to time, but few managing
directors on Wall Street who worked at these firms seriously believed
that these nonbanks had much in the way of long-term viability. The
idea was to take nonbanks public and then eventually sell them to federally insured banks or S&Ls, institutions that took deposits from the
George Bailey crowd in Bedford Falls.
Besides the ability of REITs to avoid a huge federal tax bill,
Billings heavily promoted one other aspect of the REIT ownership
structure: their ability to hold assets (bonds backed by subprime loans)
on their books. When a subprime lender went public it raised capital.
That capital could be use as a cash cushion. A REIT could originate
loans, sell them to Wall Street, create a bond, and then put that bond
on its books, by calling it a “financing,” which meant it had a loan,
or debt, against the bonds it held. Plain-vanilla C corporations that
were nonbank mortgage lenders for the most part originated loans
and sold them off immediately (or securitized them) while retaining
the right to service the loans or bonds, which gave them the ability to
receive fee income on mortgages they originated but no longer owned.
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Nonbank C corporations tended not to have large balance sheets.7
But Billings had a phrase for REITs that had the ability to create
multibillion-dollar balance sheets; he called them “unregulated banks.”
The heyday of Wall Street firms taking nonbanks public occurred
in the 1980s. In the 1990s and early 2000s few IPOs for nonbank
mortgage firms came to market. If a company was going to be a serious
player in mortgages, it had better own a bank or a thrift. Using deposits
to fund mortgages was generally cheaper—and a more stable source
of funding. Countrywide’s Mozilo saw the writing on the wall and
bought a small bank in 1999, which he promptly began to grow. But
with FBR and Billings aggressively singing the praises of REITs, and
investors thirsting for yield in a thriving post-9/11 economy, all that
changed. Billings also began focusing on converting lenders to REITs
through a private placement of stock called a 144-A filing. (The name
comes from the form a company has to file with the Securities and
Exchange Commission [SEC].)
In June 2003, with subprime lending volumes poised to take off,
FBR converted a Maryland-based lender called Fieldstone Investment
Corporation to a REIT using the 144-A form. “Eric focused on 144-A
placements because you could raise equity first and then file with the SEC
later,” said one FBR official. The Fieldstone placement was a resounding success, raising roughly $700 million. Over the next 18 months FBR
went on a tear, taking subprime nonbanks public, raising equity through
private placements (in anticipation of an IPO), or selling additional shares
for lenders that focused on originating non–Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac
loans (not necessarily subprime), including American Home Mortgage
Investment of Long Island ($360 million), New York Mortgage Trust
($135 million), HomeBanc, Saxon Capital of Virginia ($386 million),
New Century Financial of Irvine ($783 million), Aames Financial ($342
million), People’s Choice Financial of California ($407 million), Encore
Credit of Irvine ($386 million), and MortgageIT Holdings of New York
($200 million).
7 C corporations, if they wanted, could hold assets, too, and treat them as a financing; but
REITs, because they could set up both taxable and nontaxable affiliates, had certain
advantages over them. According to Sandler O’Neill analyst Mike McMahon, the
key advantage was that it made the earnings of a REIT appear less volatile when they
really weren’t.
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Besides these lenders, Billings, Friedman, and Tonkel crisscrossed
the nation, pitching the REIT story to as many subprime executives as would listen. Barney Guy, chief financial officer for MILA
Inc., a privately held nonbank lender based in the Seattle suburb of
Mountlake Terrace, met with Billings and Friedman. The pitch he heard
was slightly different. “They told me if I do it, we’ll drive everyone else
out of business,” said Guy, who had worked in the subprime industry
for well over 20 years. But Guy and his boss, company founder Layne
Sapp, weren’t buying. “I told Eric we don’t like the idea of paying out
90 percent of our earnings,” said the CFO.
Also on FBR’s list of subprime firms to pitch the idea to was
Aegis Mortgage of Houston, which was owned by Cerberus Capital,
one of the nation’s largest hedge funds. Aegis was the creation of Rick
Thompson, an attorney with an accounting degree. Thompson had
made a name for himself in the industry by joining forces with investor Gerald Ford, who bought an insolvent Texas S&L called Gibraltar
Savings. Gibraltar (like Keating’s Lincoln Savings) was saddled with
millions in overvalued commercial real estate, but it also owned a
profitable mortgage subsidiary called Troy & Nichols of Monroe,
Louisiana. Thompson ran Troy & Nichols for a few years and then sold
it to Chase Manhattan Bank. The sale netted Ford and his investors a
nice chunk of change—about $300 million. In the mid to late 1990s
Thompson had built Aegis up from scratch, buying subprime branches
belonging to dead lenders felled in the 1998–1999 crash. He sold most
of Aegis to Cerberus, which had a reputation of being both a notorious
bottom fisher (buying ailing firms with potential) and an investor that
liked to buy young companies on the ascent. Aegis fit the latter bill.
By 2003 Aegis was funding $10 billion a year in subprime loans
and a similar product called “alt-A.” (Alt-A loans were made to home
buyers with good credit but who had characteristics that turned them
off Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Alt-A could be stated-income loans
or loans made to borrowers who despite having good credit also had
run up a lot of credit card or auto loan debt.) From time to time,
Billings, Tonkel, and another FBR executive named Henry Fan would
show up on Thompson’s doorstep, preaching the word about converting to a REIT. By 2004 FBR was not alone in the REIT game. Even
though many traditional Wall Street firms had turned up their noses at
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the concept (because of the huge dividend payouts), all that was in the
past. Subprime was hot. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and the investment banking side of Bank of America all began talking to Thompson
and his boss at Cerberus, Steven Feinberg, about taking Aegis public—
either through a C corporation or through a REIT. Billings again took
the lead, traveling to Houston, telling a group of Aegis executives,
“You’re nuts if you don’t this.” The meeting lasted almost three hours.
Friedman was there as well. Thompson would not talk about the meeting, but one Aegis executive described it as a “high-energy show. It was
high volume.”
By the spring of 2005 the IPO market for subprime lenders began
to turn sour for two reasons: First, the Federal Reserve had been hiking short-term interest rates over several months, which began to cut
into the profit margins of most subprime lenders for one simple mathematical reason: When short-term rates went up, the rates on warehouse loans Wall Street was extending to them (that they would use to
originate mortgages to people with bad credit) also rose. That necessarily would not spell disaster because, in theory, they could increase
the interest on the mortgages they made to the public. But that was no
longer the case. Short-term rates were rising but mortgage rates were
not. There were now so many nonbank and bank subprime lenders
making loans that competition prevented everyone from hiking their
rates. The first lender to hike its rates—even by just half a percentage
point—suddenly saw its applications fall through the floor.
The other reason the IPO market began to dry up? Rumors were
swirling around about Arnall’s Ameriquest being the subject of predatory lending investigations in multiple states. The last thing in the world
the market liked was an investigation about a mortgage firm’s lending
practices—even if it was an aberration. And it was doubly bad that the
rumors concerned the nation’s largest subprime lender: Ameriquest.
Thompson, according to those close to him, stopped listening to
FBR’s IPO pitches—REIT or otherwise. He, too, didn’t like the idea
of paying out 90 percent of his earnings to shareholders. Two Lehman
Brothers managing directors, Bill Curley and Bill Visconti, were now
pitching the IPO idea directly to Cerberus chief Steven Feinberg.
Lehman Brothers told Feinberg that even though the IPO market was
beginning to move away from subprime lenders (again, due partly to
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Ameriquest’s troubles with the states), Aegis might be able to raise
between $600 million and $1 billion. Feinberg was itching to do a deal.
“He wanted to cash out of Aegis,” said an executive close to him.
Meanwhile, back at FBR, Tonkel, who had been promoted to
president and put in charge of investment banking, was given the task
of landing the biggest fish in the IPO pond—Arnall’s Ameriquest. “It
was Rock’s job to court Arnall to try to get Ameriquest or Argent to
go public through FBR,” said one manager at the company. “If he had
done it, it would’ve been a major league home run for the firm.” But
investors were growing skittish. Rates were rising, competition was
stiffening, and there was Ameriquest itself. What type of investor would
take a chance on a firm that was being investigated for its lending practices by attorneys general far and wide?
Both Billings and Friedman had mentioned the possibility of taking Ameriquest public to Mozilo over at Countrywide. “Roland was
looking for an exit strategy,” Mozilo later recounted. “He wanted out.”
Ameriquest and its wholesale sister company Argent, combined, held
the number-one perch among all subprime lenders. Together, they
were a downright volume hog. By the time 2005 ended, Ameriquest/
Argent had funded almost $75 billion in subprime loans, a record for
any lender. Its two closest competitors: New Century in Irvine, which
had been launched by one of Arnall’s proteges (Steve Holder), and
Countrywide. Among the nation’s 20 largest subprime originators, just
two were privately held: Arnall’s company and Aegis.
To investment bankers at FBR, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns,
and to the other money men of Wall Street, it was inconceivable that
two companies so large were not publicly traded on a stock exchange.
Mozilo was no longer so jealous of Ameriquest, which by then had
stopped raiding his top producers. If FBR wanted to do an IPO for
Ameriquest or Argent,8 then let them, Mozilo thought. The way he
saw it, Billings “was taking companies that were failing, or had no
8 At various times between 2003 and 2005 Arnall contemplated taking Ameriquest and/or
Argent public as part of his exit strategy from the mortgage industry. Arnall would never
address the issue, but Mozilo and investment banking officials, including one from FBR,
said an IPO was seriously under consideration even though ACC never filed any paperwork with the SEC.
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long-term chance of making it, public. I felt there was no way a REIT
would help.” He made it perfectly clear to anyone who would ask him
about REITs, citing their perpetual disgorging of 90 percent of their
earnings: It was the stupidest idea going.
By the fall of 2005 the IPO market for nonbanks, through REITs
or otherwise, had dried up. But that didn’t stop FBR from making
one last-ditch attempt at taking Aegis public. “FBR called us and said,
‘I know the market is moving away, but we think we can raise $400
million for you,’” said one Aegis executive. “They went to Feinberg
personally. They said, ‘Give us a few days.’” After a few days nothing had
happened. The Aegis executive described FBR’s overtures during the
time as “fake it until you make it.”
*
*
*
By the fall of 2005, FBR had become a different place, partly because
the market for mortgage REITs had just about dried up, but also
because Manny Friedman, 58—the man who had pioneered the investment bank’s foray into subprime—suddenly announced his retirement
from the firm amid an SEC probe that included insider trading allegations against him. The agency was examining the company’s role
back in 2001 of marketing shares of Annapolis-based CompuDyne
Corporation to a group of hedge funds. By year-end 2005, even
though Friedman had not been formally charged, FBR offered to settle
the case for $7.5 million.9 When the retirement announcement came,
many company employees were caught off guard. As much as Billings,
he was the public face of FBR. Billings put out a statement thanking Friedman for his “countless contributions to the firm.” He and
his friend had shared the titles of co-chairman and co-CEO, but now
Billings was the only one left of the investment bank’s three founders,
even though the firm retained their names. Friedman issued a statement saying he had “great confidence in FBR’s future.”
9 By the spring of 2008 the SEC probe of Friedman still had not been officially settled.
Billings and FBR declined to discuss the matter. CompuDyne, which merged with
another company in late 2007, was a technology firm specializing in (among other things)
institutional security systems.
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Between the beginning of 2005 and the end of 2006, the dozen
or so publicly traded subprime/nonprime REITs that FBR had taken
public or raised equity for originated $329 billion in home loans, or
one out of every five subprime or nonprime (alt-A, stated-income)
mortgages made to home buyers in those years. By the fall of 2007
most of these FBR-sponsored lenders had filed for bankruptcy protection or had been sold to other owners—including Wall Street firms
Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns, which had bought, respectively,
Saxon Mortgage of Virginia and Encore Credit, the latter being yet
another Southern California firm in the basket of subprime lenders
started by an Ameriquest alumni: Steve Holder, who had co-founded
New Century, also co-founded Encore. Morgan Stanley and Bear
Stearns would eventually shut down these lenders.
The failures of all these firms followed pretty much the same
pattern: The loans they extended to consumers with bad credit would
go delinquent at a higher rate than they ever dreamed. The buyers of
these loans in the secondary market—which were always Wall Street
firms like Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Deutsche
Bank, or the rest of the New York club—would ask the lender to
repurchase the bad loans or give them additional money for their
troubles. But if the lender happened to be a REIT paying out 90 percent of its earnings to shareholders, it didn’t have that kind of money.
And it wasn’t just a few bad mortgages; it was thousands upon thousands, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. Eventually, it added up
to billions of dollars.
Mike McMahon, the former Sandler O’Neill analyst, surveyed
the carnage in late 2007 and wasn’t exactly perplexed by what he
saw. He had left Sandler the year before, having grown disgusted with,
among other things, the twin accounting scandals at Fannie Mae and
Freddie Mac. Both these congressionally chartered mortgage giants
had bookkeeping problems, relating to how they hedged their mammoth mortgage portfolios, which consisted mostly of MBSs but also
subprime loans that had been securitized. (A hedge was a financial bet
that compensated them in the event of rising or falling interest rates,
which affected the values of the mortgages or MBSs they held. To
please Wall Street, both GSEs wanted to have steady, not wildly fluctuating, earnings. But being that their business involved buying residential
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loans—a highly cyclical business reliant on low interest rates—having a
steady anything was next to impossible.) Freddie Mac, under its chairman and CEO, Leland Brendsel, had understated its earnings by about
$5 billion—on purpose so it could save that money to help in future
periods when earnings were light. Fannie Mae had done the opposite:
It overstated earnings to please Wall Street.10 Fannie’s scandal claimed
the job of its politically well-connected chairman and CEO, Franklin
Raines, who was forced out by the board a few days before Christmas
2004. (A former investment banker with Lazard Freres, Raines served
as budget director in the Clinton administration.)
As an analyst at Sandler O’Neill, McMahon had followed Countrywide, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and a handful of mostly community
banking companies, writing research reports on these publicly traded
firms and advising the firms’ institutional clients whether they should
buy or avoid the stocks. A month before McMahon left Sandler in
the fall of 2006, he said to a reporter, “How can I cover these firms
when I can’t believe anything they’re telling me?” He was talking
mostly about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But he also had taken a
close look at mortgage REITs and, like Mozilo, saw no sense in the
structure—unless you happened to be the investment banking firm
taking them public. “A REIT is an investment banker’s dream client,”
said McMahon. “When rates are low [and originations boom], REITs
have significant growth and always need to raise equity. It’s a virtuous
cycle.”
Many of the mortgage executives who listened to Billings’ REIT
pitches, including HomeBanc’s Flood, didn’t doubt Billings’ sincerity.
He so believed in REITs that he even converted part of FBR into a
REIT and began investing in subprime mortgage-backed securities. In
2004, one of the peak years for subprime originations and a year in
which FBR raised equity for at least seven subprime lenders, the firm
started by Eric, Manny, and Russ earned a record $350 million. But by
10 It would take Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac almost four years before they would fully
recover from their respective accounting scandals, putting in place accounting systems and
practices that allowed their regulator, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight,
to fully understand just how much they were really earning or losing from their hedging
practices.
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2007 all of the earnings would be wiped out and then some. FBR lost
$660 million in 2007, due in part to its investments in subprime MBSs
and the purchase of a subprime lender in Florida called First NLC
Financial Services. Its stock price would fall to a dangerously low $1.50
a share, compared to an all-time high of almost $30, leaving investors
wondering about its long-term viability.
A former FBR manager who saw the writing on the wall and left
the firm put it like this: “Eric’s hubris did him in. Once he likes something, he does not understand that sometimes markets can change. He
became convinced that he is right and the market is wrong.”
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Chapter 7
The End of the
(New) Century
I
f there was one central reason for Friedman Billings Ramsey’s
(FBR’s) success with REITs, it was because of a company called
New Century Financial Corporation, which (not surprisingly) was
headquartered in the mecca of subprime: sunny Irvine, California. “In
2004 New Century raised almost $1 billion with their REIT offering,”
said subprime industry veteran Barney Guy, who was working for a
competitor up in Washington state. “Everyone in the industry looked at
that and said, ‘Jeez. They’re bulletproof.’ Because of that offering, New
Century had so much capital.” (Guy was off by about $200 million, but
his point was well taken.)
Two years later, New Century had supplanted Roland Arnall’s
Ameriquest/Argent empire as the top residential subprime originator
in the United States. A nonbank that was barely a decade old, New
Century—thanks to the REIT conversion by FBR—was the largest
publicly traded subprime lender on the planet, bar none. Its share price:
$52 a pop. Since being founded in 1995, the lender had had a stellar growth record, expanding exponentially as interest rates plummeted
in 2002 and 2003 and continuing to balloon even as rates climbed
149
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in later years. By 2006, it did business with up to 47,000 mortgage
brokers scattered around the country and sported a retail network of
222 branch offices. New Century took pride in calling itself “A New
Shade of Blue Chip,” in reference to the blue-chip stock of the most
established companies on the New York Stock Exchange. (The blue
chip is the most valuable chip in a casino.) Even Angelo Mozilo, whose
sales staff was being raided by New Century, had something nice (sort
of ) to say about the company: “They were the hottest game in town.”
Yet in 2006, there was some transition among New Century’s highest ranks. Brad Morrice, the company’s long-standing president, was set
to become its chief executive as well, replacing longtime CEO Robert
Cole. But Morrice was an unlikely candidate to head a high-octane
sales machine like New Century. The mortgage bank lived to churn
loans for sale to Wall Street, and its sales staff had the strongest voice in
its decision making. Morrice, who became CEO a week before turning
50, was nothing like the young, hardworking, hard-living salesmen who
brought in loans by networking with mortgage brokers. Overweight,
with thin gray hair and glasses, he was a man who devoured books.
Morrice was an intellectual who enjoyed debating theories and sometimes analyzed decisions to death, former colleagues said. He had
one nervous tick: constantly saying “um.” Before co-founding New
Century, he had had little experience running a mortgage bank. His
biggest detraction: he wasn’t a salesman.
In May of that year, before taking control, he addressed shareholders at the company’s annual meeting at its Irvine headquarters. First
he apologized for not wearing a tie. He was still waiting for construction of his new multimillion-dollar home in nearby Laguna Beach to
be finished and forgot to pack a tie in his suitcase. During his speech,
he warned of the worst pitfall that could befall a home lender: “The
history of the mortgage business generally suggests that companies
that run into big trouble and in some cases go out of business don’t
do that because they run out of customers. They do it because they run
out of money.”
Morrice’s ascension to the top job at New Century marked the
pinnacle of a winding career that began on a completely different track.
Morrice was a former corporate attorney with a law degree from the
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Boalt Law School at the University of California, Berkeley. He also
held an MBA from Stanford University, which was no slouch among
business schools. He worked his way up to partner in the Los Angeles
law firm that eventually became known as King, Purtich & Morrice.
His specialties: assisting mortgage bankers with their legal affairs, digesting complex legal documents in a short time, and explaining the ramifications to his clients in simple, clear language.
*
*
*
In the 1990s, one of the clients of Morrice’s law firm was Plaza Home
Mortgage in Santa Ana, near Irvine. Plaza Home Mortgage owned a
midsize savings and loan (S&L) and also borrowed money from other
bankers to make loans it would later sell. Jack French headed Plaza.
A veteran of the Korean War, French was a motivational leader whom
colleagues described as loyal and tough but with a sensitive side—he
once cried while praising employees at a company Christmas party.
One day in 1992, French had a late-afternoon meeting with his lawyers in a Los Angeles high-rise. After the meeting broke up, Morrice
escorted French to the elevator. It was getting dark. They were alone.
Surprising French, Morrice said he would be interested in coming to
work at Plaza Home Mortgage. French looked him over. It was the first
time Morrice had ever mentioned ditching his legal career and coming to work for French as an executive. If Morrice was nervous about
making such a bold play, he didn’t show it. Morrice was cool. “Give me
a call,” French said. “We’ll talk about it.”
French hired Morrice, who had zero experience running a mortgage company, as an executive vice president in February 1993. It
was the kind of snap judgment French occasionally made. He recognized Morrice’s intellectual gifts and decided to see what he could do.
In the beginning, Morrice didn’t do much. As one executive at Plaza
Home Mortgage later noted: “He spent all day writing on a legal pad.
He didn’t know the mortgage business.”
Another snap judgment French made was to enter the subprime
business by forming a new but separate affiliate. He called it Option
One Mortgage Corporation. The idea actually came from a friend of
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his, Ed Gotschall, an executive who helped keep the books over at
Guardian Savings—the Jedinaks’ S&L. In the world of mortgage banking, secrets were few and far between, and word began to spread that
Guardian Savings was making a ton of money by originating subprime
first lien mortgages and securitizing the paper through Wall Street.
Roland Arnall noticed, as did Jack French.
Gotschall wanted to head the new venture, but French decided on
two other executives instead: Pat Rank and Bob Dubrish. Both had
helped Arnall get Long Beach Mortgage off the ground. But grateful
for Gotschall’s assistance, French made him Option One’s chief financial officer. When French told his financial backers at First Interstate
Bank about his plan to launch Option One, they balked. As the lead
warehouse lender to Plaza Home Mortgage, First Interstate wasn’t
interested in offering credit so Option One could gamble on home
buyers with a history of payment problems. French insisted to his bankers, “We’re not lending money to criminals.” But First Interstate didn’t
care. They cut him off.
French found a more willing audience on Wall Street. Salomon
Brothers had securitized subprime mortgages with Guardian Savings
and was hungry for more business. In a deal that would become a prototype for subprime lenders, Salomon agreed to provide Option One
with both a warehouse line of credit and securitization services. A decade earlier, Salomon had been the king of the MBS market thanks to
mortgage trader cum vice chairman Lewis Ranieri. However, by 1993
Ranieri and all his top traders had departed Salomon, and the firm’s
MBS business—which catered only to “A” credit quality loans—was
in tatters. Salomon’s staff introduced Rank and Dubrish to credit rating
agencies and bond insurers and let them know what types of questions
they might ask. Salomon’s guys “held our hands,” said a former Option
One executive. In December 1993, Option One sold $80 million in
subprime mortgages to Salomon, which then packaged the mortgages
into bonds. It was one of the largest subprime deals up to that time.
Option One was on the map.
The growth of Plaza Home Mortgage—including Option One—
soon became a headache for French, who found day-to-day operations
tedious. In the summer of 1993, French and the president of Plaza
Home Mortgage, James Weld, agreed to part company. Brad Morrice
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was itching to get the president’s post, but French had his reservations.
For one thing, Morrice, though smart, had been with Plaza for only
about a year and was still green. About this time, a lawyer friend of
French’s told him about a real estate development company executive
named Robert Cole who had experience in banking and wanted to
jump back in. Cole was an impressive speaker with banking experience, but French wasn’t sure he was the right choice. Former colleagues
described Cole as a “stuffed shirt,” very conservative in appearance
and behavior but good at raising money. “He painted a picture with
words. He had credibility,” one former colleague said. In the end,
French and the board of directors of Plaza Home Mortgage struck a
compromise—they made Cole and Morrice co-presidents of Plaza in
1994. The duo weren’t in charge of Plaza for long before French and
the board decided to sell the company. A year after Cole and Morrice
took the helm, Plaza was sold to Fleet Financial Group, a commercial
bank, for $88 million. Cole and Morrice were out of a job.
*
*
*
When mortgage executives in Orange County were out of work in the
1990s, they would hang out at the Irvine, California, offices of headhunter Lee Hecht Harrison. It became known as the “halfway house”
for the mortgage industry. It was there that Cole and Morrice teamed
with another Plaza refugee, Ed Gotschall, the numbers cruncher. They
began plotting a new mortgage company to focus exclusively on subprime: New Century Financial Corporation. Their plan was to borrow
money from Wall Street using warehouse lines, just like Arnall’s Long
Beach Mortgage, and originate loans to consumers with bad credit.
New Century would sell the loans back to Wall Street. It would operate like Option One but without a sister S&L to help fund loans. New
Century would rely entirely on borrowed money—warehouse lines. But
there was a hitch. The former Plaza trio had special skills but not much
experience running a staff of loan officers. They decided to take a chance
on a fourth partner known for his drive and ability to motivate sales staff,
someone with years of experience in consumer finance and subprime
lending. Steven Holder became the fourth co-founder of New Century.
Holder, six feet four and a college dropout, was described by one former
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New Century employee as “a charismatic SOB who wooed everyone.”
He, like many subprime executives, also came from Long Beach Mortgage
and was in charge of production—the origination of mortgages using
loan officers and brokers.1
The four partners had the right idea and skills, but they needed
money. They counted on Bob Cole to work his magic with potential
investors. Cole was a perpetual networker who had a slew of contacts
with money or working for firms that had money. Cole tapped a former
colleague, Michael Sachs, an attorney who had been legal counsel for a
self-storage company while Cole was an executive there. Sachs, who was
confined to a wheelchair as a result of suffering polio as a child, made
up for his lack of mobility by sharpening his mind. After listening to
Cole, Sachs called a venture capitalist he knew: John Bentley, a partner
with Cornerstone Equity Partners in Arizona.
In the fall of 1995, Sachs and the four founders flew to Cornerstone Equity Partners’ headquarters in a modest office building in
Phoenix. They were ushered into a conference room, and Bob Cole
launched into his pitch about New Century. He handed John Bentley
a binder with rosy projections about the future profits to be had from
subprime lending. Bentley later said that Cole was a passionate speaker
when it came to New Century and that he always carried promotional
materials on the company. “It was his job to raise money. He never
missed an opportunity,” Bentley said. Bentley and his partner, Sherman
Chu, who had a background in mortgage banking, liked what they
heard. And they were pleased that three of the founders had worked
together at the parent company of Option One, a profitable subprime
start-up. They felt that Holder stood out from the other three, Bentley
said. Without him, New Century wouldn’t fly. “They needed a production guy, and Steve is all about production,” Bentley said.
Bentley and Chu agreed to invest $2 million and took a 63 percent
stake. They also got the right to name five people to the company’s ninemember board of directors. Sachs invested $250,000, and the four founders agreed to invest $425,000, Bentley said. Holder didn’t have the cash
and the others pitched in for him, something that never sat well with
1 Prior
to working for Long Beach Mortgage, Holder was a manager at two consumer
finance companies: TransAmerica and Nova Financial Services.
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Cole or Gotschall, Bentley said. It later came out in Phoenix’s New Times
newspaper that the money Cornerstone invested in New Century came
from a unit of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona, which allegedly ran a
Ponzi scheme that targeted many elderly Baptists. The foundation, which
had made a series of risky real estate investments, filed for bankruptcy in
November 1999 owing investors close to $600 million and having assets
of just $200 million. Around that time the Baptist Foundation unit sold
its stake in New Century to raise cash, and Bentley resigned from New
Century’s board, since his venture capital firm no longer had a stake in
the lender.2
With seed money in its pocket, New Century began in 1995 in a
small office in Newport Beach, a posh coastal town later made famous
by the teen TV drama The O.C. From the beginning, the four founders had difficulty managing their egos. Each bore the title of president
and chairman, making New Century perhaps the only company in
the United States (and probably the world) with four presidents. The
rivalry was strongest between Morrice and Cole, who had been forced
to share the president’s title at Plaza Home Mortgage. In their new
headquarters, they moved a wall about a foot so they would each have
the exact same size office. They also hired career coach Vance Caesar to
help them work together. Caesar held a series of team-building exercises, including hand-holding and pep talks.
Once again Salomon Brothers elected to support a start-up subprime lender. In November 1996, Salomon agreed to lend New Century up to $175 million, and in return it got first peek at 70 percent
of the lender’s first $500 million in loans for sale. New Century could
borrow up to $105 per $100 of loan balance. In other words, Salomon
was lending New Century an extra $5 to pay its operating costs. One
former New Century executive later said that was a sweetheart deal
since any credible lender should keep its expenses to less than $3 per
loan. Since subprime loans were so profitable, Salomon provided New
Century with a generous margin for error.
*
*
*
2
Bentley later said Sachs was the one who introduced him to the unit of the Baptist
Foundation.
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chain of blame
The early days of New Century were known as the Steven Holder
era, former executives said. He immediately began recruiting and
training an army of account executives (AEs) whose job it would
be to convince mortgage brokers to send loans New Century’s way.
The company grew quickly and soon moved to an 11-story black
high-rise near John Wayne Airport in neighboring Irvine,3 a city about
45 miles south of Los Angeles with a burgeoning professional services
industry, the largest university in the county, and lots of pricey new
home developments popular with young families.
The irony of being headquartered in upscale cities like Newport
Beach or Irvine while making loans to folks struggling to break into
the middle class either was lost on the founders of New Century
or they didn’t care. Indeed, as office rents dropped in Irvine following
the recession of 2001 it became common for mortgage companies to
lease space in office towers once reserved for corporate law firms and
accountants. In 1996, the first year New Century funded mortgages,
the company originated or bought from other lenders $357 million
in subprime loans. The following year its loan volume increased more
than fivefold to nearly $2 billion.
Holder, the salesman, pushed his staff to keep up the pace. When
things were slow, he got creative. He invented special days when he
would review loan files. Some sales staff dubbed the days “signing parties.” At mortgage banks like New Century the account executives
brought in the loans, earning big commissions and all the glory. But
loan underwriters had to approve each loan file, ensuring all the documents were in order. Only then would the bank fund the loan and the
account executive get a commission. If Holder noticed loan volumes
dropping, he would announce a day when he and other top managers would personally review problematic loans. “If loans were stuck, it
was a way to get them unstuck,” one former sales manager said.
On the morning of a signing party, sales staff buzzed at New
Century. Any ambitious AE with a problem loan whipped out the
file. Holder rounded up a few sales managers, and they strode floor
to floor, creating a whirlwind of excitement. Holder stopped at any
object in the center of a room, whether a table or file cabinet, and set
3 Irvine
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was once the home of Charlie Keating’s Lincoln Savings.
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up shop. Account executives quickly gathered in lines eager to show
him their problem files. They hurriedly explained why their loans
were really okay, despite not fitting into the company’s underwriting guidelines. Holder would lay on the charm, smiling and coaxing
them while simultaneously grilling them with questions to see if they
knew their stuff. If they gave reasonable answers, his pen flew. Loan
approved.
The signing parties raised eyebrows among the company’s more
conservative executives, who worried Holder let poor-quality loans
get funded. However, his supporters said he would not sign every
loan, and that not every borrower fits into a simple underwriting
box. But one former executive said the ability of senior sales managers to overturn the objection of a loan underwriter was risky and
undermined the motivation of underwriters to tackle difficult files.
Why object to a loan if some sales guy’s boss would just override
your objection? But the fault did not rest solely on Holder’s shoulders, this executive said—the other three founders had failed to create
a proper system of controls on the approval of loans. According to the
executive, the company lacked a counterweight to Holder’s powerful
sales team.
With Holder heading loan production, Cole handling Wall Street,
Morrice heading administration, and Gotschall keeping the books,
New Century climbed in the origination rankings. As it did, the four
founders began to contemplate selling shares to the public. Being publicly traded would open the company to more scrutiny, but it was also
a way for the original investors to have a means of cashing out some of
their holdings and for the founders to make money via stock options.
In addition, New Century could issue more shares to pay for its expansion. However, venture capitalist Bentley said the company couldn’t
go public with each founder having the title of president and chairman. That would be ludicrous. The founders’ egos had to be massaged.
Eventually, the investment bankers handling the initial public offering
(IPO) convinced the founders they needed more rational titles, Bentley
said. But who would be CEO—Cole or Morrice?
After some debate, they agreed on Cole, who was the best speaker
of the bunch (he didn’t say “um” as much); he also had experience
with Wall Street, and so was the best choice to be the lender’s public
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face. The other three let Cole have the top job.4 New Century had a
modest but respectable IPO in June 1997, raising about $30 million
at $11 per share—not bad for a company that was only two years old.
Then the Russian debt crisis struck in the fall of 1998, sinking the
fortunes of almost every single subprime firm that was both publicly
traded and securitizing mortgages through Wall Street. Several subprime
lenders were failing, and New Century executives were getting worried. The company’s stock was tanking. It fell to a paltry $2.50 on
October 6, 1998, and employees began looking for new jobs. Cole,
though, managed to save New Century by convincing a commercial
bank, U.S. Bancorp of Minneapolis, to invest $20 million in the company’s preferred stock and to buy most of its loans for a year. Instead of
securitizing its subprime mortgages though Wall Street, New Century
would sell them in whole-loan form to U.S. Bancorp for cash—which
is exactly what Arnall’s Long Beach Mortgage had done. The alliance
with the bank was announced on October 19, 1998. New Century’s
stock immediately rebounded. It was saved.
*
*
*
One day Steven Holder walked into the office of Greg Schroeder, head
of sales training at New Century, and said, “What if we hire Tommy
Lasorda as a pitchman?” Schroeder, six feet two and overweight, went way
back with Holder. They had worked together at Long Beach Mortgage.
When Schroeder heard the idea he groaned. Hiring the former manager
of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team was just the latest in a string of
random proposals sales managers were throwing his way. To Schroeder it
seemed as though every loan production chief at the company fancied
himself a marketing expert. But Schroeder handled his boss with tact. He
countered, “If we are going to do this let’s be scientific.”
New Century hired a market research firm and an advertising
agency. They scrapped the Lasorda idea and told Schroeder, who eventually became head of marketing at the company, that New Century
4
Even though Cole was now the CEO, all four founders continued to receive exactly the
same pay and bonuses each year. In 1998, the year after the IPO, each earned a salary of
$281,600 and a bonus of $600,893.
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should brand itself as a provider of “fast financial solutions.” In the mortgage market, and particularly in the subprime space, consumers wanted
their money quickly. And loan brokers wanted to help the consumer—
quickly. (It was all about making the sale.) Schroeder mulled it over and
eventually hit on the concept of a computer system that would accept
or reject a borrower’s application without any human reviewing the file.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the largest buyers of home mortgages in
the country, had created such systems, which were used by their customers that were “A” paper lenders, like Countrywide, Wells Fargo,
Chase Home Finance, and others. Could New Century do the same for
subprime?
Holder approved, and Schroeder needed to figure out how it would
work. One night, after a sales meeting in St. Louis, Schroeder and Dan
Sussman, another sales manager, were sitting outside a restaurant in a
shopping mall converted from a train station, and they began envisioning how the computer system would function. The conversation grew
spirited and soon they were sketching the design on cocktail napkins.
It would be a web site for mortgage brokers who would enter key
details on a borrower. Each loan customer would be broken down into
a series of numbers: a FICO credit score, a debt-to-income ratio, the
number of missed payments on loans or bills, and whether or not there
were any public filings against the borrower, such as a notice of default
on a mortgage. Every borrower would be evaluated by the numbers.
They decided to allow New Century’s loan brokers to pull a credit
report on each borrower for free—saving the brokers a few dollars.
New Century ran its own report anyway if the file got to final review,
so why not do it at the beginning instead? But the software would limit
how much information each broker could see on the credit report, to
discourage the broker from shopping the loan file around the industry
to other subprime wholesale lenders. The concept was easy, but getting the system built proved a challenge. Schroeder found that New
Century’s tech department and budget had been slashed during the
financial crisis of 1998, which meant he had to convince Holder to let
him hire staff. To boot, the tech department would allow Schroeder the
use of only one computer server, which he had to stick in an empty
closet. “We had to prop the door open and put in a box fan to keep the
server cool,” Schroeder said.
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Despite the headaches, Schroeder completed the project in six
months. It was dubbed “FastQual” and promised to render a decision
on a borrower not in minutes but in 12 seconds. The next obstacle
was marketing it—getting New Century’s brokers (who dealt with
the public) to use it. Among other things, New Century promoted the
FastQual brand by sponsoring race cars and inviting its loan brokers
out to the track for the day. But Schroeder felt he needed something
more. In 2002, he hired Dan White to find the way. White, six feet five
with a completely bare scalp and facial hair just around the mouth, had
bounced around small radio stations in Los Angeles as a disc jockey
and worked as road manager for Fleetwood Mac and Santana. In his
first week on the job, Schroeder took White to a broker trade show in
Cleveland, Ohio. New Century had a booth in the city’s convention
center to show off FastQual, and was one of hundreds of companies
with booths. White observed they were getting little attention. Another
company that had hired some sexy models got more visits.5
“What did this booth cost you?” White asked.
Schroeder’s reply: about $50,000.
“What’s your return on investment?” White then asked.
Schroeder wasn’t sure. “Some things are hard to quantify.”
“That’s not acceptable,” White said. “I think what you need to do is
take New Century on the road like Aerosmith.”
Instead of using “booth babes” at a mortgage industry trade show,
White said New Century needed “to be the show.” New Century
should take FastQual on a road show across the country—and not share
the spotlight with anyone. Schroeder proposed it to New Century’s
management committee, which included the company’s founders. The
committee was divided on the proposal. Gotschall, the company’s numbers whiz, decided to back it, becoming the swing vote. Schroeder later
recalled Gotschall saying, “It’s not should we do it, but what will happen if we don’t do it.” New Century was in stiff competition for subprime borrowers with Mozilo’s and Arnall’s firms. They were looking
for an edge.
5A
favorite way for mortgage lenders and vendors to attract visitors to their trade show
booths was to staff them with so-called “booth babes”—attractive young women who
didn’t necessarily work for the firm.
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Everything—attendance, food, and even alcohol—would be free to
mortgage brokers. The road show was named “Close More University”
and featured a dozen top sales coaches sharing techniques and advice
with brokers. White ran everything like the rock concerts he was used
to managing with 84-foot screens, aerial lighting, and surround sound.
The shows started in hotel ballrooms but grew so large they migrated
to convention centers. The first year’s budget totaled $5 million. The
budget expanded each year until it hit $20 million. One of the largest shows was at the Los Angeles Convention Center. It featured four
30-foot screens. One area was sectioned off and set up with 100 laptops
running FastQual. New Century software trainers, who were budding
account executives, wore bright red shirts and gave FastQual demonstrations. Before the show started, one of New Century’s board members, Fredric Forster, showed up. The shows had become so big the
board’s interest was piqued.
Forster, a former president for H.F. Ahmanson and Company, once
one of the state’s largest S&Ls, stood next to Cole as Schroeder welcomed them. “How many people does this place hold?” Forster asked.
“We have reservations for five thousand, but I expect about half,”
Schroeder said.
“You’ll never fill it,” Forster predicted.
“Care to bet on that?” Schroeder said. The two men wagered $10.
Forster, the director, thought New Century was throwing money away
and that not enough brokers would attend to make it worthwhile. But
the brokers came—nearly 3,000 strong. At the end of the day, Forster
paid the $10 and said he was impressed. The cost of the Los Angeles
show: $650,000.
The biggest measure of the road show’s success was the expanding popularity of FastQual to brokers who were hunting for subprime
borrowers on the streets. It was marketed as “prequalification” software,
since New Century didn’t issue consumer disclosures until the physical
file arrived (such disclosures are required by law when offering a consumer a home loan). About 86 percent of loans approved by FastQual
were funded as is, no changes. Before the road shows, FastQual was
reviewing up to $100 million a day in loans. After a few years of road
shows, FastQual reviewed up to $3 billion in loans in a single day. To
be sure, it rejected many loans, too. But one company executive said
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that saved the sales staff time by eliminating “garbage loans” that came
into New Century from brokers.
*
*
*
In late 2000 New Century co-founder Steven Holder left the company
after a rift developed between him and the other three founders. His
detractors say he was forced out because it became clear to the others
that under him New Century had funded too many mortgages that were
winding up delinquent. (“Shitty” was the word some of them used.) The
other three believed that Holder cared only about sales—to the point of
recklessness. But Holder had supporters at the company who believed
that he was the real force behind New Century’s phenomenal growth,
single-handedly creating the sales infrastructure that led to the company going head-to-head with Ameriquest and Countrywide. Within a
month Morrice, who held the president’s title, also become chief operating officer, a position formerly shared by Holder. Morrice was beginning to assume total control of New Century.
After Holder’s departure, the three remaining founders invited
Mike McMahon, then an analyst with investment bank Sandler O’Neill,
and an old acquaintance of theirs, to visit New Century so they could
discuss the lender’s future and see if the two firms could do business
together. The reason McMahon knew the three: He was one of First
Interstate’s warehouse lending executives who had lent money to Plaza
Home Mortgage, where Cole, Morrice, and Gotschall all had once
worked. McMahon and a colleague flew in from San Francisco and
went to New Century’s headquarters near John Wayne Airport. In the
company’s boardroom one afternoon, they all munched on chips and
sandwiches and batted around ideas. The founders said they had “survived death” in 1998 and now needed to figure out a game plan.
“I know what you should do,” McMahon said. He suggested using
some of the $100 million or so the company had in cash to buy back
stock “every single day” until they and he were the only shareholders
left. They laughed, but McMahon was serious. He owned a few thousand shares and thought the company buying back its own stock would
boost the share price, because the earnings per share would increase
with fewer shares outstanding.
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Gotschall told the analyst that the company wanted to become a
major financial player like Household Finance, revealing the colleagues’
ambition.6 Then someone said, “What do you think of REITs?” (That
meant FBR and Billings.) McMahon objected to the REIT idea. It
would require building a huge portfolio of loans on New Century’s books, which McMahon said would become problematic if
delinquencies ever rose higher than anticipated. He also didn’t like
the idea of paying out 90 percent of a firm’s earnings to shareholders,
because doing so prevented the company from building up capital—
money it could use for a rainy day. McMahon said New Century
should stick to selling loans for cash, which had enabled the firm to
survive the credit crisis of 1998. Besides, having a large portfolio on its
books while also running a major loan-making operation would be a
complicated story to sell to Wall Street, McMahon said.
Bob Cole, then chief executive, said, “Do you mean having a big
mortgage portfolio would be a detraction?” McMahon said it would,
and that was not all. As a REIT, New Century would be constantly
spending its money on buying loans and paying nearly all of its profit to
shareholders as dividends. Thus, it would constantly need to sell shares
to raise cash for expansion, McMahon said. Yet if interest rates ever rose,
stock of a mortgage REIT would likely fall, since New Century would
earn less of an interest spread on its loans. It would have to pay more
to borrow money, but it would take longer to raise consumer rates, or
the money coming in the door. Investors would anticipate that, expect
a cut in dividends, and so sell shares, he said—not to mention the fact
that fewer homeowners refinance when rates rise. “If you convert to a
REIT, you’d better hope rates go down forever,” McMahon said.
The REIT idea stayed on ice. But as subprime lending boomed,
Eric Billings of FBR became more persistent in his REIT pitches, spending much of his time visiting mortgage companies or chatting up their
executives over the phone or in person on the virtues of converting to
a REIT. Despite McMahon’s warnings, Cole, Morrice, and Gotschall
warmed up to the idea. They even paid Billings’ firm $250,000 to study
how New Century could make the switch to a REIT.
6 In 2002 British bank HSBC bought Household Finance, one of the nation’s largest
subprime lenders, for $14 billion.
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chain of blame
In October 2003, the founders were ready to take the plan to their
board of directors. A series of meetings ensued in which the complicated proposal was explained again and again. Eventually, Bear Stearns,
then a warehouse lender to New Century, agreed to play devil’s advocate at a board meeting so directors would get more than FBR’s rosy
picture. At a two-day meeting in March 2004 at New Century’s headquarters, Bear Stearns officials warned—as Mike McMahon had previously done—that converting to a REIT would make the company
reliant upon issuing additional stock to raise money. They also cautioned the board that a liquidity crisis would be more likely for the
firm as a REIT, since New Century would be paying out nearly all
of its income to shareholders. It would not be setting aside money for
a rainy day. And, finally, Bear Stearns officials predicted that being a
REIT would limit the potential for New Century to be acquired one
day by a bank. Whatever New Century wanted to do, it didn’t need to
be a REIT to get it done, they said.
The board ignored Bear Stearns’ pleadings and in April 2004
approved the REIT conversion. Billings had won. FBR would get its
payday by handling the public offering of stock. Six months later, in
October, New Century introduced itself to the world as a mortgagelending REIT, raising close to $800 million in an initial public
offering—an incredible capital gain from the lender’s first IPO in 1997
when it raised $31 million. The REIT idea looked like a golden egg. In
addition to FBR, other companies assisting in the IPO and collecting
fees included UBS, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley.
In the weeks before the REIT conversion and in the first month
after it, New Century’s stock rose by 50 percent from around $40 per
share to more than $60 per share. But the novelty soon wore off and the
stock fell back to $40 by April 2005, just six months after the change to
a REIT and one year after the board of directors approved the switch.
That month David Einhorn, head of New York–based investment firm
Greenlight Capital, surprised New Century management with a public filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that said New
Century’s strategy of building a portfolio of loans to boost its stock had
failed. At the time, Einhorn owned 9.1 percent of the company’s stock,
or 5 million shares. He meant business.
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Behind the scenes, Einhorn had never liked the idea of building a
portfolio of loans and had let the New Century trio know his thoughts,
former New Century executives said. But, as with the warnings of analyst Mike McMahon and Bear Stearns, the founders ignored Einhorn’s
concerns. They remained convinced that building a portfolio of loans
made long-term sense because the loans would guarantee income over
time. To build the loan portfolio, New Century set up a hybrid REIT
structure, which sounds complicated and was complicated, critics said. As
simply put as possible, New Century became two companies, one at the
top and one at the bottom. At the top was a REIT that would buy loans
at fair market value from a subsidiary unit that made loans. The parent
made money from the interest on the loans it bought, and the subsidiary
unit made money by selling loans either to the parent or to investment
banks. Critics said the complexity of the structure made New Century’s
stock unappealing to Wall Street investors, even though investment banks
were eager to lend it money to make loans and to later buy the loans so
they could turn them into securities. Wall Street wanted to do business
with New Century but lost the desire to own it.
Einhorn supposedly was impressed by Gotschall’s brains but never
thought much of Cole’s leadership. At one meeting in Manhattan
between New Century’s top management and Einhorn’s people,
Einhorn stared coldly at Cole and rarely spoke. Einhorn, who grew up
in Milwaukee, built a reputation as a shrewd Wall Street investor, sometimes going short on companies, betting they would fail. But he had
become an early believer in New Century’s ability to make loans and
had gone long on its stock.7 Einhorn declared war on New Century’s
management. He threatened to run his own slate of candidates for New
Century’s board. Eventually, the company founders reached a compromise and gave Einhorn one seat on the board.
*
*
*
7 Einhorn previously owned a stake in another Irvine-based subprime lender, BNC
Mortgage, before Lehman Brothers funded a management-led buyout of the lender.
Einhorn had made a bid for BNC but later dropped it. He wanted to see New Century buy
back stock instead of using cash to buy its own loans, former New Century executives said.
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chain of blame
In 2005, at the peak of the housing boom in the United States, New
Century was the largest publicly traded subprime lender in the nation,
originating $56 billion in loans. That year its profits hit a company
record of $416 million. New Century’s founders were getting seriously rich. Cole, Morrice, and Gotschall each earned $1.6 million
in salary and bonuses for 2005 and were awarded $769,992 worth
of stock plus options to buy more. But the real money was in stock
sales and dividends. That year Cole sold $9.4 million in stock and via
stock options bought $1.9 of stock at discounted historical prices.
Morrice sold $11.6 million and bought $3.1 million, and Gotschall
sold $9.3 million and bought $1.5 million. And they raked in dividends
on the shares they owned, earnings millions more. (Cole and Morrice,
combined, earned $17 million in dividends that year.) Gotschall, the son
of a coal miner, became the co-founder best known for philanthropy.
He pledged $3 million to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo and led
a fund-raising drive for $50 million. He told a reporter that his son
had had his ear fixed there after it was bitten off by a dog and that his
daughter went there once for a broken arm.
As the company’s profits exploded, Wall Street grew more eager to
lend it money. In 2001, Salomon (now owned by Citigroup), Morgan
Stanley, and other companies extended $2.1 billion in warehouse credit
lines to New Century. By 2005, at the peak of the housing boom,
Morgan Stanley had upped the credit line to $3 billion, and Bank of
America, Barclays, Bear Stearns, Deutsche Bank, and Credit Suisse
joined the party. In all, Wall Street was bankrolling New Century to the
tune of $15 billion. One executive at New Century who worked with
Wall Street firms said companies that lent it money weren’t supposed
to get privileged peeks at their loans, but they would “whine and cry”
if they didn’t. The whiners included Bank of America and Bear Stearns,
this executive said. When interest rates were falling in 2002 and 2003,
a pool of loans being collected for a future securitization by an investment bank could increase in value by the simple fact that other debt
on the market offered lower yields. That trend “forgave a lot of evil,”
this executive said.
New Century’s success as a publicly traded company brought it
more prestige than any other firm that focused exclusively on subprime loans. Its executives spoke at conferences hosted by Wall Street
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investment bankers such as Morgan Stanley and Piper Jaffray, and the
founders became financial sponsors of various community groups.
New Century spurted cash in all directions. It wasn’t just top management getting rich. The best salespeople earned $1 million to $3 million
a year. Loan processors who never graduated from college and did little
more than check paperwork on loan files earned up to $100,000.
“Alex”—his name has been changed per his request to remain
anonymous—talked about life inside the company. He was a top account
executive at New Century. In a good year, he earned $2 million in commissions. Account executives were the star employees at New Century,
convincing mortgage brokers to bring them customers. They worked on
a monthly schedule. At the beginning of each month things were slow,
and Alex and his colleagues would golf. They frequented Pelican Hill in
Newport Beach, Orange County’s top public course with $200 greens
fees and a view of the Pacific Ocean at nearly every hole.
Each month started with regular 9 am to 6 pm hours for Alex. But as
the weeks rolled by the hours become longer and AEs hustled like mad.
At lunchtime they grabbed tacos off the “roach coach” that drove by
the office. They chatted up brokers on one side and tried to push loans
through New Century’s underwriting staff on the other. “We would do
everything we could do to get the deals done,” Alex said. “Sales had the
final say on anything.” Indeed, sometimes AEs applied a little extra pressure on other employees to get loans approved. In one office, a salesman
whacked the top of an appraiser’s desk with a baseball bat and screamed
at her for killing his deal, according to a report in the Washington Post.
Every month morphed into a race, Alex said. AEs were under constant
mental and physical strain. “I grew old at New Century,” Alex said.When
housing prices were rising, “There weren’t any bad loans,” he said.
Like Ameriquest, Argent, and Countrywide, New Century rewarded
its top wholesale AEs, taking them on a Princess Cruise to the Bahamas
for four days of heavy drinking. Actor Tom Arnold, formerly of Fox
Sports Net’s Best Damn Sports Show Period, did a “Best Damn Mortgage
Company” routine on the ship, quizzing top executive Patrick Flanagan.
It was one big celebration of the AEs. “We were rock stars,” Alex said.
And good-looking, too. New Century liked to hire very attractive
women. Two of the founders, Morrice and Holder, left their wives for
New Century staffers whom they later married.
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chain of blame
But the company’s reliance on mortgage brokers also exposed it
to fraud. New Century financed four properties in Colorado tied to a
fraud ring that began when Torrence James and Ronald Fontenot met
in federal prison and later decided to become mortgage brokers, according to the Denver Post newspaper. The state did not regulate brokers
at the time, but has since passed a law that brokers be registered (but
not licensed). The two former prisoners allegedly arranged for properties to be bought and sold at inflated prices. Marc Loewenthal, a senior vice president with New Century, later told Orange County Register
reporter Mathew Padilla that his company bought back all four loans
from investors. He said the company developed a computer system to
detect potential fraud by identifying suspicious patterns, such as appraisers who tend to overstate the value of property. The system helped the
company avoid making nearly $1 billion in suspect loans in much of
2006, he said. It was an impressive number but also implied many suspect loans may have been funded before the system was created.
*
*
*
In 2005 New Century had its most profitable year ever, but it was also
a time when market forces began to turn against the lender. The rate
of home price appreciation peaked, a bad sign for subprime lending,
which lived off cash-out refis, when borrowers took the equity out of
their homes, usually to pay off credit card debt or auto loans. At the
same time, the Federal Reserve raised short-term interest rates to keep
inflation in check. Because long-term rates remained low, lenders saw
their profit margins squeezed. In a nutshell, they were forced to borrow
high and lend low—a deadly combination.
Even as things were getting tougher, Brad Morrice, the president
and chief operating officer, launched his campaign for control of the
company. Taking the reins of day-to-day management was easy. Holder
had left and the other two founders, Cole and Gotschall, were beginning to lack interest in tedious daily decision making, a former executive said. Morrice was the only founder who showed a steady supply of
energy and enthusiasm for the company’s day-to-day management. It
came as no surprise when New Century announced Morrice would
become chief executive on July 1, 2006, a little more than a week
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before his 50th birthday. Though giving up the coveted CEO title,
Cole remained chairman of the board. Gotschall became semiretired,
working more as a consultant, but also stayed on the board.
In January 2006—just a week before the company announced
Morrice would soon take the helm of New Century—the company’s media flack offered Orange County Register reporters Mathew
Padilla and Jeff Collins a sit-down interview with the CEO-in-waiting.
Padilla was intrigued. New Century had just come off a phenomenal
year, making $56 billion in loans and netting $400 million in profit.
Its stock price pegged the company’s worth at more than $2 billion.
But cracks were beginning to show in the mortgage banking industry.
Home prices were losing steam, and mortgage companies were killing
each other over customers. Over at Countrywide, Mozilo had been
warning publicly that there were more lenders than consumer demand
warranted.
Mozilo also said a price war between New Century and Ameriquest Mortgage was squeezing profit margins for everyone doing subprime, including his shop. In the mortgage industry a price war worked
like this: A lender kept cutting the interest rates on the loans it offered
until more business came its way. The lower the rates went, the less
profit everyone made. Of Ameriquest in particular, Mozilo was quoted
in the American Banker as saying about price cutting, “Not to demean
them in any way, but they are clearly the aggressor.” (To be sure, consumers should have benefited from such a price war except that they
often got low teaser rates and later could not afford payments when the
rates became adjustable.)
Padilla and Collins arrived at New Century’s high-rise around noon
and were shown to its boardroom, where they waited for a few minutes until Morrice arrived. When he did, the new CEO was in a jovial
mood. He shook hands with the reporters and then sat at the head of
the table and everyone began munching on sandwiches. Morrice soon
launched into a history of subprime lending and rambled on about his
old days at Plaza Home Mortgage in Santa Ana. He said it took several months for subsidiary Option One to collect enough loans to do
its first big sale to Wall Street, and on the day the deal was set to close
a fire broke out in Laguna Beach, threatening his seaside home. His wife,
frantic, called him and he told her to toss whatever she needed into the
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car and drive anywhere. He couldn’t go to meet her because he had to
stay and finish the deal. Morrice said that was his “first wife” and then
made one of several “uh-ums,” seeming to chuckle at the implication
of his remark. Morrice said he was hiring senior managers like Joseph
Eckroth, a former Mattel executive, to raise the level of management at
the company and make it more professional, more like other financial
firms. (The suggestion here was that under Cole, New Century wasn’t
hiring the best people it could.)
New Century was also seeking to diversify beyond subprime wholesale, which depended on loan brokers. For years it had a retail branch
network, but storefronts accounted for less than 10 percent of its loans.
In May 2004, it bought the rights to the retail brand Home123, and in
January 2005 it began running Home123 ads on TV and the Internet
with home improvement guru Bob Vila pitching the company. Yet
retail remained a side business, largely overshadowed by the company’s
AE salespeople, who benefited from the FastQual road shows aimed at
winning over brokers. New Century tried to expand retail and even
branched out into “A” paper lending with the $81 million acquisition of the Houston, Texas–based mortgage origination operations of
RBC Mortgage, a unit of Royal Bank of Canada, in September 2005,
just four months before the company would announce Morrice’s
ascension to CEO. It was a gamble. RBC Mortgage had been trying
to ditch the money-losing prime and alt-A business for a while. New
Century thought it could make the unit profitable and was anxious to
diversify into other loan types. It inherited 140 branches in the deal.
Shortly after the purchase, New Century said in a filing with the SEC
that the RBC operation was still losing money, though management
remained optimistic it would eventually turn profitable.
During the meet and greet and later in a phone call with Padilla,
Morrice said a price war with crosstown rival Ameriquest had gone
too far: “We kind of played that game to the point where margins
were really unacceptably low to our investors.” His plan was to become
the Wal-Mart of subprime lending—he could live with a lower margin
on each loan but make it up in volume, a classic tactic in retail sales. He
said if New Century did $56 billion in loans in 2005 it would do $100
billion in 2010. In short, he was optimistic. Still, he candidly admitted that home prices had to keep rising at least 4 percent annually for
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the company’s business model to work. New Century largely depended
on owners treating their homes like ATMs, withdrawing cash as home
prices rose and their equity expanded. “There is a big generational
change occurring from what was once the American dream of paying
off the house to a much more prevalent mind-set today of living off
the house,” Morrice said.
By the summer, with Morrice finally ensconced as CEO, the company’s profits hit a wall, and, worse, loans were beginning to go sour as
soon as they were made. It was happening to all subprime lenders—
some more than others. New Century was in the “more” category.
Borrowers would go through the trouble of getting a new loan, and
immediately default. Wall Street firms like Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch,
Credit Suisse, and others that had been extending warehouse credit and
then buying the loans so they could securitize them finally began to
take a closer look at what they were eating. It was as though Wall Street
had woken from a five-year dream, discovering that loans they once
believed in were suddenly (now possibly) tainted by fraud or sloppy
paperwork, or were simply given to people who could not afford them
and gave up trying as soon as they realized they would not be bailed
out by rising home prices. Investment bankers began to send back to
New Century any loan with a problem in its file or because the borrower had missed an early payment.
A former loan processor at New Century later said that good customers became scarce in 2006 as housing prices slid and that sales staff
began ignoring the company’s own guidelines, which already were fairly
aggressive considering 40 percent of its loans at the time were statedincome loans, meaning a borrower could get a loan while providing little or no proof of income. She said bending the rules was the only way
sales staff could get loans done. Another former employee who worked
as a loan underwriter said that some of the “exceptions” included sticking elderly borrowers on fixed incomes into adjustable-rate loans that
would eventually become unaffordable. “It got to a point where I literally got sick to my stomach,” she said. “Every day I got home and would
think to myself, I helped set someone up for failure.” When Padilla and
fellow reporter John Gittelsohn presented New Century with these
statements from former employees, a company spokeswoman said borrowers went through an extensive review, including credit checks, and
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that New Century made sure people could repay the loans or increase
their net worth through rising home equity.
By the fall of 2006, delinquencies were rising even more. Morrice
had cause for real concern, because if his company lost money, if its
profits reverted to losses for two consecutive quarters, then the Wall
Street firms providing the $15 billion bankroll could cancel their
credit lines. Their rights were clearly defined in the warehouse lending
agreements with New Century. It simply had to make money. In July,
August, and September of 2006, Wall Street firms that had paid cash
for New Century’s loans forced it to take back $182 million worth
of them—more than five times what the company had to take back
for the same period a year earlier, according to a company filing. Even
more striking, for the first nine months of 2006, New Century sold
$447 million worth of second mortgages at a discount. For the same
period a year earlier, it did not sell a single second mortgage at a discount. It appeared that as soon as home price appreciation stalled, the
dirt was crawling back out from under the rug.
Just four months after becoming chief executive, Morrice faced
the uncomfortable task of presenting New Century’s sliding profits to
investors and analysts on a conference call. One former executive said
Morrice, though sharp and confident, was not the same orator Cole
had been. The executive said when Morrice spoke to investors and
stock analysts, “They were screaming, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
From the company’s dark office tower in Irvine, Morrice and chief
financial officer Patti Dodge spoke to investors and analysts across the
nation via telephone to discuss its third quarter 2006 earnings, which
were down 45 percent from a year earlier. (New Century co-founders
Cole and Gotschall were now out of the picture, connected to the
lender as semiretired directors. They were not even on the call that day.)
Morrice, his voice steady, first declared his disappointment with
the results. Next he said the lender planned to retreat from a focus
on paying dividends—the very reason REITs existed—and would
instead focus on returning $400 million to investors via a combination
of dividends and share repurchases, which would boost the sagging
stock price. In a 180-degree reversal from the company’s previous
stance, Morrice dismissed the REIT concept, and said New Century
was “first and foremost” a mortgage banking company. Was the firm
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going to keep growing its loan portfolio? “We do not plan to add
to the portfolio going forward, simply to support a specific dividend
target,” Morrice said.
It wasn’t what analysts wanted to hear. Investment bankers on the
other end of the line peppered Morrice and Dodge with questions.
Morrice and Dodge stuck to their guns that they had the means of
providing shareholders with $400 million in value and that the best
course was to be “flexible” and either pay dividends or buy shares as
market conditions warranted. When other executives at the company
learned of the near-abandonment of the REIT status, they looked for
an underlying reason, the real reason. One executive later speculated
that Morrice struck a deal with Einhorn, who had never liked the idea
of building a portfolio of loans on the company’s books, something
essential for a REIT. The executive further speculated that perhaps
Morrice promised to back off the REIT thing if Einhorn would back
him as CEO. Nobody knew.
As if all that wasn’t enough for analysts and investors to digest on
the call, Morrice also addressed a dramatic spike in the company’s loan
delinquencies. He said New Century was tightening its lending standards. Things had gotten a little too loose in the industry, with first-time
home buyers not proving their income while borrowing heavily against
the value of their homes. The trend in delinquencies wouldn’t have a
“meaningful” impact on profits, Morrice said. Morrice was backed up
by Dodge, who said, in response to an analyst’s question, “We’ve been
planning for those higher levels of delinquency and losses all along.”
She said the company was setting aside sufficient funds to cover losses
from sour loans. But was it?
Earlier that same day, the company had issued a press release detailing its profits for the third quarter of 2006. In one part deep in the
release, the company changed the way it accounted for its reserve
(called an allowance) for loan losses by merging two categories: money
it set aside in case a loan went south and another category dubbed
“real estate owned,” for homes that the lender had taken back from
tardy payers. The total of the combined categories was $239 million,
making it appear the reserve had increased 14 percent. Just seven days
after the release and conference call with reassuring words from Dodge
and Morrice, New Century filed its official earnings report with the
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Securities and Exchange Commission. This time the two categories
were split as they always had been before, and it was clear that New
Century had not set aside $239 million for sour loans, but instead only
$192 million—a difference of $47 million. Considering that New
Century earned only $67 million in profits that quarter, the $47 million
difference in the two figures was very significant. As a lender adds to a
loss reserve, it must lower its profit by an equal portion under generally accepted accounting rules. Further, despite a deteriorating housing
market and rising loan delinquencies, New Century actually decreased
its reserve from the second quarter (when it totaled $209 million) to
the third quarter (when it totaled only $192 million). In the company’s defense, as well as the defense of Morrice and Dodge, it should
be noted that it made fewer loans in the third quarter and held less in
loans on its books, which could justify a lower reserve.
In any case, of the handful of analysts who followed the company, only one caught the accounting anomaly with the mysteriously
merged categories: Zach Gast, an analyst for the Center for Financial
Research and Analysis in Rockville, Maryland. The month of the filing,
Gast wrote a critical report on New Century, pointed out the strange
accounting, and said its reserves were getting a little thin. Unfortunately,
his report was only for paying customers of the Center for Financial
Research and not for the general public or the media. Later, Gast said
that he believes company officials intentionally misled people with the
accounting anomaly. “That’s clearly deliberate,” Gast said. “It’s a pain in
the butt to pull together these earnings releases and [quarterly reports].
When a company goes out of its way to change disclosures to hide
deteriorations, that’s a huge red flag.” He added that if the company
had done things properly, “They would have lost a significant amount
of money in that quarter, and that would have spooked the people they
depended on for liquidity as well as investors.”
*
*
*
New Century’s dwindling prospects accelerated dramatically when the
company dropped a bomb on Wall Street on February 2, 2007, saying that it didn’t properly account for problematic loans it had to take
back from investors in 2006 and that its quarterly profit statements for
that year contained accounting errors and “should no longer be relied
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upon.” Worse still, it said its profits that year were lower than previously reported. Brad Morrice read a brief statement to investors over
the telephone. He did not take questions, and no one at the company
would comment further on its earnings.
Morrice had to contend with a tidal wave of negative reaction to
the news. The company’s stock plummeted 36 percent the next day
to close at $19.24, its lowest level in four years. The drop wiped out
$600 million of the company’s stock value in one day. Richard Eckert,
at the time an analyst with Roth Capital Partners in Newport Beach,
said that day, “Restating earnings is like telling your investors you lied
to them.” Eckert, who followed the company and had a “buy” rating
on the stock before the news, seemed perturbed in a phone call with
Padilla. He said it was no coincidence that the company was disclosing
errors at about the same time it had to file its annual report with the
SEC. The annual report must be independently audited, whereas quarterly reports do not. Morrice and other executives hunkered down
after the disclosure. They declined all phone or face-to-face interview
requests by Padilla and other reporters.
A month later, on March 2, New Century dropped another bomb.
It said in a filing that it expected to report a loss for all of 2006, partly
because it should have added to its reserve for loan losses (exactly as
analyst Zach Gast had said). As if that wasn’t enough, New Century
also said that its $17.7 billion in credit lines could be jeopardized by its
accounting errors and financial loss in 2006. New Century said that it
had obtained some waivers from its creditors on such issues, but that if
it did not obtain more waivers, then its auditor KPMG would question
its ability to remain solvent. And to round out New Century’s many
interesting disclosures that day, the company said the United States
Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California was conducting
a criminal inquiry in connection with trading in its securities and the
irregular accounting for loan losses. Investigators did not disclose who
they were looking at or what transactions. (A few months later New
Century would disclose that the SEC had launched a formal investigation.) In the months before New Century’s disclosure of accounting
errors, Ed Gotschall sold a few thousand shares for $121,806. But in
2006, the year of the accounting errors, Gotschall, semiretired but still
on the board, sold nearly $20 million worth of shares and exercised his
rights to buy $4.6 million in shares at cheaper historical prices. Also in
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2006, Cole, who remained chairman of the board but stepped down as
CEO that summer, sold $7.4 million in shares and did not buy a single
share. Perhaps to his credit, Morrice sold the least shares, $1.6 million
worth, and spent $849,702 on discounted shares.
An analyst had raised the issue of stock sales during the company’s
conference call to discuss third quarter 2006 earnings. Since Cole and
Gotschall weren’t on the call that day, Morrice spoke for them, saying
it had to do with their “personal financial planning.” They were heavily
invested in one stock and wanted to diversify, and even after all stock
sales they remained large shareholders. And they did: Their last filings
show they each owned more than 1 million shares after all sales, with
Morrice owning even more, at 1.4 million shares. Morrice also pointed
out that Cole and Gotschall had sold shares under predetermined
plans. (When Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide was criticized for selling
shares in his company while its fortunes waned, he, too, used the “predetermined plan” rationale.) That was also true, but the timing of the
plans could be questioned. For example, Cole and Gotschall each sold
100,000 shares in August 2006 under plans adopted two months earlier.
By the time those plans were adopted, June 2006, it was clear the subprime industry and New Century in particular were getting rocked by
falling profit margins and rising loan delinquencies.
On the first business day following the late Friday filing with such
devastating disclosures by New Century, a couple of analysts from
Merrill Lynch issued a report saying the company was on the precipice of a “death spiral” and that its board of directors should consider
bankruptcy to preserve whatever assets it could. As one might imagine,
the company’s stock tanked. It fell 69 percent to close the day at $4.59,
erasing another $560 million in market value.
Morrice was getting desperate. The next day he hastily convened
a conference call with 11 of the company’s creditors—including Wall
Street behemoths Citigroup and Goldman Sachs—who were holding
its mortgages as collateral for $8.5 billion in debts, according to a story
in the Wall Street Journal. Shareholder and board member Einhorn
joined him on the call. Morrice sketched a plan he had concocted with
Einhorn and Bear Stearns. If the investment bankers would release the
mortgages to New Century, it would make new bonds to sell and repay
the lenders. Einhorn said he would consider buying the riskiest of the
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new bonds, which likely would find few takers, and Bear Stearns bankers said the plan could work. The creditors hung up more concerned
than before. Morrice had said the company’s cash had dwindled to
$40 million, down from $100 million a day earlier and $350 million at
the end of 2006, according to the Journal. That night Citigroup bankers
wrote a letter saying New Century needed to meet a margin call on its
credit line and demanding $80 million by the next day. Citigroup also
demanded it take back $717 million in loans. Other bankers followed,
and New Century quickly got slammed with demands that it take back
nearly $9 billion in loans.
Morrice was out of moves. Completely overwhelmed, New Century became the largest mortgage company to fail since the housing downturn began when it declared bankruptcy on April 2, 2007,
and immediately fired 3,200 people, or more than half its workforce.
Morrice delivered the dire news to employees during a conference call.
He choked up, seemingly on the verge of tears, and then steadied himself. He stuck to his script, saying, “This was a very hard step for me
personally and clearly not the outcome I would have preferred.”
But there was an outcome that Morrice had passed on: About a
year earlier Merrill Lynch & Company and its CEO, Stanley O’Neal,
were in the hunt to buy a subprime originator, and not just any firm—
they wanted a top-ranked lender. Even though its profit margins were
starting to thin in early 2006, Morrice’s company more than fit the bill.
According to a report in the Orange County Register and later interviews, Merrill Lynch in early 2006 was talking to Morrice about buying the nation’s largest publicly traded subprime lender for $52 to $55
a share. At the time New Century was trading just shy of $52. Morrice
and the board balked. No deal. It was having some (profit) margin
compression, yes, but to the former corporate attorney the future still
looked mostly bright.
When the bankruptcy papers were filed, the mortgage industry
expressed disbelief. The lender’s fortunes had crumbled rapidly.
Subprime loan brokers would have to find another wholesaler to
deal with. Richard Wilkes, who had spent his career managing mostly
“A” paper lending shops, noted that loan brokers weren’t the only
ones upset by New Century’s collapse. “In Orange County all the
Lamborghini dealers flew their flags at half-mast,” he said.
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Chapter 8
A Conspiracy by Merrill?
Oh, it just pissed him off.
—A former Bear Stearns managing director
when asked about Merrill Lynch CEO
Stan O’Neal and his jealousy of Lehman’s and
Bear’s subprime securitization business
The most dangerous moment in any financial market boom is the
one where the suppliers of funds stop paying attention.
—Peter Martin, economics editor of the CANBERRA TIMES
W
hen a mortgage trader from Wall Street gets on the telephone and calls the manager in charge of originations at a
residential shop, he doesn’t have time to ask about the
lender’s sick mother or how his kids are doing. It’s not that kind of relationship. It is—and always has been—about getting the lender on that
particular day to sell as many loans as possible (product) at the best possible price to the loan trader’s firm. That’s what mortgage trading is all
about. Trading loans on Wall Street is, for the most part, a male-dominated
business, and always has been. As sexist as it may sound, it’s not a business
fit for women “unless they have balls,” as one former trader put it.
179
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There will be a courting—a wining and dining of the mortgage
banker. The man in charge of making the “sell” decision for the nonbank mortgage lender usually carries a title like “senior vice president in
change of capital markets” or something with the phrase secondary marketing in it. (Once the consumer signs on the dotted line, the ink dries,
and the loan is resold, it’s considered a secondary market transaction—
whether it’s bought by Fannie Mae, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, or
some other investor.) It stands to reason that when the lender’s capital
markets chief visits the island of Manhattan, he will be taken out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, attend a Knicks or Yankees game, or be put in a
limo and driven down to Atlantic City to take in a show and spend the
evening gambling at the blackjack or craps table. It’s about winning over
that executive, giving him something of value, and establishing a financial
bond. But when that telephone rings between the hours of nine and five
and the trader is on the other side, he doesn’t necessarily care how your
weekend was. He wants to know how much in product (loans) you’ll be
sending his way, either right away or in a forward commitment, a promise to deliver millions in loans over the next few months.
There’s a reason for this, no doubt. The trader wants to take those
mortgages and package them into a bond—and so does his competitor
a few blocks away or in midtown at Bear Stearns on Madison Avenue.
That’s what Wall Street does. The higher the yield on that bond, the
more money an issuer can make. It doesn’t matter that the yield is only
1 percent or 2 percent above a comparable Treasury bond or a Fannie
Mae or Freddie Mac security. When you’re dealing with bonds worth
millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, one point means a boatload of additional cash for the investor.
It just so happens that the highest-yielding mortgage bonds are collateralized by loans made to Americans with bad credit. A lender that
plays in the subprime space—such as Angelo Mozilo’s Countrywide,
Roland Arnall’s Ameriquest, or any number of other firms—charges
the borrower more interest for that A– to D loan than they would on
a Fannie/Freddie loan because of the risk involved in giving money to
people whose credit histories suggest that paying their bills on time is
not at the top of their to-do list.
Smart mortgage managers thoroughly review the borrower’s credit
history and appraise the house to make certain that if the loan goes
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south at least there will be equity there to serve as a buffer against losses.
At least that’s how subprime loans were made for decades until the
modern era, which might be argued began in 2000 (or after the crash
of 1998). When the modern era came along, going over the loan file
with a microscope was out the door. Time-consuming and bothersome
tasks like reviewing loan files could be outsourced to firms like Clayton
Holdings of Connecticut, The Bohan Group of San Francisco, or Opus
Capital of Chicago, among others. (Those are the three largest.)
Each and every Wall Street firm playing in the subprime arena from
2002 to early 2007—the largest gold rush in mortgages since the inception of the mortgage-backed security (MBS) two decades earlier—
had a three-pronged approach to sucking as many subprime loans as
they could out of nondepositories like Ameriquest, New Century,
Ownit Mortgage (Bill Dallas’s last company), Aegis (Rick Thompson/
Cerberus), or any other B&C, alt-A, or stated-income lender, most of
which were headquartered in Orange County, California. The approach
started with salespeople.
“The sales guys from the Street would come talk to you and hype
you up,” said one subprime executive from Irvine. “They would try to
get you to do something. From Monday to Thursday you would make
the loans, put all the data in a spreadsheet, and send it to the Street, and
they’d call you back with their bids. By Friday your mistake would be
in the marketplace.”
From 2004 onward Steve Hultquist, executive vice president in
charge of capital markets for Aegis in Houston, Texas, was visited once
a week by salesmen from Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and other investment banking houses that were searching for mortgages to securitize.
Hultquist was in charge of alt-A loans (subprime in nature but with
good FICO scores) and payment option ARMs (loans where the homeowners could keep their payment artificially low by increasing their
future debt). The privately held Aegis used mostly loan brokers to
gather mortgages. Why? Because if the loan broker didn’t produce, it
wouldn’t cost Aegis a dime. If the broker brought a fundable loan to
the company, only then would Aegis have to pay. There would be no
benefits, medical plan, or 401(k) to worry about. That was the beauty
of loan brokers, as Arnall and Mozilo could attest: less overhead to
worry about.
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Each and every morning Hultquist’s team of account executives
(AEs) would e-mail or fax Aegis rate sheets to thousands of loan brokers across the nation, telling them what type of mortgages they were
willing to originate, and on what terms. The lists of loans that Aegis
would fund were referred to as menus and included such essentials as
how high the loan-to-value (LTV) ratio and borrower’s debt-to-income
(DTI) ratio could be. Hultquist and his subprime counterpart at Aegis,
Soc Aramburu, didn’t create their loan menus in a vacuum. Aegis sold
its subprime and alt-A loans to any number of Wall Street firms, including Bear Stearns, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Greenwich Capital,
and Merrill Lynch. If the Street wouldn’t buy, there would be no loans
to originate. As a nonbank wholesale lender, Aegis’ menu was shaped
almost entirely by its investors on Wall Street—what type of mortgages
they were willing to buy. “The salesmen from the Street would come
and pitch their products,” said Hultquist, “and we would listen.”
The initial approach from a Wall Street firm to a subprime executive didn’t always start with a salesman. Sometimes the trader would
just cold call a subprime manager he had met at an industry trade show
or look at a ranking of top subprime lenders and dial his way through
an automated phone system (if he didn’t have a business card). But the
action (the three-pronged approach) always started with a salesman or
trader. It’s the job of the salesman to “make the bell ring,” so to speak.
Next came the quant, short for quantitative analyst. It was the quant’s
job to analyze the loans the Street firm was purchasing—to look at the
Excel spreadsheets coming in and make sure the product (mortgages)
was up to snuff. “The quants are the ones who tell you why they are
kicking stuff back,” recalled one subprime executive.
The quants act, more or less, like the compliance department of
a lender such as Countrywide. On Wall Street the quant’s job isn’t to
underwrite the loan. That’s the mortgage banker’s job, or at least it
used to be before stated-income loans (borrowers state their income
and the lender believes it as long as the FICO score is decent) came
along and dominated the business. If a mortgage executive selling loans
to Wall Street has a problem with what he’s being told about the quality of the loans he’s offering, he might complain to the quant; but the
final decision whether to buy a loan pool rests with the loan trader,
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who nine times out of 10 carries the title of managing director. On
Wall Street, managing directors are king—they share in the firm’s
profits. Some traders started out as salesmen and moved up. In time,
traders (stocks or bonds—it doesn’t matter) eventually become CEOs.
Quants rarely take that route. As one loan trader put it: “Quants move
on to hedge funds.”
Once a Wall Street firm agrees to buy a large pool of mortgages
from a nonbank, that’s where the outsourcing firms come in: Clayton
Holdings, Bohan, and Opus. It’s their job to reunderwrite the file, to
assure the investment banking firm that the file is fine—that it’s the
type of subprime or alt-A loan that can go safely into a security. But
Wall Street isn’t stupid when it comes to controlling costs. It uses
outsourcing firms for one very practical reason: full-time equivalents
(FTEs), or employees who are on the payroll, which means they are
entitled to benefits. The goal of every good managing director on Wall
Street is to keep down the number of FTEs unless they are revenue
producers like salespeople and traders. Why? It’s simple, says Richard
Wilkes, who spent 30-plus years as a mortgage banker before starting
a recruiting firm that helped Morgan Stanley staff up for a new
mortgage conduit1 during the subprime boom. “FTEs get charged
against revenue,” he said. “Bonuses are paid on revenue.” No FTEs,
and the revenue numbers look better—a whole lot better. “The Street
didn’t want to hire their own underwriters,” he added. “They’re traders,
not originators. Hiring underwriters increases costs.” Early on, when
Morgan Stanley began staffing up its conduit, the total FTE allocation
was $1.25 million: $1 million for the managing director in charge of
the group and $250,000 for his secretary. That was it. Everything else
was outsourced.
For Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, and the other investment banking
firms thirsting after the subprime business, there was one last piece
of the puzzle when it came to attracting mortgage lenders that they
could buy mortgages from: warehouse lines of credit. In 2002, five
of the seven largest subprime originators in the land were nonbanks
1 A conduit is a legal structure, an entity through which a Wall Street firm buys loans from
a lender and securitizes them into mortgage- or asset-backed bonds.
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(Ameriquest, Household Finance, New Century, Option One, and
Homecomings), which meant they needed to borrow large sums of
money to originate loans either through their branches or through
independent loan brokers. A warehouse line was a big loan—nothing
more, nothing less—but without it there was no fuel to fire the origination machine that the subprime industry would turn into. And there
were only two places to get warehouse credit: large banks (or thrifts
like Washington Mutual) or Wall Street. According to Frank Hattemer,
senior vice president in charge of warehouse lending at Washington
Mutual (WaMu), the Street’s game was this: extend warehouse loans to
nonbanks at no cost in order to get their securitization business. There
was nothing Hattemer could do about it. His department wasn’t in
business to offer something for nothing.
In 1995, two years before Arnall spun off Long Beach Financial
into a publicly traded New York Stock Exchange company, the entire
subprime industry originated just $35 billion in mortgages, or just
5 percent of the residential loans funded in the United States that year.
After the Russian debt crisis of 1998 and the resulting meltdown of
the subprime industry, which lasted about two years, the business came
back, first gradually and then like a gale-force hurricane. “Wall Street
ran away from the business during the Russian debt crisis but got right
back in,” said Hattemer.
As to why the Street had suddenly reversed course after a two-year
lull in subprime, there are theories and there are facts. Fact: Interest rates
were falling to historical lows. In June 2003 the Federal Reserve, nursing a recovering post-9/11 economy, cut short-term rates one final time,
to just 1 percent, which meant subprime lenders of all stripes could borrow money cheaply and lend it out to consumers at rates not too much
higher than what Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were charging. Profit
margins were huge. Fact: Home prices were rising steadily in several hot
real estate markets like Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego.
If a newly originated loan went bad in one of those markets, there
would be 25 percent more in home equity to take away the blues of the
foreclosing lender. Fact: Wall Street firms, which at first had encouraged
overly optimistic gain-on-sale accounting (booking tomorrow’s profits today on securitizations), were preaching to the new breed of lenders to be more conservative. Fact: Being conservative on gain-on-sale
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accounting wasn’t a big deal anymore, because Wall Street had, finally,
found a way to take the riskiest pieces of a securitization (the subordinated or “B” pieces) and put them into larger securities called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). With CDOs the risk was transferred to
institutional investors both in the United States and overseas.
The Street surmised that as long as home prices kept going up at a
rate of 25 percent a year, there would be nothing to worry about. Fact:
Eric Billings and Friedman Billings Ramsey (FBR) were converting
dozens of new and existing subprime lenders into real estate investment trusts (REITs), which had balance sheets that could hold those
risky subprime “B” pieces if need be. Theory: Starting in 2003 Fannie
Mae and Freddie Mac—the government-chartered mortgage investing behemoths whose mission in life was to buy “A” paper loans and
provide liquidity to all sectors of the market—were flat on their backs,
dealing with multibillion-dollar accounting scandals. In the past, the two
government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) had been innovators, creating
new loans that mortgage bankers could make to their consumer customers. With Fannie’s and Freddie’s top managers being given the boot
and investigators and politicians breathing down their necks, Fannie and
Freddie weren’t innovating anything. Moreover, their ability to buy
loans was hampered by their accounting problems. In stepped Wall
Street, with Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns leading the way, extending huge warehouse lines of credit to nonbanks (at dirt-cheap prices),
buying their mortgages, securitizing them, and then selling the end
bonds to pension funds, insurance companies, municipalities in Florida,
and German banks (and others). It was all about yield. Subprime loans
had yield. Yield made the phones ring and investors say yes.
In 2003, when “A” paper rates fell to 5 percent and consumers
rushed to refinance their existing homes and buy new ones, loan originations in the United States reached a record $3.9 trillion, with subprime loans accounting for $390 billion or 10 percent. The next year,
total home fundings fell to $2.8 trillion but subprime lending soared to
$608 billion or almost 22 percent of the market—a record. Fannie and
Freddie appeared to be fading fast. Bill Dallas, who had sold his first
subprime company, First Franklin, to National City in 1999, remaining
as chairman emeritus of the subprime lender, decided to go out on
his own and start a new subprime wholesaler called Ownit Mortgage
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Solutions, located close to his home in Agoura Hills (and not too far
from where Mozilo had his mansion). Dallas, who had cemented his
reputation in the industry by doubling his money on First Franklin,
believed he could ride the mortgage cycle one more time. His private
equity backer was once again CIVC Partners2 of Chicago, which also
had invested in First Franklin and shared the profits when National
City bought the lender. Brimming with confidence, one of his bios
read: “Bill Dallas is famous for his crystal-ball clairvoyance and cuttingedge approach to mortgage lending.” When word got out that Dallas
was back in business, Wall Street firms starting showing up at his office
armed with their briefcases and league tables. “When they visit, they
pull out the league tables and show where they’re ranked,” he later
recalled. “They’re always armed with those league tables.”
In the case of subprime mortgages, a league table is a ranking of the
top issuers of asset-backed securities (ABSs). All subprime mortgages are
backed by homes, but to distinguish the business from “A” paper loans
that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac might purchase, Wall Street started
using the term ABS.3 When Dallas started Ownit Mortgage, Royal
Bank of Scotland (which had bought Greenwich Capital) dominated
the securitization business, along with Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse,
Citigroup,4 Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns. “When the subprime
business recovered, Lehman was making money hand over fist,” recalled
Dallas. “To many, Lehman owned the market.” The one Wall Street
giant buried in the rankings on the league tables being shown to Dallas
was Merrill Lynch. “Merrill,” as Dallas noted, “was late to the party.”
*
*
*
The bread and butter of making money on Wall Street lies in selling
stocks and bonds. Over the past century some firms have built their
2
Bank of America, even though it took pride in having exited the subprime lending
business in the previous decade, owned a stake in CIVC.
3 Besides home mortgages, ABSs might also include credit card receivables, auto loans, or
other consumer products.
4
Citigroup Securities, the investment banking arm of the company, included Salomon
Brothers Smith Barney.
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reputations on being specialists in one or the other, but few have been
kings in both of these lucrative sectors for very long. When E. Stanley
O’Neal was promoted to CEO of Merrill Lynch in the summer of
2002, he aimed to change the perception among institutional investors
that the firm—even though it had 15,000 retail brokers worldwide—
was solely an expert in selling stocks. More than anything else, O’Neal,
a native of Alabama and the only African-American ever to head a
traditional Wall Street firm, wanted to expand the firm’s presence in
corporate finance—and bonds in particular. “He came from the bowels
of the organization,” said Angelo Mozilo, who counted O’Neal among
his friends. (Countrywide was a corporate client of Merrill Lynch,
borrowing money through commercial paper and warehouse lines. At
various points in its history, Merrill had raised equity for Mozilo’s company.) Unlike many of his CEO predecessors at Merrill, O’Neal didn’t
start out at the firm as a retail stockbroker.
Like Mozilo, the new Merrill CEO came from humble beginnings. His grandparents were slaves, his parents farmers. O’Neal himself
worked on the assembly line at General Motors (GM) before moving
up into the automaker’s finance department and attending Harvard
Business School, paid for by GM. “When Stan came in, there was a lot
of angst in the organization,” said Mozilo. “Stan came from corporate.”
Two factions developed at Merrill: corporate, where O’Neal had
worked, and equities. Shortly after taking over, O’Neal moved to cut
costs, and eliminated 24,000 positions, including hundreds of middle
managers and senior executives he considered unessential. It was one of
the biggest housecleanings ever on Wall Street—and had nothing to do
with a market correction.
Pat Flood of HomeBanc Mortgage remembered the housecleaning well. He had been selling millions of dollars’ worth of mortgages to
Merrill’s trading desk in New York. The relationship went back at least
five years. “When O’Neal came in, the message we got from Merrill was
that they didn’t know what they were going to be doing in mortgages,”
he said. “There was a lull there for a while, and during that lull Bear
Stearns starting paying up for our loans.” So long Merrill. Hello Bear.
During that lull it didn’t take O’Neal long to realize one central fact
about the bond market. As a financier who headed corporate finance
(lending money to companies and markets), he quickly did the math
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and came to know what every other top player in mortgages already had
ingrained in their memory banks: Residential mortgages represented
the largest debt market not only in the United States but in the entire
world. Americans owed $8 trillion on their homes—even more than the
federal government owed on all its Treasury bonds (even with record
deficits during the Bush years). And with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
ailing, subprime volumes were taking off. In 2000, Wall Street firms had
securitized $74 billion in subprime ABSs, or just 7 percent of all home
loans originated that year. Two years later that figure had more than tripled to $233 billion in ABSs.5 When Bill Dallas looked at the league
tables that year, Merrill Lynch was ranked fourth from the bottom with
just $8 billion in subprime securitizations. According to Dallas, who had
been in meetings with O’Neal, the new CEO of Merrill Lynch was not
happy about his company’s standing in the league tables. “They wanted
in—in a big way,” he said. “They felt left out.”
But to get into mortgages, Merrill was missing two essential ingredients: an aggressive trading desk with salespeople and traders who
could court firms like Dallas’s Ownit; his former shop, First Franklin; as
well as every other subprime lender, many of which had their headquarters in Orange County. Almost every Wall Street firm that ranked high
in the securitization league tables had loan traders or salespeople who
were well known among the lenders they were buying loans from. At
Lehman Brothers there were Tim Fitzpatrick and Matt Miller. At Bear
Stearns there were Mike Nierenberg and Jeff Verschleiser, with Baron
Silverstein assisting on sales; at Deutsche Bank, Michael Commaroto and
Paul Mangione, with John Groesbeck on sales; at Nomura Securities,
Steve Katz; at Citigroup, Jeff Perlowitz was in charge of the desk. It was
a club, and if they didn’t personally know one another, they were, at the
very least, aware of who the competition might be across town or two
blocks to the south.
Traders, in the words of former Nomura executive Neil Spagna,
“live in a small world” but control a huge business: mortgages. As
Spagna once noted, “The traders put the deals together; they run the
business. They’re the ones responsible for the P&L.”6
5 According
6
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to ABS rankings compiled by Thomson Financial.
P&L stands for profit and loss.
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According to Dallas and others, O’Neal’s message to Merrill’s
mortgage department was clear: Go after the subprime business. Be
number one. By 2004 Merrill began to move up in the ABS league table
rankings. It was in that year that Countrywide’s capital markets group,
Countrywide Securities Corporation, blew away the competition, securitizing $72 billion in subprime and nonprime loans. Mozilo, who at
first had resisted the subprime business, was now the chairman and CEO
of not only the largest prime lender, but the fastest growing subprime
originator—plus the top securitizer of non-Fannie/Freddie loans.
O’Neal grew anxious about the business. He felt he was missing
the boat. “Stan didn’t want to get left behind,” said Mozilo. According
to Bill Dallas, O’Neal shoved aside the senior manager in charge of the
mortgage department, replacing him with Michael Blum, who carried
the title of managing director in charge of global asset-based finance. It
was the job of Blum and his team to take pools of receivables (loans or
similar debt instruments), including mortgages, credit cards, car loans,
and even loans made to movie studios, and turn them into “investments
for sophisticated investors.” Sophisticated investors meant institutional
investors—pension funds, insurance companies, and overseas banks and
governments. Investments meant bonds. The message Dallas heard from
O’Neal and the traders he was beginning to work with at Merrill was
that the nation’s number-one seller of retail stocks not only wanted
to be number one in residential ABSs, but wanted to be number one
worldwide. “Stan was the one driving it,” said Dallas.
With Blum now in charge of Merrill’s mortgage effort, things began
to change. In April 2004 Merrill hired a trader named George Davies to
help ramp up the volume of loans coming through the firm’s trading
desk. One subprime executive who did business with Merrill remembered getting a phone call from Davies in 2004. “Merrill was on the
prowl then,” said the executive. “Davies called me up and said, ‘We’re
buying.’” And buy Merrill did. But it wasn’t just the fact that Merrill
was now in the market, getting the word out to every subprime lender
that would listen; it began paying more for loans than every other Street
firm. In the lingo of mortgage trading, a loan bought at par is sold for
100 cents on the dollar. But during the subprime boom of 2002 to
2006, no lenders in their right mind would accept par for their loans.
The idea was to get as much as they could—102, 103, 104, sometimes
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chain of blame
even 105 cents on the dollar. (This was a great deal for originators like
Dallas’s Ownit Mortgage, because not only was the company making
points and fees from the consumer getting the loan, it was also getting a
premium from Wall Street.)
If Merrill Lynch agreed to buy a $100,000 subprime mortgage for
105 cents on the dollar, that meant the originator of that loan would
receive $105,000 back from Merrill. Merrill and other investment
banks, by practice, rarely bought one loan at a time—they bought them
in huge pools. (A pool consists of many mortgages, totaling tens of
millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.) Why would the Street
pay $105,000 for a loan that had a principal balance of only $100,000?
There were two reasons: First, subprime mortgages carried higher
interest rates than Fannie/Freddie loans, so investors would find the
subprime bonds more attractive because of the higher yield and pay up
for them. The other reason had to do with interest payments. During
the first seven years of a loan, consumers pay mostly interest, and even
on a $100,000 loan that can add up to thousands of dollars over time.
Some of the loans the Street was buying carried prepayment penalties where the consumer was charged a large fee for refinancing the
mortgage. When it came to subprime, the ultimate quest of Merrill,
Bear, and the other firms was to create a bond that could be sold to
another investor. Bond investors don’t like surprises—but they do
like yield.
To entice Bill Dallas and other subprime executives into selling their
loans to Merrill, its salesmen offered them a deal: If you agree to sell
your loans to us, we’ll offer warehouse financing for next to nothing.
Merrill’s warehouse chief was Jim Cason, who had been with the firm
for a couple of years. With O’Neal’s edict to grow the firm’s subprime
business, Cason’s unit, by 2005, became one of the largest warehouse
lenders to nonbank residential lenders in the nation. “The idea was to
create a one-stop shopping place for subprime lenders,” said one warehouse executive familiar with Merrill’s effort. “Merrill would make no
money on their warehouse business, but it would do it to get the securitization business.” As George Davies, the head trader, later admitted:
“The idea was to secure product [mortgages].”
By the time 2005 ended, Merrill was the seventh largest issuer of
subprime ABSs in the United States out of a growing field that now
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191
included 25 securities underwriters. That year Merrill had bought
and securitized $30 billion in subprime mortgages, and was just a few
billion dollars behind its archrivals, Bear Stearns and Countrywide.
Even Washington Mutual, a thrift, had started a capital markets group
to securitize all the subprime loans being funded by its Long Beach
Mortgage subsidiary, the company it had bought a decade earlier, just
19 months after Arnall spun it off in an initial public offering (IPO). In
April 2006 George Davies was hired away by WaMu, which was beginning to have its own ideas about becoming a major player in subprime
securitizations. (“It was considered a major coup when we landed
Davies,” noted one WaMu senior vice president.) Replacing Davies as
head trader was John O’Grady.
O’Grady, said one Irvine-based mortgage executive, was “gung-ho
and bullish for subprime.” He took O’Neal’s edict on ABSs and ran
with it. O’Grady didn’t give the warm and fuzzies to some of the origination executives he was dealing with at the subprime shops, but most
hardly cared—as long as Merrill kept paying more than anyone else
for loans. “O’Grady looks like William F. Buckley with those glasses of
his and all,” said one manager who traded with him. “It was like he
was talking at you, but as long as they were bidding stuff up we sold to
them. We had a name for O’Grady—we called him ‘The Irishman.’ He
had to sign off on any deal [trade] over $50 million.”
*
*
*
By 2005, unbeknownst to most American borrowers, a handful of Wall
Street firms had been in the business of actually originating residential
loans for well over a decade. It was a well-kept secret—outside the mortgage industry, that is—because that’s the way Wall Street wanted it. The
last thing the brokerage side of Lehman Brothers needed was its equities
business to be marred by negative headlines about its residential loan unit.
In the previous decade Lehman had launched a residential loan division
called Aurora Loan Services, headquartered in the Denver suburb of the
same name. Bear Stearns was also in the business through a company
called EMC Mortgage of Irving, Texas. No one at Bear even knew what
the initials EMC meant, but the going joke was that it stood for “Ed’s
Mortgage Company.” Ed was Ed Raice, EMC’s president.
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EMC was born in the ashes of the savings and loan (S&L)
crisis and was started as a way for Bear to invest in delinquent residential and apartment loans from the government. Over time, as the S&L
crisis waned, EMC morphed into a subprime lender. Working in tandem with its parent, Bear Stearns, EMC originated its own loans but
also bought large bulk packages of mortgages through such lenders
as New Century and Option One Mortgage. The mortgages—to
no one’s surprise—were securitized by Bear’s capital markets group
in New York. Oh, and there was one other thing: EMC and Aurora
didn’t exactly have retail loan offices where a home buyer could walk
in off the street and fill out a loan application. Both lenders originated
mortgages only through loan brokers and small mortgage banking
firms (mostly nonbanks) called correspondents. Having retail employees to pay would result in more full-time equivalents (FTEs) on the
payroll—and that would, of course, eat into a managing director’s
bonus money.
Merrill Lynch also owned a mortgage company, but unlike Bear
and Lehman it actually put its own name on the subsidiary and wanted
everyone to know it—as long as they were a client of the firm’s retail
brokerage unit. And being that Merrill had 15,000 stockbrokers, chances
were high-net-worth individuals (rich people) who bought and sold
stocks through the Wall Street giant knew about it. Based in Jacksonville,
Florida, Merrill Lynch Mortgage Capital, managed for many years by
CEO Larry Washington, specialized in making mortgages to its own
brokerage clients—people with (presumably) very good credit. “They
were going after high-net-worth individuals who were clients of its
brokerage business,” noted Mozilo. To many who worked at Merrill
in the Komansky or Tully eras,7 the idea that Merrill would originate
subprime loans (much less lend money to nonbanks that played in the
hard-money arena) was anathema. Merrill Lynch was about catering
to the rich—not making mortgages to home buyers who lived from
paycheck to paycheck. All that changed in October 2005 when Merrill
revealed that it had invested $100 million in Bill Dallas’s latest venture
7 Dan Tully and David Komansky were O’Neal’s predecessors at Merrill. Both came from
the retail side of the business.
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in subprime lending, Ownit Mortgage Solutions of Woodland Hills,
California.8
“Stan wanted to be in the direct origination business,” remembered Dallas, who, along with his partners at CIVC, were happy to take
O’Neal’s money. “They came and valued us at $500 million.” Suddenly,
Merrill not only was in the business of lending to rich people (its
clients) but now also owned 20 percent of Ownit, the youngest and
fastest growing subprime lender in the nation.9 Dallas and his partners
were hoping that Ownit, on track to fund $8.2 billion that year, would
turn out to be another First Franklin, which under National City was
coming off a $30 billion origination year. Merrill placed Mike Blum,
the managing director in charge of global asset-based finance, on
Ownit’s board. As one Ownit executive noted: “Blum was intimately
involved with us.” Merrill was now on the hunt to purchase stakes in
other subprime lenders as well.
Alexander “Zan” Hamilton, a former investment banker in the
mortgage group of Credit Suisse, recalled sitting in the executive dining room with Merrill’s Mike Blum in New York, listening to him talk
about the firm’s plans to buy stakes in other subprime lenders as well. “It
was all about the trading desk owning the originators,” said Hamilton.
In 2003 Hamilton left Wall Street and became CEO of LIME Financial
Services of Lake Oswego, Oregon, a nonbank mortgage lender started
by Fred Baldwin, a former partner of Bill Dallas. Dallas had merged
an early incarnation of First Franklin into Baldwin’s company, Trillium
Mortgage. Prior to the merger, Dallas’s First Franklin was an “A” paper
lender only. Trillium was subprime. “Fred was the guy who taught Bill
how to make subprime loans,” said Hamilton.
Meanwhile, Mozilo and O’Neal had become friends, serving on
the President’s Business Council and occasionally playing golf together.
(In some press reports O’Neal, a member of at least four country clubs,
had been described as a golf fanatic. His handicap was nine.) To those
who knew him, O’Neal could be standoffish and had a reputation at
8
Dallas and CIVC bought into a smaller nonbank lender called Oakmont Mortgage in
December 2003. Dallas became its chairman and CEO and changed the name of the
company to Ownit Mortgage Solutions.
9 According
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to originations rankings compiled by SourceMedia.
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times of being a bit of a loner, but he and Mozilo had a common bond:
the mortgage business. Some analysts had even speculated that “Mother
Merrill” (as the firm was once called for its maternal nurturing of
executives) might even buy Countrywide.
Between 2003 and 2006, Merrill’s operating profit averaged $5.2
billion, more than double the $2.1 billion average in the preceding five
years. It looked as though the O’Neal years were going to be good
ones for the firm. By mid-2006 Merrill’s subprime securitization business was humming, and so was its collateralized debt obligation (CDO)
business. Merrill had embarked on a strategy of buying subprime loans
(providing warehouse lines to those same originators), securitizing the
mortgages into ABSs, and then taking some of the riskier tranches of
those securities and putting them into CDOs, selling the end bond to
U.S. buyers or overseas.
Rumors began to surface that the investment bank was in the hunt
to buy pieces of even more subprime firms or own a large lender outright. Two executives in Merrill’s mortgage group, Matt Whalen and
Vince Mora, had been put in charge of scouring potential candidates to
purchase. For a while, Merrill courted New Century, which was second
only to Arnall’s Ameriquest in originating subprime loans, but the two
sides couldn’t come to terms. New Century’s CEO-in-waiting, Brad
Morrice, thought the offering price of $52 to $55 a share was too low,
even though its profit margins were beginning to suffer, said a Morrice
colleague.10
Merrill continued talking to other lenders. It wasn’t content to own
just 20 percent of Dallas’s Ownit and parts of other firms. It was missing a key ingredient in its soup-to-nuts approach of creating subprime
ABSs and CDOs: owning an actual lender that could absolutely guarantee Mother Merrill a steady flow of mortgages that it could package
into ABSs and then carve up into CDOs. Even though Mozilo and
10 In mid-2003 the Federal Reserve, under chairman Alan Greenspan, began increasing
short-term rates, which also upped the borrowing costs for lenders using warehouse lines
and/or deposits. Unlike in past mortgage cycles, this time long-term rates on mortgages
did not rise in tandem with short-term rates. One reason lenders did not hike the rates on
mortgages sold to consumers was the fear of losing business. Competition was stiff—from
both new firms and “A” lenders entering the subprime niche.
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O’Neal were golfing buddies, the Merrill CEO never once let on that
the world’s largest investment banking firm wanted to own a company
that actually funded mortgages. “Never in my conversations with Stan
did it come up,” Mozilo later recalled.
In early September of 2006, Merrill announced it was buying Bill
Dallas’s old firm, First Franklin, from National City, the Cleveland-based
money center bank. The price, which included two other related businesses (one that serviced loans on a monthly basis), was $1.3 billion—
four times what National City had paid for First Franklin back in 1999.
When the news reached Mozilo, he was taken aback. He asked O’Neal
why Merrill was getting into his business. “It’s part of our plan” was
O’Neal’s reply. Mozilo knew exactly what that “plan” was—it was his
plan. Countrywide originated subprime mortgages and securitized
them through its own capital markets division. The only thing that
Countrywide didn’t do was create CDOs. “They didn’t want to come
to us for loans,” said Mozilo. “They thought they could manufacture it
themselves.”
Merrill issued a press release where Blum, the structured finance
chief, was quoted as saying the purchase “fills an important gap for us.”
When Dallas heard the news, he was anything but happy. Ownit and
First Franklin were fierce competitors—both in California and nationwide. Both used loan brokers exclusively to originate subprime mortgages to credit-impaired borrowers. Both lenders were originating
some the hottest mortgage products in the industry: ARMs that had
initial low teaser rates that didn’t reset for two, three, or five years and
80/20 loans where the borrower didn’t have to make any type of down
payment and instead took out a first mortgage for 80 percent of the
purchase price and a second lien (deed of trust) for the remaining
20 percent. And they originated loans to people with bad credit—with
FICO scores as low as 540. (Remember, to be considered a Fannie/
Freddie “A” paper credit, a borrower had to have a minimum FICO
score of 700.) The days of Peter Cugno’s subprime industry, one where
Beneficial Finance wouldn’t extend a loan unless the borrower had at
least 30 percent (preferably 40 percent), were long gone. At Ownit,
Dallas and his chief operating officer, Bruce Dickenson, had given the
lender’s account executives a motto inspiring them to produce loans:
“Go out and kill the bear and we’ll skin it.”
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chain of blame
Dallas tried to talk O’Neal out of buying First Franklin. He
remembered that a year earlier, when Merrill revealed that it had bought
a 20 percent stake in Ownit, “their stock price didn’t go up enough.
They weren’t happy.” The way Dallas saw it, Merrill was “doubling down
in subprime.”
Merrill, though, wasn’t the only one doubling down. Ownit, in
its thirst to grow rapidly, was funding loans where consumers could
have a debt-to-income (DTI) ratio of up to 60 percent, which meant
60 percent of their salary would be used just to pay their monthly bills.
The standard DTI ratio for Fannie/Freddie loans was 30 percent. ‘“Go
out and kill the bear,’ they kept telling us,” said one Ownit account
executive. That fall the AE11 was called into a meeting where Dickenson
explained to a small group of senior executives that Dallas had just fired
one of the lender’s most successful AEs—who worked the Southern
California market—because the company had discovered what they
were told were “serious fraud” issues on brokered loans. The AE in
question was producing $360 million a year in product—loans Merrill
was ultimately buying and then securitizing. No details were provided
on what type of fraud was involved, but one thing appeared certain: The
loans this AE funded were going delinquent at a rapid pace.
Under O’Neal and Blum, Merrill had catapulted its way to the top
of the subprime ABS rankings because it paid more than any other Wall
Street firm for mortgages but it also had the most pro-lender policy
when it came to loan buybacks and early payment defaults (EPDs). If
a nonbank like Ownit sold a loan to Merrill and it went bad within
60 days, it was the lender’s problem; it would have to repurchase (or
buy back) the delinquent loan from Merrill. But if the loan went bad
on the 61st day, it was Merrill’s problem, not the lender’s. Just about
every Wall Street firm except Merrill made the lender buy back delinquent loans up to 90 days after the origination date. It was easy to see
why Dallas and others might favor Merrill.
Merrill’s trading desk didn’t actually underwrite the loans they were
buying. They told the lenders what type of characteristics the mortgage
could have (LTVs, FICO scores, and the like), bought the loans, and
11 The AE
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agreed to be quoted only under the condition his name not be used.
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hired the outsourcers (Clayton, Bohan, and Opus) to conduct a final
review, paying those firms about $150 per loan file. Again, the idea was
to avoid hiring those FTEs. In 2004 and 2005, home lenders originated
$1.4 trillion in subprime loans—almost all of it winding up in ABSs,
with the riskier bonds going into CDOs. Reporters from National
Mortgage News and the Orange County Register began to investigate the
outsourcing firms, interviewing not only the executives at those companies but also their rank-and-file workers who were hired—on a contract basis—to sit in hotel conference rooms, armed with a laptop, with
orders to review one loan an hour. Mortgages were given a rating of a
one, two, or three. One meant pass, two meant so-so, and three meant
fail. “You weren’t supposed to fail loans unless they were horrendous,”
one contract underwriter told the reporters. He also confessed that
they were told by their supervisors at Clayton never to use a certain
word—“fraud.”
Because competition was so stiff those years and because Merrill,
Bear, J.P. Morgan, and other Wall Street firms were so hungry for product (which they could put into ABSs and CDOs), the goal, the underwriters said, was to pass as many loans as possible. Eileen Loiacono, a
Bohan contract worker who worked on loans that Merrill and other
Wall Street firms bought, told Padilla of the Orange County Register
that the pressure was so intense to approve as many loans as quickly
as possible that one of her supervisors (whom she would only identify as “Robert”) would frequently stand up on a desk screaming at the
laptop worker bees, “Work faster or you’re going to get fired!” Another
would scream, “Get your fucking act together!”
Loiacono singled out Merrill in particular. “They perpetuated the
whole thing,” she said. If she found a loan that might rate a three, a
Merrill supervisor would find a way to get the loan approved.
Loan fraud is a fuzzy term that can mean many things, but in practice
it boils down to two basic swindles: Either a borrower is lying about his
or her income or the house is not worth what someone says it is. By late
2006 agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation were describing
loan fraud as pandemic in the United States, singling out stated-income
loans (that is, so-called liar loans) being funded through mortgage brokers as a chief problem. Stated-income mortgages were on the product
menu at Ownit.
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chain of blame
In late November, Dallas had two major problems at Ownit: what
Merrill’s impending purchase of First Franklin might mean for him and
the sad discovery that tens of millions of dollars’ worth of mortgages
it had originated through loan brokers and sold to Merrill were going
delinquent just a few months after being originated. Not only was
Merrill buying more loans from Ownit than every other Street firm
(that’s what happens when you own 20 percent of the company), but it
was also providing warehouse financing to Dallas’s shop. The CEO was
starting to hear complaints about the delinquencies from Merrill, which
wanted Ownit to buy back the bad loans. Around this time Dallas held
a conference call with some of his top wholesale account executives.
The topic of the conversation? What Merrill’s purchase of First Franklin
meant for Ownit. Some AEs believed Dallas feared that Merrill might
merge the two companies and he’d be out of a job, but he told the AEs
that Merrill planned to operate the two subprime wholesalers independently of each other even though they both were based in California
and funded the same type of loans. One AE who was in on the conference call said Dallas took the opportunity to “tell us how ignorant some
of his co-workers” were at his former company, First Franklin. During
the call he kept referring to First Franklin as “First Fucking Franklin”
and “First Fuckers.” The AE said he came away from the call feeling
secure about his future. “All seemed well,” he said.
On Monday, December 4, Dallas spoke at an industry trade show
in Las Vegas, giving his views about the future of the industry, signing
copies of a book he’d co-written called Strategic Financing: A Survival
Guide for Loan Originators. Roughly 2,000 mortgage professionals were
in the audience at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Over the preceding week he had been haggling with Merrill over its request for
Ownit to buy back millions in delinquent loans. When he went to Las
Vegas to make his speech he thought he had a deal worked out on
the buybacks, but Merrill, he said, reneged. Shortly after leaving Vegas,
Dallas decided to throw the company into bankruptcy, sending out an
e-mail to employees that started, “With deep sadness . . .”
The next day at a subprime conference in New York sponsored
by SourceMedia, which owned American Banker, the Bond Buyer, and
National Mortgage News, several Wall Street executives were in attendance, including top executives from Bear Stearns and Deutsche Bank,
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which a few months earlier had bought MortgageIT, a large alt-A and
subprime wholesaler that had been a publicly traded REIT brought
to market by Friedman Billings Ramsey. During one of the panel sessions at the meeting, Bern Amlung, a senior Deutsche Bank executive who had a thick German accent, was asked whether his bank
might buy another subprime lender. He seemed noncommittal and
slightly nervous. “Maybe,” he said, “but we’re still digesting what we
have [MortgageIT].” At lunch that day news broke on Bloomberg that
Ownit had closed. Amlung left the meeting early. (About nine months
after the meeting it was revealed in the Wall Street Journal that a division of Deutsche Bank was shorting an index called the ABX; by doing
so investors could profit if the value of subprime ABSs went down.
Greg Lippmann, chief of global trading for ABS and CDO instruments,
was advising some of the bank’s hedge fund clients to bet against the
housing market by shorting the index. Michael Commaroto, who oversaw Deutsche’s mortgage trading operation, was none too pleased that
while he was trying to buy mortgages from subprime lenders another
part of the bank was betting against his clients. One lending executive
close to Commaroto said Deutsche Bank itself had earned $700 million
by shorting the ABX. “Lippmann bragged about it,” said the executive.
“Some of the bank’s board members weren’t all too happy, but even at
$700 million it wasn’t enough to make up for all of DB’s mistakes in
mortgages.”)
Even though Ownit’s collapse should have worried O’Neal, Blum,
and others at Merrill, it didn’t. Merrill planned to move ahead with its
$1.3 billion purchase of First Franklin. Over at Countrywide Mozilo
continued to be troubled at Merrill’s purchase, telling one reporter that
by acquiring First Franklin, “I guess they think they’re taking a shortcut to the freeway of happiness.” In late January 2007, during a conference call with analysts, Mozilo said all was not well in the subprime
market, estimating that 40 to 50 mortgage banking and brokerage
firms were closing their doors each day. Countrywide, he said, would
weather the storm just fine—and would gain market share. Two weeks
after he spoke to analysts, Merrill’s Ken Bruce—the same analyst who
in August would suggest that Countrywide might have to file for
bankruptcy—issued a report warning that subprime loan delinquencies
were accelerating.
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In late February Merrill handed over $1.3 billion and became
the sole owner of First Franklin, which had finished 2006 with $28
billion in subprime originations, seventh best in the nation. “With First
Franklin they would be number one in ABS,” Dallas said. In time most
ABSs would be carved up and placed into CDOs. At about the same
time a story appeared in National Mortgage News noting that Merrill’s
warehouse lending division, headed by Jim Cason, was making margin
calls on several nonbank subprime lenders that had received large loans
from the company. A margin call meant that the loans the nonbank had
originated (and pledged as collateral for the warehouse line) were no
longer worth as much. Merrill went to several of its nonbank warehouse customers, lenders like ResMAE ( Jack Mayesh’s company) and
Mortgage Lenders Network of Connecticut, demanding that their
owners pay Merrill more money. These same firms also were having
loan buyback disputes with Merrill’s trading desk over the issue of
delinquent loans.
Rumors began to appear in the market that Merrill—now the
proud owner of First Franklin—was engaged in a conspiracy to shut
down competitors to its new acquisition by using margin calls and loan
buyback requests to force competitors such as Ownit, ResMAE, and
Mortgage Lenders Network into bankruptcy. Bill Haldin, a public relations executive working out of the investment banker’s California office
in Sacramento, denied that there was any type of conspiracy under way
but would not provide any information on how many margin calls
the firm had made. He would only say that margin calls “are something we do on an as-needed basis.” An account executive who worked
for Ownit said he was told by Dickenson that the reason Merrill closed
Ownit was “to make more market share for First Franklin.” (Dickenson
declined to comment on the story, but didn’t deny it, either.)
A California subprime president who sold millions in loans to
Merrill the previous two years didn’t quite see a conspiracy but admitted that the Wall Street firm, to feed its CDO pipeline, “was throwing its
clout around. It’s a full-court press to get more business in the door. Hey,
man, that’s capitalism.” However, he also noticed something else: Merrill’s
trading desk was starting to get pickier about the loans they were buying
from firms they didn’t own a piece of. Also, Merrill had given new orders
to its underwriting outsourcers, Clayton and Bohan: Start sampling a
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greater percentage of the loans we’re buying through the trading desk.
Neil Spagna, the former Nomura executive who also once worked at
Clayton, noted that typically, Wall Street firms (Merrill included) would
sample only 20 percent or 30 percent of the loans they were buying. “On
a billion-dollar pool it would only be 20 percent.”
Smaller lenders, like Sunset Direct in Oregon, a company managed by Bob Howard, who had been in the business for two decades,
were actually seeing Merrill review 100 percent of their loans. In
other words, it appeared that the larger the lender (and loan pool size),
the less Merrill looked at the loans. The smaller the lender, the more
Merrill looked.
In the months ahead, at least three dozen nonbank subprime
lenders (and about 400 loan brokerage firms that fed mortgages to
them) closed their doors, the victims of margin calls and loan buybacks.
There was talk that Merrill might close its warehouse lending division
to nonbanks. Bill Haldin, Merrill’s PR man, denied it.
By midyear five different investment banking firms—Merrill,
Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, and FBR12—owned
seven different subprime or alt-A lenders, which in turn accounted
for about 15 percent of the market. To Mozilo, who was still funding
and securitizing subprime and alt-A loans at Countrywide, it certainly
looked like Wall Street was building a machine to “go from origination
to securitization to servicing.” Most of the subprime lenders owned
by investment bankers also were in the business of servicing subprime
loans on a monthly basis, controlling the monthly payments on about
$240 billion in mortgages—20 percent.
Having a large market share can be a wonderful thing—as long as
that market doesn’t go into a skid. In July 2007 when Mozilo described
housing as being in the worst shape since the Great Depression, he
wasn’t just giving his opinion. Loan delinquencies on subprime mortgages were rising rapidly. At Countrywide almost 20 percent of the
A– to D loans it was servicing on a monthly basis were late. It stood to
reason that if Countrywide was having problems with its subprime loans,
then the Street-owned lenders—and just about every other firm—were
12 In
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2005 FBR bought First NLC Financial of Deerfield Beach, Florida, for $88 million.
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likely having problems, too. But something else was going on at Merrill:
Just as it was handing over $1.3 billion for First Franklin, the company’s
bond salespeople were having a harder time selling all the CDOs it
was producing—especially to overseas investors. (On each CDO bond
Merrill sold, it reportedly earned a commission of 1.25 percent, or $12.5
million for each $1 billion bond.) When Mozilo’s comments were publicized in July the CDO bond market began to dry up, which meant
if Merrill couldn’t find buyers for the bonds it would have to invest in
them itself—using its own money.
In early October, Merrill disclosed to its investors (and to the public at large) that it would take a $5 billion charge when it released third
quarter earnings in a few weeks, because it had to revalue some of its
CDOs—in particular those that included subprime bonds. The billions
in A– to D quality loans that its trading desk had been buying the past
few years (and then giving to the structured products group to securitize) were going bad just as quickly as Countrywide’s. But when the
real number came out three weeks later, the actual CDO charge was
much higher—$8 billion. For the quarter it had lost $2.4 billion, the
only major Wall Street firm to lose money that period. Standard &
Poor’s, the rating agency, called the write-downs “staggering,” blaming
the mess on “management miscues.”
On Sunday and Monday, October 21 and 22, Merrill’s board met to
review the results, grilling O’Neal and his top executives. The Wall Street
Journal quoted a top executive as calling the meeting “definitely tense
and very testy,” but the newspaper predicted that O’Neal’s job “doesn’t
appear to be in immediate jeopardy.” A week later the 56-year-old CEO
resigned, the New York Times reporting that his fall “is a reminder of how
dangerous it is to tinker with a firm’s culture.” A few years earlier when
O’Neal became head of the company, he called the notion of a nurturing “Mother Merrill” passé. He aimed to diversify Merrill away from
its core business of selling stocks. He had succeeded, thanks in part to
Merrill’s foray into subprime. Merrill and Citigroup were now the largest CDO issuers in the world, but the assets underlying the bonds they
had issued—and invested in themselves—were rapidly falling in value.
In November Angelo Mozilo received an e-mail from O’Neal,
who told him he was doing fine and that he had always admired what
the founder and CEO had made of Countrywide. (His retirement
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and severance benefits from Merrill were worth $160 million. He
could afford to be fine.) But Mozilo now had his own problems: continuing delinquencies in subprime and a share price of under $10.
Countrywide was now worth a quarter of what it had been valued at a
year earlier.
In the fourth quarter Merrill posted the largest loss in company
history: $8.6 billion, with $12 billion set aside to cover expected losses
on its subprime CDO bonds. The total damage from its investment
in subprime was now over $20 billion—and that didn’t even include
what it cost to buy part of Dallas’s Ownit and First Franklin. And what
about First Franklin? Since O’Neal’s departure, the lender had been
quietly laying off wholesale AEs and closing offices. By early 2008 it
was funding very few subprime loans—and only if they could be sold
to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, which still hadn’t fully recovered from
their accounting scandals of four years before.
Dave Duffy, a wholesale AE for First Franklin in its south New
Jersey office, e-mailed a reporter at National Mortgage News, telling the
newspaper he didn’t have any loans to sell, adding that Merrill was
“starving us out.” It was late December, and the AE was making a base
salary of just $2,000 a month, a fraction of what he used to earn. He
added that Merrill wouldn’t even give him car expense money anymore. It was too depressing to go to work, he said. An almost fouryear veteran of the lender, having relocated from Georgia, he was
now working from home. Every time he went into the office, the few
remaining employees would “just play Scrabble and PlayStation on the
conference room monitor all day.” Duffy predicted that things were so
bad that Merrill would probably close First Franklin by January or late
February. He was off by only a few days—Merrill pulled the plug on its
$1.3 billion investment in early March.
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Chapter 9
A Warning from Lewie
CDOs, SIVs, and Other Things No One Understands
If you didn’t have your shit together, Lewie would destroy you, tear
you apart. I was in a meeting once and he did it to me. I went
downstairs and felt like crying, quitting, but people said, “Don’t
worry about it. He does that to everyone.”
—A former senior executive of Bank United,
a Lew Ranieri joint
Will I be a bull in a china shop? Yeah, absolutely, without a doubt.
I don’t care for people telling me what I can’t do.
—Lew Ranieri
F
or those who have worked under him, the world is full of Lew
Ranieri stories. Frank Hattemer, who ran warehouse lending
for Ranieri when he controlled Bank United of Houston in the
1990s, remembers eating dinner with a client in downtown Houston.
They were in the Renaissance Hotel’s restaurant, right across the street
from the bank’s headquarters. “It was nine o’clock at night,” says
Hattemer. “We were sitting in the restaurant and who comes down for a
late snack but Lewie, wearing his PJs, slippers, and a bathrobe. He sees
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me and sidles into the booth, sitting next to the client. I think he had a
part of a submarine sandwich in each hand. He must’ve spent two hours
with us, telling stories. The client was fascinated by him. He couldn’t
believe how amazingly smart this guy was, dressed in his bathrobe, eating
subs at nine o’clock at night.”
Headquartered in Houston, United Savings was a savings and loan
with assets of $5 billion that failed during the height of the S&L crisis.
In 1988 the federal government, in its desperation to clean up the
nation’s S&L mess, began selling hundreds of failed thrifts by giving
away billions of dollars’ worth of tax breaks to any investor who was
willing to take on the carcass of any of these failed institutions. One
year after departing as vice chairman of Salomon Brothers, Ranieri
and his new company, Hyperion Partners, bought United Savings and
changed its name to Bank United. Not only was he the co-inventor
of the mortgage-backed security (MBS), but here he was the proud
owner of United, one of the largest thrifts ever to fail in the Lone Star
State. (Included in the carcass of this failed thrift might be such assets as
junk bonds, raw land, even a taxicab company. Ranieri wound up with
at least one taxicab company.) The biggest tax break the government
gave away, which Ranieri noticed (along with many other businessmen, including Revlon chairman Ron Perelman1), was the ability of
the new owners to deduct from their future earnings the losses of previous years. Not only could they deduct these past losses from future
earnings of their newly acquired S&Ls, but they could shelter the earnings of their other companies as well. What was there not to like?
About two months after Ranieri acquired United Savings from the
government, he thought it would be a proper idea to review the troops
of the S&L that he had just purchased from Uncle Sam. He planned to
bring along his friend Tony Nocella, whom he had hired as a management consultant to help run the institution. The ultimate goal was to
jettison certain executives who probably should have been fired from
the institution long ago. According to Hattemer, a few weeks prior to
Ranieri’s arrival at the thrift’s headquarters, some of the lifelong Texans
1
During the 1980s Revlon, with the backing of Drexel Burnham Lambert, attempted a
hostile takeover of Salomon Brothers, Ranieri’s old firm, only to fail. Salomon’s white
knight was Warren Buffett.
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A Warning from Lewie
207
who worked at the S&L starting making cracks that Ranieri and
Nocella “from the Mafia were coming to town.”
Ranieri got wind of certain remarks about his Italian heritage
(and the Mafia comment) and thought it might be a fun idea for
him and Nocella to dress up in zoot suits straight out of Guys and Dolls.
Wearing spats and pinstripes, he and Nocella sat in the boardroom, the
lights dimmed, with a poster of Frank Sinatra on the wall. At one end
of the long conference room table was a statue of the Virgin Mary, at the
other end a statue of Jesus. One by one Ranieri and his friend, wearing red roses in their lapels, called in executives whose futures hung
in the balance. Ranieri sat at the end of the table near Jesus, Nocella
at the other end, near the Virgin Mary. (One employee who witnessed
the show said Ranieri also placed a plastic horse’s head on the floor, a
nod to the movie The Godfather.)
When Ranieri addressed the executive in question, he would stare
at the statue of Jesus. He would then bark, “Why are you turning your
back on the Virgin Mary?” When the executive would swing around to
face the other way, he would shout, “Why are you turning your back
on Jesus?” It went on all afternoon until he and Nocella had cleaned
house of all the undesirables who had toiled for Charles Hurwitz, the
man the government held responsible for United’s collapse.
Twelve years later Ranieri sold Bank United—then a publicly
traded S&L—to Kerry Killinger’s Washington Mutual for $1.2 billion.
Financially speaking, it would have been (perhaps) the pinnacle of his
career except for one thing: Ranieri was the man universally credited with helping create the mortgage-backed security while working at Salomon Brothers in the late 1970s. Arguably, the emergence of
the MBS was the most important invention in the history of the U.S.
financial system since the creation of stocks and bonds themselves. The
argument goes like this: What’s the largest debt market in the world?
Answer: The U.S. residential mortgage market. At $9 trillion (as of early
2008), U.S. consumers owed more money on their homes than the federal government owed on all its Treasury bonds—even after the record
deficits of the Bush administration (George W.).
In 1977 when Salomon Brothers began toying with the idea of
creating a bond backed by mortgages, U.S. consumers owed about
$1 trillion on their homes. Back then, mortgage debt also outstripped
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government debt. It seemed like an obvious thing to do—except for
the fact no one had ever done it before. According to Ranieri, the idea
to create a mortgage bond was actually sparked by Salomon Brothers
chief economist Henry Kaufman.2 “It was Henry’s research that drove
it,” said Ranieri. Kaufman looked at the demographics and concluded
that the savings and loan industry (which then kept most of its originations on its books) didn’t have the capacity to hold all the mortgages
coming down the pike when baby boomers (a tidal wave of 80 million
Americans) would reach peak home-buying years.
After starting his career in Salomon’s mail room, Ranieri worked his
way up to the trading desk—the utilities trading desk, that is—before
being handpicked by Salomon Brothers partner Bob Dall to work on
mortgages. Dall once told writer Michael Lewis that Ranieri “had the
mentality and the will to create a market. . . . I have never seen anyone,
educated or uneducated, with a quicker mind. And best of all he was a
dreamer.” Together, the two men (and others) toiled with early MBS
structures, before Salomon issued the first pass-through bond, in 1977,
securitizing mortgages for Bank of America. (With a pass-through bond
the investor actually owns a share in an underlying pool of mortgages.
With later versions of the MBS investors were paid through a trust,
which administered the cash flows generated by the underlying loans.)
But Ranieri considered the Bank of America security a failure. “It was a
difficult sell to institutional investors,” he said.
The biggest problem that he and Salomon faced was the fact that
securities backed by mortgages were not legal investments in many
states. To alleviate the problem, Salomon (under Ranieri’s tutelage) lobbied successfully for changes in blue-sky laws, which suddenly made
MBSs acceptable investments. Problem solved. (Blue-sky laws refer
to state laws that regulate what types of securities can be sold to the
public and to public institutions. The laws can vary from state to state.)
A market was born.
2
Kaufman, who eventually became vice chairman of Salomon before leaving the firm in
1988, was known for his bearish forecast on interest rates. He often predicted that rates
would rise, thus hurting bond prices. His constant gloomy prediction on rates earned him
the nickname “Dr. Doom.”
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But it wasn’t just that. Creation of the first private MBS3 allowed
ailing savings and loans the ability to pool all of their low-yielding mortgages into bonds and get them off their books. (A tax break passed by
the federal government allowed S&Ls to write off their losses over several
years, which helped thrifts tremendously.) Ranieri was seen as a hero to
the industry. When he spoke to S&L executives at trade shows or private meetings, they hung on his every word, taking what he had to say
as near gospel. Salomon dominated the MBS market from 1978 to the
mid-1980s. (In the 1980s one of Ranieri’s best friends was Stan Strachan,
founder and editor of National Thrift News, an industry trade newspaper
that catered to S&L executives. The two men were as close as brothers.
Neither had finished college; they were loud, bearded, and liked to eat.
Both were incredibly sharp. Strachan, half seriously, used to joke to his
staff of reporters that he was going to leave the newspaper to work as an
MBS trader at Salomon.) Ranieri went from head trader on the mortgage
desk to the vice chairman of the company.4 During its fattest years of
dominating the MBS business, the mortgage trading desk under Ranieri
earned upwards of $200 million a year, accounting for 40 percent of the
firm’s revenues. At the time it was a phenomenal amount of money.
While trading mortgages, Ranieri also was helping S&Ls securitize
their old conventional “A” paper quality loans into bonds. (S&Ls originated “A” loans, government-insured mortgages, and jumbo loans.5)
Ranieri first convinced Freddie Mac to place its guarantee on the
mortgage bonds. Fannie Mae then followed along. Because these two
were chartered by Congress, investors treated the bonds as though
they were backed by the U.S. Treasury. This spurred other Wall Street
firms—First Boston and Drexel Burnham Lambert being the toughest
3
The first MBS created by Salomon was modeled somewhat after Government
National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae) securities backed by the federal government.
Ginnie Maes were bonds collateralized by mortgages backed by the Federal Housing
Administration and Veterans Administration.
4
Among Ranieri’s contemporaries at Salomon was John Meriwether, a bond trader (not
on the mortgage desk, though) and arbitrage specialist who founded Long-Term Capital
Management, the hedge fund that went under in 1998.
5
A jumbo loan is any mortgage that is greater than the annual Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac
loan limit, which is based each year on median home prices across the United States.
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competitors of Salomon—to start their own mortgage trading desks
and mine for the same gold as Ranieri.
Ranieri—who prefers to be called Lewie—once aspired to be a
chef (as did his brother Salvatore). He majored in English at St. John’s
University on Long Island before landing a job in the mail room at
Salomon. “When they offered to put me on the trading floor I was
about six credits short of a college degree,” he recalled. “One of them
was an Italian credit I needed.” He delayed graduating to become a
bond trader. He was self-taught in three computer languages, Fortran,
Basic, and Cobol, and claims credit for getting Salomon to computerize
its trading operations. “I started the Salomon Brothers computer room,”
he says. “I was the one who first set it up.”
When he wasn’t on the road selling the firm’s MBS services to
thrifts and banks, most mornings he would have breakfast with Salomon
CEO and chairman John Gutfreund. “John had been like my dad,” said
Ranieri. “My own dad died when I was young.” It was believed that
Gutfreund was grooming Ranieri to be his successor—the Brooklynborn Ranieri who once aspired to be a chef, majored in English, never
attended business school, and grew up on the streets of Brooklyn.
Ranieri (like Mozilo, Arnall, and Stan O’Neal) came from next to nothing. Unlike Merrill Lynch, whose reputation was built on the retail sale
of stocks, Salomon’s was built on bonds. He once boasted that in 1984
(the height of Salomon’s dominance of the mortgage market) his mortgage trading desk had made more money than all of the rest of Wall
Street combined that year.6 Even though it looked as though Gutfreund
was considering Ranieri to be his heir apparent, that’s not how things
turned out. When Salomon’s mortgage profits began to wane later in
the decade and its top traders departed for the competition, Gutfreund
fired Ranieri in July 1987, three months before the stock market crash
of October 19. To this day Ranieri isn’t sure exactly what happened.
“He always had me clean up his messes—like the Phibro deal.7 When
John decided I was too big for the company it broke my heart,” he said.
6
According to the book Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis.
7
In 1981 Salomon merged with a commodities trading firm called Phillips Brothers or
Phibro for short. Gutfreund believed that Salomon needed Phibro’s capital and
commodities business, but after profits exploded in its mortgage department (under
Ranieri) it became clear that the deal was unnecessary. With commodities profits lagging,
Salomon eventually sold the Phibro unit.
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211
His expulsion from Salomon is a topic that Ranieri still is not happy
talking about. “I thought I was going to have a breakdown,” he said.
Ranieri had spent his entire professional life at Salomon. “He absolutely
loved the place,” said one of his former employees. “He was crushed.”
Two years later, in 1989, a former bond trader at Salomon named
Michael Lewis wrote a book, Liar’s Poker, that chronicled Salomon’s rise
to prominence during the decade—first and foremost in mortgages.
Lewis didn’t work in the mortgage department, but with chapters entitled “A Brotherhood of Hoods” and “The Fat Men and Their Marvelous
Money Machine” he captured the Animal House–like atmosphere of
the firm’s mortgage trading desk, portraying Ranieri as a John Belushi
type of character who was loud, lovable, and among all else sloppy in
appearance. “He owned exactly four suits, all polyester,” wrote Lewis,
noting a few sentences later that as he grew rich at Salomon, Ranieri
“continued to own four suits,” quoting the MBS co-inventor bragging
that he owned more power boats than suits. (Ranieri says he has hardly
any recollection of ever talking to Lewis or meeting him. “I never read
the book, but people told me about it. You have to remember that
I was brokenhearted around that time, and the last thing I wanted to
do was read a book about Salomon Brothers. I mean, I started in the
mail room when I wasn’t even 18 years old.” Even though he may not
have talked to the writer/former trader, a careful read of the book suggests that at the very least Lewis had access to several top employees at
Salomon—including Dall—who were close to Ranieri on his ascent to
the vice chairmanship.)
Liar’s Poker went on to become a national best seller and turned
Ranieri into something of a Wall Street folk hero. One of the most
important things Lewis established about Ranieri was his intolerance
for the pretense of investment bankers on Wall Street. Ranieri was from
Brooklyn and started in the mail room—and he was proud of it. That
intolerance also included financial services executives of most types.
“He has a great bullshit detector,” said one underling.
Frank Hattemer, the warehouse chief who worked at Bank United
in Houston, remembers attending a dinner thrown by the thrift’s CEO,
Barry Burkholder, at a Houston country club in the 1990s. “Lewie hated
that striped-pants kind of stuff,” said Hattemer. “Burkholder was the
kind of guy who enjoyed good wine, and if he didn’t like it, he sent it
back. Lewie hated that, too. So during the dinner, he started a food fight.
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You should have seen the look on the faces of Burkholder and his wife.
They were aghast.”
Ranieri served as chairman of Bank United and wasn’t necessarily
involved in the thrift’s day-to-day management, but he made his presence known throughout the organization. “He had pet names for
people—and they weren’t always good,” said one former manager. “We
created an organizational chart where ‘Fucking Dough Boy’ was in
charge of this, and ‘Shit for Brains’ was in charge of that. The ‘Cretin’
was in charge of another department. Stuff like that. We wrote it all
down in a big chart.” (Some of Ranieri’s former acolytes have suggested
that the practical joking portrayed in Liar’s Poker was merely a warm-up
for what went on at Bank United.)
But Hattemer and many others who worked for Ranieri at Salomon,
Bank United, and other companies are clear about one thing: The
Brooklyn native may have been loud, brash, and (like Mozilo) known to
spit out expletives, but they believe when it comes to mortgage finance
he is incredibly smart—that he sees things in the market before anyone
else. And most of them loved him (still do) for his lack of pretense and
for, above all else, his honesty. In 2000 when Washington Mutual bought
Bank United, they kept Ranieri on retainer as a consultant, paying him
$500,000 a year. One time the thrift actually paid him twice. Ranieri
called the company’s accounting department and said he was sending the
check back. “That’s the kind of guy he was,” said Hattemer.
*
*
*
Bill Campbell, a public relations executive for a small PR firm in
New York, once had this to say about the growing mortgage crisis
in the fall of 2007: “If only we had built a time machine, went back
to 1980, and knocked off Ranieri, none of this would ever have happened.” Campbell, whose clients included several mortgage firms, was
joking. But his point was that the mortgage securitization had run
amok—that subprime mortgages were going delinquent at record
rates, causing dozens of firms to fail and threatening a whole industry
whether they were in subprime or not.
Ranieri’s legacy was the MBS. When he and Bob Dall launched
Salomon’s mortgage desk in the late 1970s, they didn’t even know
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what the word subprime meant. By 2006 Ranieri, at 59, was a wellrespected elder statesmen of both Wall Street and the mortgage industry. He donated generously to the Republican party and New York
state politicians alike as well as a handful of Democrats. Banking regulators and members of the Bush administration regularly sought out
his advice on financial matters, especially if they had to do with Fannie
Mae and Freddie Mac, two institutions whose health he believed were
paramount to keeping the U.S. mortgage market strong—that is, liquid.
Ranieri was a member of the Grand Old Party, and even though
some Republicans made a sport of publicly bashing Fannie Mae and
Freddie Mac because of the power they held in the “A” paper business,
he wasn’t in their camp on this issue. He knew that without Fannie
and Freddie’s early support there would be no MBS market; that was
something he had never forgotten.8
Retirement is not a word that people associate with Lewie Ranieri.
Even though he had sold Bank United six years earlier, he kept active in
the market, managing Ranieri & Company, the small boutique investment banking firm that he started after leaving Salomon. He had his
hands in several other investments as well—some successful, some not.
As one former employee remembered, “Lewie made a lot of money
and lost a bit of money for investors, but overall he’s in the black. Not
everyone can say that.”
When the century turned, Ranieri bought a small community
lender called Franklin Bank of Texas, which, like Bank United, was
based in Houston. He served on the board of Computer Associates of
Long Island, one of the nation’s largest software companies, and helped
the firm survive after it was revealed that two of its top executives had
been cooking its books. Ranieri, who joined the board after the financial fraud was well under way, once told a friend of the executives in
question, “These are either the smartest guys I’ve every met or they’re
crooks.” The latter turned out to be true. (A fan of the ballet, he also
helped straighten out the finances of the American Ballet Theatre of
New York.)
8
When Freddie Mac’s accounting scandal broke in June 2003 and the firm cleaned house,
Ranieri was mentioned as a candidate to run the place. He didn’t want the job.
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By the fall of 2006 Ranieri was not happy. He was the chairman
and largest single shareholder in the publicly traded Franklin Bank.
Even though he no longer traded loans himself, Franklin’s employees
did. Regulators at the Federal Reserve and other banking agencies,
including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and Office of
Thrift Supervision,9 had just released a working paper called “Guidance
on Non-Traditional Mortgages.” What the heck was a nontraditional
mortgage (NTM)? Answer: subprime loans, payment option ARMs,
stated-income loans—the types of mortgages that Ameriquest, Argent,
Countrywide, First Franklin, and many other originators were still
funding as though the good times would last forever. The message from
Washington to the residential lending community was this: You had
better start disclosing more about these loans—especially the ARMs—
to your home-buying customers, because we’re starting to hear a lot of
complaints that you aren’t telling them how their loan payments might
go through the roof when the interest rate adjusts.
Ranieri knew the guidance meant that his traders at Franklin Bank
would have to carefully review the loans they were buying, which was
fine with him. (They more or less did that anyway.) But in the summer and fall some of the loans Franklin was trading “made us hold our
nose.” At Bank United and then Franklin Bank, Ranieri had avoided
the subprime business entirely. “We were just plain old mortgage guys,”
he said. “We never even looked at getting in.”
But the loans Franklin Bank was being offered had what Ranieri
called “layered risk,” which meant the mortgages were ARMs, were
made to borrowers who had low FICO scores, were originated to
too many first-time home buyers, had exceptions (certain underwriting rules were waived), and had a number of other characteristics that
made the co-inventor of the MBS queasy. “The stuff we were seeing
was just getting worse and worse.” He told the trading desk at Franklin
in Houston to stop buying.
9
The Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) regulates all lenders with a savings and loan
charter. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) regulates commercial banks, as
does the Federal Reserve. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) regulates
commercial banks with a national charter.
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On December 5, 2006, Bill Dallas sent out his company-wide e-mail
telling his employees at Ownit Mortgage—as well as its independent loan
brokers—that he was pulling the plug on the company. (In the e-mail he
didn’t mention the loan buyback disputes he was having with Merrill
Lynch, though that would be reported by the press in just a matter of
days.) Less than a week later, on Monday, the 11th, the Office of Thrift
Supervision held what it called a “Housing Summit” at the National Press
Club in Washington. The conference’s goal was to bring the public up to
speed on what the agency felt were some of the key issues affecting the
housing market, chiefly declining home prices—which since the Great
Depression had never declined, at least on a national basis—and the regulators’ “Non-Traditional Mortgages” guidance. Invited speakers included
a local lending executive from B.F. Saul Mortgage; David Berson, chief
economist at Fannie Mae; Kathy Dick, a top regulator from the Office
of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC)—and Lewie Ranieri. Even
though it was a public forum, most of the attendees were regulators from
the various Washington agencies, as well as members of the press.
Berson talked a bit about declining home prices, noting that investors (people who speculate on the values of homes increasing, including
so-called flippers) are more likely to use ARMs than are regular home
buyers, and reminding the audience that “about 80 percent of what
we purchase are fixed-rate loans.” (A month later, speaking once again
at the Press Club, the Fannie Mae chief economist predicted that when it
came to falling home values the “biggest declines are behind us.” His prediction would later prove to be a major embarrassment to Fannie Mae.)
Dick from the OCC talked about the NTM guidance, which was
relatively new, noting that the NTM market “is a young one without
a lot of history.” What she didn’t mention was that the NTM guidance
was just that—guidance. Bank executives could throw the guidance in
the trash can. It wasn’t a rule or regulation. She also didn’t mention that
half the subprime market—ARMs being a key product for A– to D
lenders—was controlled by nonbanks like Ameriquest, New Century,
WMC Mortgage,10 Option One Mortgage, and others. If they were
10
WMC Mortgage was owned by General Electric, which had bought the subprime lender
a few years earlier for about $500 million.
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nonbanks, that meant the OCC or any other regulator in Washington
couldn’t touch them. Bank regulators had oversight only over federally
insured institutions that took deposits. Bank and thrift regulators didn’t
regulate mortgages per se—they regulated institutions. Then up stepped
Ranieri.
Two decades earlier, when Lewie spoke, thrift managers were eager
to listen. He was a near celebrity. This time, the nation’s banking regulators were the ones doing the stargazing. Here, in front of them, was
the man mainly responsible for the creation of the MBS—but with
one important footnote. When Ranieri, Dall, and others invented the
MBS, the idea was to securitize loans backed by plain-vanilla “A” paper
mortgages. “There was 40, 50 years’ worth of historical data on those
types of mortgages,” he later recalled. “You had a pretty good idea how
they would behave.” He had never dreamed that Wall Street would be so
stupid as to securitize a bunch of mortgages that had no history to them.
The modern subprime mortgage was 10 years old at most. The loans
that Ameriquest, First Franklin, New Century, and others were funding
had no resemblance whatsoever to the second deeds of trust that Peter
Cugno used to underwrite and fund for Beneficial Finance back in the
1960s. Cugno’s loans at least were backed by homes with 40 percent
equity in them. The loans being funded by First Franklin (which Merrill
was about to buy) and Arnall’s company were made to people with little
in the way of down payments and who were stated-income borrowers.
They told the loan officers how much they made, and the loan officers
believed them—as long as their FICO scores were decent.
Looking a bit overweight and frumpy in a loose-fitting suit, the first
thing Ranieri did was remind the regulators of the “staggering changes”
in the mortgage business over the past two years—from one where
Fannie/Freddie loans used to dominate to one where a “powerful MBS
sector was untethered in its enthusiasm.” Without saying it directly, he
hinted that Wall Street had gone gaga securitizing subprime mortgages
without paying much attention to quality, and there wasn’t a whole lot
they, as regulators, could do, because most of the loans were being originated by nonbanks. Subprime and nonprime loans now accounted for
a record 25 percent of all mortgages funded in the United States—and
the growth looked unstoppable. He noted that at least when Fannie
Mae and Freddie Mac dominated the mortgage business “they played
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the role of gatekeeper”; the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs)
had loan underwriting standards—things like minimum down payments,
two-inch-thick loan documents, and mortgage insurance that covered
potential losses. “Those standards have been pushed aside,” he said, looking over the top of his oversized glasses. And what was worse, he told
his audience, 80 percent of the loans he was talking about were being
funded through loan brokers over whom they, the regulators, had no
control whatsoever.
Lewie was just getting started. He said the loans that families were
using to buy homes weren’t Fannie/Freddie loans but “stated-income,
‘neg-am,’ 80/20 loans,” which meant the consumer had made no down
payment and instead borrowed 20 percent of the purchase price by taking out a second deed of trust home equity loan on top of an 80 percent first mortgage. (“Neg-am” was short for negative amortization, a
feature of risky payment option ARMs that Countrywide and others
were originating by the billions of dollars’ worth.) Then he moved on
to the end investor—the institutions buying the bonds. Investors, he
said, were used to getting data on the securities they were buying, but
not in this new market.
“The rating agencies are playing the role of quasi-regulator,” he
said. “They’ve been cast into this role.” The rating agencies meant
Standard & Poor’s, Fitch, and Moody’s. It was their job to look at the
loans backing the subprime bonds to make sure the investor was getting a quality product. It was up to the rating agencies to grade the
bonds; that’s what the securities underwriter paid them for. In a nutshell, Ranieri felt that investors—including overseas buyers—weren’t
getting enough information. He mentioned collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which were securities made up of other securities, all
subprime. During the question-and-answer period with regulators, he
told them the “subordinated tranches of MBSs are being put into these
CDOs. Generally, they’re being sold to nonbanks and foreign banks.”
In general, he believed that investors weren’t being told enough information about the loan-to-value ratios backing the mortgages that had
been securitized. “This is a public securities market,” he said, “and
investors, foreign investors, don’t have a clue.”
Then he started on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
(in a nice way). “They’re the regulator of the capital markets—they can
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make a difference,” he said. He told the audience that his bank had
stopped trading in ARMs—that when they looked at the loans being
sold in the secondary market “about 40 percent” of them didn’t meet
the new NTM guidance issued by the federal regulators. Of course,
it didn’t really matter because the guidance had no teeth. The Federal
Reserve, OCC, and other agencies were just suggesting; they weren’t
dictating. Either way, Ranieri didn’t like what he was seeing in the marketplace. “You can’t do business this way,” he concluded.
Ranieri’s comments were based on his knowledge of the market
and his analysis of CDO bond disclosure documents. “I exactly read
this stuff,” he said. But he was also supplied research on ABS bond disclosures by Mark Goldhaber, a friend of his who was an executive at
Genworth Financial, a financial services company that owned a mortgage insurance division. Genworth, which had been spun off by General
Electric a few years earlier, was the most conservatively managed of the
nation’s seven mortgage insurance companies. For years Goldhaber, who
served as both a lobbyist and a public relations man for Genworth, was
a behind-the-scenes player in Washington who both scoured pending
financial legislation for nuances that might help (or hurt) Genworth
and read actuarial tables.11 He was also an active member of FM Watch,
a lobbying group trying to contain the powers of Fannie Mae and
Freddie Mac. (Ironically, he used to work for Freddie Mac.)
Afterwards, a reporter went up to Ranieri and asked him whether
he was blaming the SEC for not having a handle on the subprime
MBS market. “This isn’t an indictment of the SEC,” he said, checking
his BlackBerry. He looked up at the reporter and said, “The transparencies are not what they should be.” Translation: this was an indictment of
the SEC.
It would seem that when the man who helped invent the MBS
warns about a market where $1 trillion in loans had been securitized
over the previous two years (subprime ABSs) that it would get a lot
of media attention. It didn’t. Bloomberg and National Mortgage News
wrote about Ranieri’s remarks, but it wasn’t exactly front-page coverage in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Then again, the
11
In the summer of 2007, Goldhaber privately predicted that the subprime losses would
probably rival the cost of the S&L crisis: $150 billion.
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wreckage in the subprime market had barely started. Bill Dallas’s Ownit
Mortgage had just gone under, but Merrill Lynch was moving full
speed ahead with its purchase of First Franklin. It appeared that despite
Ranieri’s warning about loan quality and bond disclosures on subprime
ABSs, whatever was occurring in the market was perhaps a blip—and
over the next few months things would turn around.
In the months ahead, Ranieri would make similar speeches, including a talk at the Milken Institute in Los Angeles. (Ranieri counted
Michael Milken, the former junk bond king, among his friends. He
said that when it came to poor bond disclosures on subprime securities, “Mike was on my side.”) One of his biggest problems with CDOs
was the “B” pieces of subprime ABS securitizations. The “B” pieces
were the subordinated parts of the bonds—the ones that took the first
losses in the event of loan defaults by subprime borrowers. According to
Ranieri’s research, many of these subordinated bonds (the riskiest ones)
were not really public securities that had any genuine scrutiny behind
them. “A lot of these were 144-A’s,” he later said. “These were private
securities.” By that he meant the issuer (Merrill and Citigroup being
the two largest issuers of CDOs in 2006) had registered the securities,
but the bonds were sold through a private placement. The 144-A route
was exactly what Eric Billings of FBR was doing in regard to converting certain subprime mortgage REITs into stockholder-owned companies: public registration with private ownership. The advantages of using
a 144-A filing were less paperwork and less scrutiny by the SEC.
Why would an investor in a subprime CDO such as a German
bank like SachsenLB or an Australian beach town community like
Manly (a suburb of Sydney) invest in a bond that included the riskiest
pieces of a subprime ABS? The answer was that they wanted a security that yielded more than a U.S. Treasury bond. (Both SachsenLB and
Manly bought subprime-related CDOs and lost huge sums of money
by doing so.) U.S. Treasuries are considered the safest fixed-income
investments in the world, but in the 2004 to 2007 time frame—the
height of the CDO issuance, when well over $1 trillion in securities
were sold to investors worldwide, not all of them backed by home
mortgages, mind you—the yield on a 10-year Treasury bond might be
only 4.5 percent. The yield on a CDO might be two or three percentage points higher, and when an investor is dealing with a bond that
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might have a face value of $100 million, an extra percentage point or
two translates into tens of thousands of dollars in additional income. It
wasn’t just the money, though. The investor, the suburb of Manly for
instance, trusted the investment banker that was selling them the CDO.
“These bonds are sold without much disclosure because they pass the
sophisticated investor test,” said Ranieri. “Merrill and Citi put them
into CDOs. Then they take these CDOs and sell them to nontraditional mortgage guys.”
The two largest investment banks that issued CDOs were, as
Ranieri noted, Citigroup and Merrill.12 It wasn’t just that they sold the
bonds; in the case of Merrill, the investment banking firm would provide a loan to almost any investor that wanted to buy a CDO from it.
In short, Merrill was providing warehouse financing to CDO investors.
And Merrill, of course, was providing warehouse financing to nonbank
subprime lenders like Ownit, a company (like many others) that was
gathering mortgages from independent loan brokers. This warehousing on top of warehousing was what investment bankers liked to call
leverage. Not only did Merrill own 20 percent of Ownit, it was lending money to the company to originate mortgages to the public and
then on the back end it was financing the purchase of CDOs by investors. The CDOs included securitized subprime loans that came out of
a lender it owned 20 percent of: Ownit. It was a perfect chain: Merrill
was profiting every step of the way.
Ranieri looked at the whole process and concluded that by using
144-A’s and putting the securities in CDOs, Wall Street firms like
Merrill “were circumventing the system, which meant that anyone
who might stand up and yell ‘bullshit,’” like the SEC, was absent from
the process. Ranieri knew that the CDO business was making “big, big
money” for Stan O’Neal, the head of Merrill Lynch. “If you were Stan
O’Neal you drank the Kool-Aid,” said Ranieri. “Of course, Angelo
[Mozilo of Countrywide] was out there trying to convince everyone
12
In the first half of 2007, before the subprime ABS market began to crumble, Merrill
Lynch and Citigroup ranked first and second, respectively, among all CDO issuers in the
United States, according to Asset-Backed Alert, an industry newsletter. Merrill issued $33.4
billion in CDOs, a 46 percent increase from the previous year. Citigroup ranked second
with $28 billion, a 45 percent gain.
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that 100 percent LTV loans were okay.” And Ranieri liked Angelo. In
some of his speeches during the previous two years Mozilo had been
a big proponent of no-down-payment lending, believing that if home
prices kept going up at a rate of even just 5 percent a year, borrowers
would quickly have equity in their newly purchased homes. Mozilo
had met Ranieri while Countrywide was still a young company using
Salomon to securitize loans for it. “I would come up to Salomon and
have lunch with him,” Mozilo recalled. “Lew and I used to bet each
other on when the FHA would raise its rates. Back then the FHA set
its own rates—it didn’t matter what the Fed was doing.”
By the summer of 2007 losses on CDOs by foreign investors were
beginning to get coverage in the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. The term CDO had suddenly become part of the financial
lexicon to describe what exactly was happening on the back end of the
mortgage food chain (so to speak). When it came to subprime originations, the front end entailed loan brokers finding a customer, and
a wholesaler like Argent, Countrywide, or First Franklin funding that
loan at the closing table.13 The back end of that mortgage food chain
entailed the reselling of that loan, its securitization, and then the slicing
and dicing of its cash flows into different bonds. Mortgages weren’t just
being securitized into ABS bonds; they were being resecuritized and
put into CDOs. Keep in mind that when a subprime ABS is created
by a Wall Street firm (such as Merrill), it has different tranches, meaning the cash flow is divided into smaller bonds, each with different risk
characteristics, maturities, and yields. All of the tranches are rated by
S&P, Moody’s, or Fitch. As Ranieri once noted, “These deals are structured backwards. They sell the support tranche first. If you don’t have it,
you can’t do the deal.”
The support tranche was the “B” piece or subordinated tranche—
the one where all the losses were taken first. During the subprime
boom of 1995 to 1998, the “B” pieces were sold to hedge funds or
held on the balance sheet of publicly traded subprime lenders. How
did the lenders manage to keep the risky bonds on their books? They
13
When a wholesale lender like Countrywide funds a mortgage using a loan broker, the
transaction is sometimes referred to as “table funding,” because a check is delivered by
the provider of funds (Countrywide) to where the closing is being held.
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borrowed money from Wall Street to finance these holdings. A slightly
different twist on the CDO was an invention called the structured
investment vehicle (SIV) that had one key difference: SIVs were investment funds and didn’t necessarily have ratings from one of the big three
rating agencies (though the underlying securities in the fund might).
In 2007 the biggest player in the SIV market was Citigroup. According to the Wall Street Journal, Citigroup was the largest participant
in the $350 billion SIV market, managing seven funds with a combined value of $80 billion. But the beauty of SIVs—at least for the
investment bankers that managed the funds—was that they were offbalance-sheet investment funds, which meant Citigroup collected a fee
as manager, arranged for investors to buy into the fund (using shortterm loans called commercial paper), and didn’t have to tell its regulator
anything about what it was doing because SIVs, as a technical matter,
were owned not by Citigroup but by outside institutional investors. In
the beginning of 2007, Citigroup—without offering an explanation—
stopped disclosing to trade newspapers like Inside Mortgage Finance
and National Mortgage News how much in subprime loans the company was originating and servicing each year. The only way to ascertain the information was to wait for the annual loan origination figures
to be released by the Federal Reserve under a law called the Home
Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA).
It was generally assumed that Citigroup’s subprime division, CitiFinancial of Baltimore, was the tenth largest originator of subprime
mortgages in the United States. The nation’s largest commercial bank
had an interesting pedigree. Its CEO was Charles Prince. His predecessor was Sandy Weill, who became the head of Citigroup shortly after
Citibank merged with insurance giant Travelers Group. Travelers was
Weill’s company. The former number-two executive at financial services giant American Express, Weill in 1986 had bought a struggling
midsize consumer finance company, Commercial Credit Company
of Baltimore, fixed it up, and eventually parlayed that acquisition into
several others, which is how he wound up with Travelers. Commercial
Credit’s general counsel was Charles Prince. By the time Citibank
merged with Weill’s insurance giant in 1998 (thus creating Citigroup),
Travelers also happened to own an investment banking company called
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Salomon Smith Barney—which included the remnants of Ranieri’s old
firm, Salomon Brothers.
By the time Ranieri made his speech at the Press Club in Washington,
Citigroup was originating subprime loans coast to coast through
retail loan offices that once belonged to both Commercial Credit
and Associates First Capital Corporation,14 the subprime giant it had
bought back in 2000. It also was using loan brokers and buying already
originated subprime loans from other lenders. It was then taking the
loans, securitizing them through Citigroup Securities (the old Salomon
Smith Barney), and putting them into CDOs and SIVs. Under Weill
and Prince it had created a beginning-to-end subprime mortgage
factory—one that resembled what Bear Stearns had and what Stan
O’Neal over at Merrill Lynch was trying to build.
*
*
*
In the summer of 2005 Karen Weaver went on a tour of Southern
California. She wasn’t a pop star—she was managing director in charge
of global securitization research for Deutsche Bank in New York. Her
mission: to interview subprime executives on how they did business—
how they underwrote the billions in loans they were churning out
each month. Southern California, Orange County in particular, was
subprime central. It seemed like a logical place to start. In the fall of
that year she issued a report noting that subprime mortgage securities
increasingly were being thrown into CDOs. Historically, residential
loans were never placed in CDOs. CDOs were originally created by
Drexel Burnham Lambert as a way for investors to buy a basket of
junk bonds backed by companies in different industries. The idea was
to diversify risk. In the early 2000s CDOs consisted primarily of corporate bonds and loans, credit card receivables, and aircraft leases and
receivables. The idea, as Michael Milken envisioned, was diversification. But beginning in 2003, Wall Street underwriters, led by Citigroup,
14
Before going public a decade earlier, Associates First Capital was owned by Ford Motor
Company.
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threw the diversification model out the window by creating CDOs
that contained mostly mortgages—subprime mortgages, that is.
One of Weaver’s conclusions was that housing prices just couldn’t
possibly keep rising so much year after year. She predicted that in the
years ahead “subprime mortgage losses will increase significantly.” A few
months after the report came out, Greg Lippmann, Deutsche Bank’s
global ABS chief, began shorting the ABX index, betting that subprime
bonds (ABSs) would decline in value. Lippmann’s bet against subprime
was made a full year before Ranieri made his remarks to regulators in
Washington. Of course, Lippmann’s goal was to stay under the radar;
he didn’t want the publicity to ruin his bet, which turned out to be
hugely successful. His actions later came to light well into 2007, first in
the Wall Street Journal and then in the New York Times and other newspapers. Lippmann declined to comment.
By early 2006 most mortgage executives who were selling loans to
Merrill and Citigroup had a good idea that not only would their mortgages fuel ABS issuance (that was a given) but they would feed the growing CDO market. “The entire [subprime] industry knew that Merrill
was putting the product into CDOs,” said Ownit’s Bruce Dickenson.
The feeling among lenders and investors was that as long as the
three rating agencies gave the CDOs an investment-grade rating (BBB
or higher), then there should be no worries. Treasuries, the best credit
in the land, were AAA rated. But many CDOs actually were rated
AAA by Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch. This was accomplished by the Wall
Street securitizer obtaining bond insurance from one of the three big
bond insurance companies—Ambac Financial Group, MBIA Inc., and
Financial Guaranty Insurance Company (FGIC). If the loans underlying
the CDO went bad, the bond insurers would pay. In the new modern
era of subprime finance, it appeared that Wall Street had all the to-do
boxes taken care of with a check mark in each. An investment banker
like Bear Stearns owned the actual originator of the subprime loans.
Check. If it didn’t own the originator, it bought mortgages through
the trading desk. Check. It securitized the mortgages into subprime
MBSs (ABSs). Check. It took out bond insurance. Check. It obtained
investment-grade ratings from either Fitch, Moody’s, or S&P. Check. It
found domestic or foreign investors. Check.
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What could go wrong? Was Ranieri (and Weaver) overreacting?
Maybe. But one thing was certain: Wall Street firms like Merrill Lynch
and Bear Stearns—as Ranieri would later come to realize—were not
carefully reviewing the billions in loans they were buying each day.
These weren’t the “A” paper loans of yesteryear, a product that had
made Salomon (and Ranieri) rich. These were modern-day subprime
loans—a whole new breed of animal. As Ranieri once joked, “There’s
nothing wrong with mortgages—it’s an unstable asset.”
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Chapter 10
Deep in the
Belly of the Bear
T
he long-held dream of “Carl Chamberlain”1 was to work on
the mortgage trading desk at Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch,
Lehman Brothers, or any of the other Wall Street firms that
were doing a brisk business in subprime lending during the years 2004
to 2007. It was a gold rush, and he aimed to be in on the action.
A Manhattanite, he had a degree in paralegal studies with a specialty in
foreclosures and litigation. For a while Chamberlain worked as a frontline
loan analyst at First Franklin’s Garden City office in Nassau County out
on Long Island, underwriting so-called liar loans (stated-income loans),
taking a careful look at verification of employment (VOE) forms on
potential borrowers. He was asked to leave after he raised a stink about
some of the lender’s underwriting practices, which included a manager
encouraging certain borrowers to take out cash advances on their credit
cards and use the money for a down payment. “The reason they needed
1 This contract underwriter, who worked for Clayton and other outsourcing firms,
requested that his name be changed for publication in this book. He continues to work
in the mortgage industry.
227
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the advance was because they had no money,” he said. Then he discovered Clayton Holdings and a practice called “rolling.”
Based in suburban Shelton, Connecticut, Clayton was the largest
of a half-dozen or so due diligence firms that vetted subprime and
alt-A mortgages being funded by lenders like Aegis, Ameriquest, First
Franklin, Ownit, and the rest of the nonbanks churning out $2.4 trillion
in mortgages during those years. In 2006, rank-and-file clerks hired by
Clayton vetted a million individual mortgages for Wall Street firms,
chief among them Merrill and Bear. Even though these loans supposedly had been already underwritten by the lenders originating them,
the Street (intelligently) wanted a second opinion—at least on some of
them. Depending on the lender and the size of the loan pool being
sold, Clayton might review just 5 percent to 20 percent of the mortgages they were buying. In the fast and furious days of the boom
years, underwriting, especially on liar loans, might only include minimum documentation. Since many nonbanks like New Century, First
Franklin, and Ownit knew their loans would be vetted a second time
by the Street, they would create what were called “thin files” on loans.2
These paper files might include only a pay stub and a credit report. As
for Clayton, its clients included Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Morgan
Stanley, Citigroup, and just about every other investment banking firm
that was buying whole loans through their trading desks with the ultimate goal of creating subprime bonds, some of which would wind up
in CDOs. As one executive vice president who sold to the Street noted:
“They were not set up for the long haul or to generate quality. They
were designed to generate revenue.”
There were two reasons the Street firms reviewed only a small
sample of the loans they were buying, said Chamberlain. The most
important reason was the relationship with the lender. “The lower
the sample you requested [of the lender], the more likely it was that
2 The
thin files were given to Clayton, Bohan, and other contract underwriting firms by
the lenders selling the loans to the trading desk. They pertained mostly to stated-income
loans, but not always, according to different underwriters. One Clayton underwriter noted
that on one of the loans she reviewed, instead of a formal appraisal from a professional
appraisal firm there was a statement “from the borrower saying what he thought the
property was worth.”
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you’d win the bid,” he said. Lenders like Aegis and First Franklin had
so many Street firms interested in buying their subprime and alt-A
mortgages they could tell potential suitors that if they wanted to win
the bid for the loan pool they should agree to review just a fraction
of the mortgages.
In early 2005 an executive from Washington Mutual visited Aegis
in Houston. WaMu was warehousing Aegis and wanted to buy some of
its loans, but one of its managers told the lender that WaMu insisted on
reviewing 100 percent of the loans it was buying. The Aegis executive
turned to him and said, “See that conference room? Bear Stearns is in
there looking at some of our loans. They’re only reviewing 20 percent.
If they’re comfortable reviewing 20 percent, you should be, too.” The
WaMu executive left Houston without a deal.
Over a two-year period Chamberlain underwrote hundreds of
loans for Bear Stearns but never met its chairman and CEO, James
Cayne. He also never met Cayne’s top lieutenant (and presumed heir
apparent), Warren Spector, co-president of the firm, nor Ralph Cioffi,
senior managing director in charge of two Bear hedge funds, whose
job it was to invest in bonds created from mortgages that Chamberlain
reviewed on his laptop. Throughout its history in mortgages, which
dated back to the mid-1980s, Bear Stearns prided itself on being
one of the most astute risk managers in the business. Jess Lederman,
a former managing director who worked for the firm during those
early mortgage-backed security (MBS) years, described the company
as having “tremendous disciplines.” When it came to assessing trouble
with the riskiest of certain financial instruments—especially mortgagebacked bonds—Bear was supposed to be among the best.
That said, just because Bear was supposed to be one of the best risk
managers on Wall Street (a good risk manager is someone who can spot
trouble a mile away), that didn’t mean Bear wanted to actually employ
a bunch of grunts who sat in a big conference room all day long looking at the loan files of the mortgages it was buying. “We were grunts—
that’s what we were,” said one woman who worked on assignments
for Clayton in the New Jersey area. Hiring and keeping hundreds of
underwriters on the payroll would just result in the creation of more
full-time equivalents (FTEs). As Richard Wilkes had pointed out, FTEs
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cost money—and more important, when it came to executive bonuses,
FTEs were charged against revenues.
In the modern area of mortgage finance—one where Wall Street
was in control of the nonprime sector—the idea was to keep the head
count lean. If Bear Stearns was going to hire people to work in its
mortgage department, it would much rather employ managing directors who could bring in mortgages through the trading desk—people
like Mike Nierenberg and Jeff Verschleiser. The clerical work of actually reviewing the loans they were buying through the desk fell to contractors who worked for Clayton, The Bohan Group of San Francisco,
or Opus Capital Markets of Chicago. It was the type of work that Carl
Chamberlain and hundreds of others did. They were the grunts looking over the files. Over a three-year period the Carl Chamberlains of
the world reviewed thousands upon thousands of mortgages bought
through the trading desk of Bear Stearns.
Even though he’d had a bad experience at First Franklin,
Chamberlain figured if he worked as a contract underwriter for a
year or so he could latch on to a mortgage job in New York where
he lived. After signing on at Clayton, the first thing he learned was
that he wasn’t working for Clayton at all. He was working for the PCI
Group, an employment agency based in northern New Jersey. (Wall
Street firms weren’t the only ones concerned about FTEs.) “‘You
work for us,’ Clayton always told us, but PCI was the actual employer,”
Chamberlain said. “That was the name on the paycheck.”
In 2006—the second busiest year ever for subprime lenders (and
the Street firms buying their loans)—he spent six months, on and off,
holed up in Orange County hotels, working in rented conference
rooms with hundreds of other grunts, reviewing the loan files to make
sure there was nothing wrong with the mortgages the Wall Street client
had contracted to buy. He would fly into John Wayne Airport in Santa
Ana (near Irvine), immediately report to the Hilton or Radisson, and
be handed a laptop and a box of loan files. The goal: to review one loan
an hour, assigning each a grade of one, two, or three. “My quota was
one loan an hour,” said Chamberlain. “If you can’t do that, you won’t
get called again for work.”
Each investment banker using Clayton or Bohan would give the
contract underwriter a set of guidelines, contained in an Excel spreadsheet,
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to measure the loans against. “There are 600 pages in a guidebook,” noted
Chamberlain. “You don’t have time to do it over.”
A rating of a one or two meant the loan was good, and the Street
firm would buy the mortgage. A three meant fail, with a recommendation not to buy. But sometimes Chamberlain’s supervisor on the job
would overrule his three ratings. “They would make it a one or delete
your comments,” he said. “There were compensating factors or CFs.
If it does not meet [the investor’s loan] guidelines you can say it’s a
two because it has CFs.” When a reporter from National Mortgage News
asked Chamberlain what a compensating factor might be, he laughed.
In one case, a CF was granted because the borrower had been on the
job 20 years and was applying for a loan where the debt-to-income
ratio was too high. But his favorite CF was one where his supervisor granted an exception because the house had what he called “curb
appeal.” Chamberlain chuckled. “Curb appeal. Funny, a house doesn’t
pay the mortgage; the borrower does. So I never quite understood how
this was reason enough to push the loan through.”
Mortgages that received ratings of one or two from Clayton’s
grunts were bought without question. The idea, according to several
contract underwriters interviewed by reporters Muolo and Padilla, was
to pass as many loans as possible.
Over at Bohan, a top executive there told Padilla that some of the
due diligence firm’s Wall Street clients had a “history of overturning
a lot our ‘red Xs.’” A red X meant loan rejected, that the Street firm
shouldn’t buy it. “You need to keep volumes up,” said the executive.
“Originators were going public. There were large investors. Rates
started rising. How do you keep volumes up? You get creative.”
For all the work that the grunts were performing, Clayton and
Bohan received about $150 per loan file. (The cost might vary, depending on how much the Street firm asked of Clayton.) The grunts, in
turn, could earn $30 to $40 an hour. “You got a per diem of $40 per
day for food, $80 on the weekends,” he said. “That’s what the ‘rollers’
did. Some of them were making $125,000 per year when you factored
in the per diems.”
Rolling, Chamberlain soon learned, was the practice of staying over
on the weekend, instead of returning home and then coming back to
Orange County on a Monday. During the boom most of that action
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was in Orange or the surrounding counties, thanks to the presence of
Ameriquest, Argent, Accredited Home Lenders, Option One, Ownit,
and New Century. The grunts working in the conference room lived
all over the United States. “They were like the gypsies of the industry,” he said. “It’s cheaper to put you up in a hotel than fly you back
home and out again. It’s called ‘rolling.’” (He also mentioned there was
“hanky-panky” going on in those hotel rooms, adding, “That’s what
happens when you live in hotels.”)
Sometimes, Chamberlain would roll over, whereas other times
he’d fly back to New York. On the job he met all sorts of fellow
laptop grunts and fellow industry gypsies, most of whom didn’t have
much mortgage experience. It wasn’t exactly a young person’s game,
either. He met retired schoolteachers, single mothers, people looking to change careers, workers with only high school degrees, college
graduates. “I don’t mean to sound mean,” said Chamberlain, “but some
were lacking when it came to intelligence. On a refi versus a ‘cash-out’
refi they’d ask, ‘What’s a cash-out?’ ”
Before setting its grunts loose on a box of loan files, Clayton put
them through a two-week training course. The number of loans the
grunts would review could be as few as 800 or as many as 8,000.
The number varied depending on the size of the loan pool the Street
firm was buying. The grunts answered to a lead supervisor. Some of
the leads, unlike the contract clerks (the grunts), worked directly for
Clayton. The lead interfaced with a transaction manager (TM) who
also worked for Clayton. It was the transaction manager’s responsibility
to work with the Wall Street client, who also had a TM on the job. “If
Bear had won the bid for the loan pool, the TM would be a vice president from Bear Stearns,” said Chamberlain.
On large loan pools totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, at
least 100 grunts would be working in a hotel conference room, trying to keep up with the quota of reviewing one loan an hour. “You
might work past midnight sometimes, which was ridiculous because by
that time your brain was mush,” said Chamberlain. “As an underwriter
I would point out stuff to the leads. They would basically tell you to
keep your mouth shut. ‘Make it pass,’ I was told by a Clayton lead.”
When Chamberlain went through Clayton’s two-week training
course, one of the first things he was told by his instructor was never to
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use the “f-word.” Fraud was the f-word, he said. “Fraud—don’t ever say
that word.”
Eileen Loiacono, a contract underwriter who worked at Bohan,
remembered that her supervisor (a former nurse with one year’s experience in underwriting) argued repeatedly with her that fraud could not
be proven so the word should not be used, and overturned Loiacono’s
objections. The former nurse was married to an operations manager at
Bohan. Once she was put in charge, the former nurse hired her best
friend as an underwriter, said Loiacono. “Subprime loans flooded the
market,” she said. “Bohan didn’t have enough people, so they grabbed
them from anywhere.”
Disgusted by what she saw, Loiacono left Bohan in 2007. “This
whole subprime thing has left such a vile taste in my mouth,” she said.
“I was not allowed to do my job properly.” Her new chosen profession?
“I’m going to work for a health insurance company.”
As for the leads who oversaw workers like Chamberlain and
Loiacono, they were the managers in charge of the underwriting job.
They were in charge of the grunts, holding a metaphorical whip over
them. A grunt working for Bohan told the reporters that some leads
“used bad language to try to control the contractors—such things as
standing up on tables, telling them, ‘If you don’t get your fucking act
together and get this job done, I will send each and every one of you
home tomorrow.’ ”
Leads, as Chamberlain and grunts working for Bohan said, were
paid bonuses for finishing underwriting jobs early. Job turnover among
the grunts was a problem. Wall Street was buying so many loans that
many contractor underwriters realized if things didn’t work out at
Bohan they could move over to Clayton or Opus, which offered the
exact same services to Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and the others.
According to Loiacono, at one point Bohan’s web site boasted that its
underwriters (the grunts) each had five to seven years of underwriting
experience. She highly questioned those numbers.3
Over at Clayton, Chamberlain came away none too impressed
with the two-week training course it gave the grunts. “It wasn’t formal
3 By the spring of 2008 Bohan’s web site boasted that its underwriters have 10-plus years
of experience.
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training,” he said. “Clayton does train but offers no type of certification.
There is no recognition by a trade organization.” Quality control
supervisors also took a two-week training course “even if they’d never
been in the business before,” he said. Still, Chamberlain kept working as
an underwriter because the money was good and he hoped for a valued job on a Wall Street trading desk.
But there was one lead in particular he wasn’t crazy about
(Chamberlain would only identify him as “G”), who had joined Clayton
after serving as a manager at Wal-Mart. For some reason, he said, Bear
Stearns always requested “G.” “He pushed everything through,” said
Chamberlain. “He was chummy with the Bear people. He called them
a lot.” As to who “G” spoke to at Bear, he had no idea. For whatever
reason, Bear Stearns always wanted him on their jobs.
One former managing director who worked at Bear said, “Bear
didn’t really care about quality. They wanted volume.” But Clayton was
hardly an innocent party, said the managing director. “They told the
client [Bear] what they wanted to hear.”
But Bear knew that the loans that Clayton was looking at would
wind up in the subprime bonds it would be issuing. Neil Spagna, the
former investment banker who also worked at Clayton, remembered,
“Since Clayton underwrote the loans, we’d be asked to talk to the
investors who were buying their ABS bonds.”
*
*
*
For most of the 1990s, if you asked a mortgage banking executive who
the go-to guy at Bear Stearns was in regard to mortgages, the answer,
nine times out of 10, would be Warren Spector. He wasn’t exactly a
household name on Wall Street, but he had quietly risen in the ranks at
Bear, spending almost his entire career at the firm. He grew up in suburban Bethesda, Maryland, a few miles from Washington. He attended
Princeton University in the late 1970s, then transferred to St. John’s
College. According to Dan Phillips, who founded First Plus, the high
loan-to-value (LTV) ratio lender, Spector was so studious that as a child
he went to math camp during the summer while other children were
playing sports.
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During his junior year at St. John’s, Spector wrote to Alan “Ace”
Greenberg, then a managing partner at Bear Stearns,4 asking for a
summer job. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Spector
was offered a summer position at the firm but then turned it down,
saying he couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan on $125 a week. After
graduating from business school he once again asked Greenberg,5 who
had ascended to the CEO slot, for a job, and this time accepted when
a position was offered. He spent time on the government bond trading desk and then moved over to the mortgage desk where he, as well
as others, made their mark by establishing Bear’s research credentials—
especially in MBSs. Bear, like Salomon Brothers, was known as a fixedincome shop, and fixed income, of course, meant mortgage bonds—the
hottest product on the Street in the 1980s.
Jess Lederman, who worked as a managing partner at Bear during
that era, remembered, “There was a lot of analytic brainpower at the firm
during that time. There was Chuck Ramsey, who did spread analysis on
mortgage pools.” Bear, along with Salomon, was among the first Wall
Street firms to carefully analyze all the underlying mortgages in the MBSs
they were trading with an eye toward how quickly the bonds would prepay. An investor who had a good idea how long the bonds might stick
around had an advantage over buyers—and sellers—on the other side of
the trade who didn’t have access to this research. “Bear was extra aggressive when it came to extreme analytics,” said Lederman.
Among the whiz kids working on Bear’s calculations was
Spector, the math camp veteran. (As Lew Ranieri had once observed,
“Mortgages are about math.”) With Bear establishing itself as a force in
MBS research and trading, Spector moved up in the ranks and became
4
Bear Stearns went public in 1987. Up until then, the privately held firm had managing
partners who shared in the investment bank’s yearly profits. As a publicly traded company,
the title “managing director” replaced “managing partner.”
5 Greenberg worked on Wall Street for 50 years and is credited with turning Bear Stearns
into an investment banking powerhouse. But he wasn’t without his quirks. Among the
legendary things he said was this: “I will fire you if you so much as throw out a paper clip.”
Under Greenberg, Bear’s bond and mortgage traders had a reputation—deserved or
not—for being among the best in the business. “His sales force was second to none,” said
Jonas Roth, a former national sales manager for trading at Countrywide.
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a managing director. He also had become somewhat close with Bear’s
new CEO, James “Jimmy” Cayne. Among other things, the two men
shared an affinity for both golf and bridge. (Ace Greenberg was also
a bridge devotee.) Both Spector and Cayne were tournament-quality
players. (Cayne was a bit better—he was a champion on the U.S.
National Bridge Team.) Spector had once told a reporter, “Bridge is
a game of drawing conclusions from incomplete information. What
doesn’t happen is as important as what does.” Such a description might
also apply to bond trading. (However, when Spector was socializing
with Dan Phillips at his homes both in New York and on Martha’s
Vineyard, the card game of choice was poker.)
As a managing director, Spector was put in charge of all fixedincome instruments, including mortgage bonds. One managing director who worked with him offered this praise: “Warren knew what
was in every tranche.” How he rose to head the fixed-income department is a matter of some conjecture. His predecessor was a managing
director named John Sites. Because he was close with Cayne (never
underestimate the bonds of bridge players), supposedly, Spector played
a central role in the firm pushing Sites to the side so he could have his
job. “Warren made a few enemies on that one,” said one co-worker.
(It wouldn’t the first or last time a senior executive lost his or her job
based on personal ties.)
Spector became head of the department just as the subprime
boom of 1994 to 1998 was cresting. On a daily basis he was overseeing
$10 billion in bond trades a day. He, as well as other managing directors at Bear, was well aware that one of the best ways to convince nonbank subprime (and high-LTV) lenders to sell their mortgages to the
firm was to offer other services as well—like warehouse lines of credit.
Bear’s financial institution group (FIG), which concentrated on raising
equity and offering other traditional banking-related services to mortgage lenders, was run separately from the trading desks. (At some Wall
Street firms, that’s not always the case.)
Even though Spector didn’t directly oversee the mortgage trading desk, he knew its value to the fixed-income group. “He wasn’t
directly involved in MBS but he negotiated the credit lines,” said
Phillips. He also would frequently socialize with some of the firm’s clients, such as Phillips, a practice that led some to believe that he very
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well might have been privately anointed by Cayne to one day be his
successor. One California mortgage banker remembered being flown
to Las Vegas in early 1998 by Phillips to attend what he called a “Frank
Sinatra memorial tribute” at the MGM Grand. “Frank’s kid was
running the orchestra,” said the executive. “Paul Anka and a few singers
from the Fifth Dimension were performing. At the table right next to
mine was [Robert] DeNiro. I also met Spector and Kevin Ingram6 from
Deutsche Bank. Phillips had flown them all in for the event.” The little math genius from Bethesda had come a long way. By then Spector,
known for wearing oversized horn-rimmed glasses, was married to
Margaret Whitton, an actress who had a supporting role in the steamy
movie 9½ Weeks starring actor Mickey Rourke.
*
*
*
By the mid-1990s there was only one major Wall Street firm that
actually owned a subprime lender—Bear Stearns. Bear had launched
EMC Mortgage earlier in the decade to buy delinquent loans (at bargain basement prices) from the Resolution Trust Corporation, a special
government agency chartered by Congress to liquidate $300 billion in
commercial and residential assets owned by failed S&Ls. The inventory
included both loans and real estate (not to mention a few billion dollars’
worth of junk bonds sold to thrifts by Drexel Burnham Lambert and
Michael Milken). During its early days, EMC was a servicing company
6
Back in 1998 Ingram was in charge of Deutsche Bank’s mortgage trading desk in
New York. Deutsche Bank was also a warehouse lender to Phillips’s First Plus, a high-LTV
lender that was dabbling in subprime as well. Sometimes featured in the pages of Black
Enterprise magazine, Ingram, an African-American, was known for wearing black leather
pants, throwing lavish parties, and showering his girlfriends with expensive gifts. He got the
heave-ho from Deutsche Bank when the subprime market began to crater in the fall of
1998. In 2001 he was indicted on money laundering charges in connection with a plot to
sell illegal weapons to foreign entities that might have ties to terrorist organizations. Ingram
pleaded guilty to money laundering charges after cutting a deal where he testified against
two New Jersey men, Diaa Moshen and Mohammed Rajaa Malik. He served 18 months in
prison and was released in 2004. He also worked as a bond trader for Goldman Sachs, and
according to Black Enterprise was mentored by Goldman Sachs chief Jon Corzine, who was
elected to the U.S. Senate and then became governor of New Jersey. One mortgage
executive who did business with Ingram when he was at Deutsche Bank described him as
“a short, stocky black man working for a German bank. He stuck out.”
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only, meaning it tried to bring delinquent loans current by working
with borrowers to restructure their payments. If a loan workout wasn’t
possible, the next step would be to foreclose, take over the property,
and then resell it—at a much higher price, it was hoped, than what
Bear had paid for the delinquent loan. The company was started from
scratch (de novo) and headquartered in Texas because, as one Bear official said, “They didn’t want to put it in New York because of the taxes
they’d have to pay there, plus no one puts a servicing operation in an
expensive place like New York anyway.”7
Ed Raice was an accountant by training who came out of Bear’s
back office to manage EMC. To those who knew him, the last thing in
the world Raice wanted to do was relocate to Irving, Texas, near the
I-30 corridor, a strip of highway made infamous during the S&L crisis
because of all the failed townhouse and condo developments alongside
it. (Many of the condo units were never completed. One U.S. attorney
who saw the poured concrete foundations that had never been built
upon called the slabs “Martian landing pads.”) Raice was not leaving
New York for Irving.
“Ed did not live in Texas,” said a friend at the firm. “He didn’t want
to move to Texas. He didn’t want anything to do with Texas. He stayed
in New York and ran the thing from there. He never went to Texas
unless he really had to.”
The S&L crisis did not last forever, and by 1996 Bear, gingerly,
started using the company to originate subprime loans—but only
through loan brokers and small mortgage banking firms called “correspondent lenders.” By then Neil Spagna had left Kidder Peabody, whose
trading desk had been competing against Bear’s, and had gone to work
for Clayton—which began analyzing loan files for EMC. Back then,
said Spagna, Clayton was reviewing 100 percent of the subprime loan
files that Bear was buying from lenders. “By 1996 Bear was huge in subprime,” he said. “EMC would buy bulk loan packages from Option
One and New Century.” In New York, Bear had set up conduits (legal
entities) to buy mortgages from other subprime lenders as well. It had
7 The
servicing operations of most mortgage companies are usually housed in suburban or
rural areas where office space and housing costs are cheap. Over the past five years some
functions have even been outsourced to India. Rarely is a major servicing operation
located in a major city.
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taken First Plus public and was securitizing its loans. Then the bottom
fell out of the subprime market in the fall of 1998. By mid-1999 First
Plus was bankrupt and Phillips’s days of traveling to New York to play
poker with Spector and Dan Marino were over.
EMC and Bear were left (more or less) unscathed by the subprime
mess of 1998–1999. Unlike lenders like First Plus, The Money Store,
ContiMortgage, and others, EMC was smart enough to avoid the
phony-baloney machinations of gain-on-sale accounting in regard to
its bonds. When dozens of subprime lenders went bust during those
years, Raice and the folks at Bear realized that when the business
returned it would leave less competition and more opportunity for
EMC. “Ed understood the loan business,” said Spagna. “He knew the
risks and pitfalls. He also knew that to be in this business you had to
grow it—you had to be aggressive.”
*
*
*
Ralph Cioffi of South Burlington, Vermont, was a product of Catholic
schools—first Rice Memorial High School and then St. Michael’s of
Colchester. He was a running back, fullback, and offensive guard at
Rice. When he attended college he concentrated on bodybuilding and
had a reputation as being quiet and not very outspoken, according to
a report by Bloomberg. He graduated in 1978 with a business degree.
By 1985 he was working for Bear Stearns in its Chicago office as a
bond salesman in mortgages, where he got noticed “because he was
a salesman who knew the product and he was smarter than most salesmen,” said one colleague. Among the traditional Street firms, Bear had
one of the lowest turnover rates among its executives and managing
directors. Under both Greenberg and Cayne the firm liked to reward
smart, hardworking young managers. Like Spector, he moved up in the
organization, became a managing director in 1996, and found himself
working in the fixed-income side of the business (bonds) in New York
under Spector.
By 2003 Spector was now co-president of the company, and many
assumed that Cayne, who was then 69, had placed his bridge-playing
friend at the top of the short list to succeed him. By this time the
subprime residential business had indeed recovered, and Bear, thanks
to its trading desk and EMC, was among the top issuers of subprime
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ABS securities. In 2003 Wall Street firms had purchased and issued
$233 billion in subprime bonds—almost twice what it had the year
before. With Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ailing from their respective accounting scandals, the nongovernment business looked wide
open.8 Cioffi approached the firm’s top executives—including Cayne
and Spector—about starting a Bear-sponsored hedge fund to invest in
subprime bonds, including ABSs and CDOs. He received their blessing,
and in March of that year the High Grade Structured Credit Strategies
Fund was born. The name of the fund was a mouthful to say. Internally,
it was referred to as the High Grade fund, which was somewhat ironic
given that it was investing in bonds backed by people whose credit was
anything but high grade.
And that’s where Clayton and Bohan and grunts like Carl
Chamberlain and Eileen Loiacono came in. It was their job to review the
mortgages that Bear was buying from Aegis, Ownit, First Franklin, and
the rest of the industry to make sure they wouldn’t blow up down the
road. But the last place you would find Jimmy Cayne, Warren Spector,
and Ralph Cioffi was in the conference room of an Orange County
hotel, looking at the raw product of what they’d be securitizing and
putting into bonds. Based on what the High Grade fund was returning
for its investors it might be argued: Why should they bother? According
to a report on the wire service Bloomberg, Cioffi’s High Grade fund
supposedly returned 46.8 percent from October 2003 to early 2007.
Of course, hardly anyone at the firm, unless they worked for Cioffi,
could tell you exactly what type of subprime assets were in the High
Grade fund. But that was sort of the point. Hedge funds are private,
and even though Bear Stearns was a publicly traded company with an
85-year history behind it, it wasn’t obligated to disclose a whole lot
about the High Grade fund—except of course to its investors, who
included some of its own senior managing directors, among them
8
During the 1980s General Electric’s financial services unit in Stamford, Connecticut, had
talked to a handful of Wall Street firms about starting an “A” paper conduit that would
compete against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. However, the idea was shot down because
all the parties involved believed that the government charter of the two allowed them to
borrow money more cheaply in the capital markets. In other words, no matter how well
GE might run its “A” paper conduit, the quarter- to half-point borrowing advantage of
Fannie and Freddie would put it at a competitive disadvantage.
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Cioffi. Part of the reason it didn’t have to disclose anything about itself
to the public was that as a legal matter the hedge fund was headquartered in the Cayman Islands, whose secrecy laws are legendary. (Court
documents later revealed that its “unaffiliated directors,” meaning no
Bear Stearns or related personnel, were based in Ireland and then later
on the Caymans. No individual names were revealed.)
What also was legendary was the fund’s rate of return (and Cioffi’s
reputation as its manager). William Burrell, a regional manager for Bear
in California, never met Cioffi while he was at the firm but described
his reputation as being “the magician.” The magician, according to
Burrell, “lived in a black box where no one evaluated him. And that’s
because he was the one who understood these weird arbitrages with
option vehicles where he was leveraged 30 to 1, but as long as his
returns were good it didn’t matter.”
Burrell knew one thing, though: that Cioffi’s delinquency models assumed that subprime loans would not go bad at a rate of more
than 1.5 percent. In 2006 those models were thrown out of whack
when subprime delinquency rates began to creep up and a chorus of
concern about the United States possibly being in the early stages of a
housing bubble grew louder. In April of that year a little-known lender
called Acoustic Home Loans was forced to close its doors after two of
its Wall Street warehouse lenders—Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch—
asked Acoustic to buy back a few million dollars’ worth of delinquent
subprime loans. The story made the front page of National Mortgage
News but got little play elsewhere. However, Acoustic was the first subprime lender to fail because of loan buyback requests from Wall Street
firms. Acoustic was yet one more subprime lender based in Orange
County. Its CEO was Frank Curry, who had cut his teeth on subprime
lending at Long Beach Mortgage, Roland Arnall’s company.
Even though the public had no idea what Cioffi’s hedge fund
was investing in (why should they care, really—hedge funds were for
rich investors only), court documents would later provide a glimpse of
the “high grade” bets he was making with the $930 million of investors’
money. Management of the fund was housed under Bear Stearns Asset
Management (BSAM for short), which Warren Spector oversaw. Cioffi
was using the millions raised and borrowing even more money to buy
not only subprime ABSs and CDOs, but credit default swaps, interest
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rate swaps, futures, options, and even positions on currencies. All of these
investments were bets (for lack of a better word) that the subprime residential business would stay on an even keel and that home prices would
not collapse. Cioffi and his management team at the fund—which
included Bear managing director Matthew Tannin and vice president
Joanmarie Pusateri—were using derivatives that paid off like insurance policies—that is, as long as the subprime market stayed healthy.
Downtown at Deutsche Bank, Greg Lippmann, managing director in
charge of global trading for ABSs and CDOs, was betting the opposite by
shorting the ABX index. Lippmann’s bet was now the better of the two.
In the fall of 2006, Cioffi’s bets on subprime began to lose money.
That year BSAM, which Spector oversaw, also signed off on the creation of two more hedge funds. Not only was Bear an investor in the
funds, but so was the London-based Barclays Bank, which also was
lending money to the High Grade fund. In April 2006 Tannin shot
off an e-mail to two Barclays executives, Ram Rao and Edward Ware,
assuring them that things were well: “I don’t want to sound like a broken record but the value of this transaction lies in the transparency
of credit information on high underlying credit quality assets.” Those
underlying assets would be the ones the grunts at Clayton and Bohan
were jamming through the system at the rate of one an hour.
Just because Bear had taken in $930 million of investors’ money
and another $600 million on the second subprime hedge fund created by Cioffi, that doesn’t mean its total exposure was $1.530 billion.
Reports varied, but the two largest subprime funds under Cioffi’s management had investments (bets) totaling anywhere from $10 billion to
$40 billion. In the spring of 2007 when word leaked out that the funds
were losing money, Bear promised to lend the funds $1.6 billion. But
the pledge hardly stabilized matters. As it turned out, Merrill Lynch
had lent the funds $850 million and, nervous that it might lose money,
made a margin call on Bear. (In the world of investment banking, a
margin call translates into: “Give us more money.”) Merrill officials
gave Bear a couple of days to pony up more money, then took control of its collateral—$850 million worth of subprime bonds. Merrill
immediately sold the bonds, a company spokeswoman telling reporters that they were “not unhappy” with what they’d received for the
bonds—which they wouldn’t disclose.
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Not only was Merrill margin-calling subprime lenders, but it was
now margin-calling a subprime hedge fund managed by one of its fiercest competitors. Investment bankers who worked in mortgages began to
view the drama between the two firms with some amusement. “I think
it’s fascinating when you have one Wall Street firm go after another,”
said a former Bear executive who managed his own investment company in Manhattan. “I’ve never seen one dealer seize another dealer’s
assets like that.”
A few months before Merrill seized its bonds, Bear had actually
filed an S-1 statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission to
take public a company called Everquest Financial. Everquest’s co-CEOs
were Cioffi and a former Morgan Stanley and Smith Barney executive named Michael J. Levitt. In the filing, Bear, the only underwriter
on the deal, bragged about the “strong track record of our managers”
(Cioffi and Levitt) and “attractive opportunities” in the CDO market.
Nowhere in the filing was anything mentioned about the troubles
facing Cioffi’s hedge funds. It just so happened that Everquest’s portfolio included $720 million in CDOs, two-thirds of which had been
purchased from Bear’s BSAM unit, which was under Spector (and
included Cioffi).
In the midst of all this, Bear also bought a nonbank subprime
company called Encore Credit, based (of course) in subprime central:
Irvine of Orange County. Encore was yet one more subprime firm
started by an executive who used to work for Roland Arnall—in this
case Steve Holder, who also helped start New Century. Two years earlier, Encore’s parent company, ECC Capital, had gone public through
Friedman Billings Ramsey, raising $354 million. (It was another Eric
Billings REIT deal.) Bear was one of Encore’s warehouse lenders. In
the fall of 2006 Bear agreed to pay a fraction of its initial public offering (IPO) price—just $26 million—for the company. Why? Because
Encore had sold Bear millions of dollars in mortgages that were now
delinquent. When asked about all the loan buyback requests between
Encore and Bear, Renu Aldridge, a Bear spokeswoman, told National
Mortgage News that “those problems are in the past.” Maybe so, but Bear
was now forcing buybacks on so many lenders that one joke making the rounds in the industry was that Bear didn’t actually buy loans,
“it rented them.”
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Even though Bear had EMC, it felt confident enough about the
future of subprime that, like Merrill, it wanted to assure its trading
desk (and Cioffi’s hedge funds) a steady flow of product from another
friendly source—Encore. (Ed Raice, the head of EMC, had left the
company about three years earlier in a contract dispute. One investment banker who worked with Raice described the situation: “Ed
thought he was the smartest guy in the world. He asked Bear for
$10 million [a year]. They said, ‘How about $6 million?’ He said no
and walked.”)9 When Bear finally closed on its purchase of Encore in
February of 2007, it no longer had to worry about giving its shareholders any money. Encore had so many unfilled loan buyback requests
from Bear that the nonbank wound up paying Bear $7 million to take
the lender off its hands. (Some investment bankers were calling it an
“anti-purchase,” because the new owner was actually getting paid to
take over the company.)
By the beginning of the summer the hedge funds were on the verge
of collapse. Bear wasn’t saying how much the funds had lost, but the
subprime industry was going in the exact opposite direction from what
Cioffi had bet on. Investors wanted their money back. Bear, though,
wasn’t telling reporters anything about the funds—and the media (as
well as the public) couldn’t really figure out what was in them, because
they were based in the Caymans. The New York Times focused one of
its stories on BSAM executive Richard Marin, noting that during one
weekend while Bear was trying to salvage the hedge funds the executive was busy adding to his personal Internet blog, which he had
dubbed “Whim of Iron.” Marin had blogged about how he “stole away”
from the “crisis-hedge-fund-salvation-workaholic weekend” to take in
the new Kevin Costner murder thriller Mr. Brooks. His recommendation: skip it. (The blog embarrassed Bear, which strongly encouraged
Marin to block access to it.)
In late July, after haggling with other lenders (including Barclays),
Bear threw both funds into bankruptcy, disclosing that the newer
fund, the one called “Enhanced,” was worthless. In the weeks preceding the crisis, the investment banking arm of JPMorgan Chase, another
9
Raice, like many Bear (and ex-Bear) officials contacted by co-author Paul Muolo,
declined to comment about anything having to do with Bear or EMC.
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lender to the funds, had at least one conversation with Spector, urging
Bear to lend more money to the funds. According to the Wall Street
Journal, Spector told the JPMorgan executives that they were “naive,”
reminding them of Bear’s expertise in the mortgage business. Later
that evening JPMorgan sent a lawyer to Bear’s midtown headquarters,
armed with an official default letter. Like Merrill, JPMorgan wanted its
money back. The newspaper also noted that Spector, with the hedge
funds’ future hanging in the balance, had spent several days in Nashville
playing in a national bridge tournament, as did Cayne.
On Wednesday morning, August 1, a day or so after the funds’
bankruptcy filing, Cayne called Spector into his sixth-floor office. Bear’s
share price had fallen almost 30 percent since June. Not only had the
hedge funds collapsed, costing investors (including several managing
directors at the company) hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, but
Bear itself, a firm that had built its reputation on its analytical ability
and sound risk management practices, was looking at potential losses
totaling billions because the firm, too, had bought subprime CDOs for
its own account. Cayne, who was more or less forced to talk to the
media about the hedge fund debacle, said the firm had suffered a “body
blow of massive proportion.” In Cayne’s view, Spector was at least partly
responsible. Even though he wasn’t the one making the trades for the
hedge funds, he was ultimately responsible for BSAM—and for what
Cioffi had done. The 73-year-old Cayne asked for Spector’s resignation.
A friend of Spector’s described him as “devastated,” adding, “You
have to realize—Warren grew up at the company.” Spector, who was
49, had spent his entire 24-year career at Bear, starting out in government bonds and then mortgages—a product that was now the reason
for his demise. (Even though he was devastated, his severance package
was $23 million, money that would help heal his psychic wounds.)
Friends came to his defense, portraying him as the fall guy for Cioffi’s
mistakes, but not all of his colleagues were sympathetic. “Warren is not
a hands-off boss,” said one. “You don’t fool Warren.”
A trader who was close to Spector, though, said that he had warned
him about what he called the “cascading risk” the hedge funds were
taking on. “Warren had taken his eye off the ball.” The “cascading risk”
comment was a reference to all the trades Cioffi was making on the
hedge funds’ behalf. Cioffi, though, was not fired along with Spector,
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but the firm was now saying little about exactly what he was doing
for Bear. The firm couldn’t afford to get rid of Cioffi, at least not
right away, because he was the manager of the two funds—the one
making all the trades on their behalf. (Cioffi was also carrying the title
of co-CEO of Everquest, whose IPO was now deader than dead and
whose future was in doubt.)
A few months later, Massachusetts sued Bear Stearns Asset Management, accusing Cioffi of making hundreds of trades on behalf of the
hedge fund without receiving the approval of the fund’s independent
directors.10 In 2003 when he first convinced Bear’s board to let him
start the High Grade fund, 20 percent of his trades had not been signed
off by the directors. By 2006 the number was markedly higher—80
percent didn’t have prior approval. By November it was common
knowledge that the U.S. attorney’s office down on Foley Square was
now taking an interest in the two funds.11 If a U.S. attorney was looking at the hedge funds, that meant it was now possibly a criminal matter. Apparently Cioffi, according to one lawsuit, had been making
“optimistic forecasts” about the hedge funds even though he had withdrawn “millions of dollars” of his own money from one in February
and March of 2007. Supposedly, the reason Spector got the boot so
soon after the funds’ collapse was that so many senior managing directors at Bear had invested their own personal money in Cioffi’s creation.
Arturo DiCifuentes, the CDO expert who used to work at Wachovia,
said he counted among his friends “a few top” Bear Stearns executives
who did just that. “I can say this,” he told reporter Paul Muolo. “I know
they bought into those funds with their own money.” He laughed. “You
might say that they bought their own shit.”
In December Cioffi resigned from Bear, resigned perhaps being the
official word for fired. He remained as a consultant to the firm as Bear
began to sift through the funds’ bankruptcy and all the related lawsuits
from investors who had seen their millions evaporate. Cayne announced
his retirement as CEO in January but remained as chairman. A few
10 Massachusetts staff attorney Michael Regan would only say that 10 to 15 individuals,
family trusts, or partnerships located in the state had been investors in the High Grade fund.
11
Bear disclosed that the hedge funds were the subject of a criminal investigation in an
October 10, 2007, filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
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weeks earlier Bear disclosed an $850 million loss for the fourth quarter,
adding that it had to write down its mortgage investments (the hedge
funds) and other ABSs that it couldn’t off-load to investors by almost
$2 billion. Alan Schwartz, a veteran in the firm’s mergers and acquisitions (M&A) group, was named the new CEO. Historically, roughly
30 percent of Bear’s revenue had been tied to mortgages in some fashion or other. “Does Schwartz have any mortgage experience?” asked
one Bear shareholder, laughing. “Not even a little.” One of Schwartz’s
first decisions as the firm’s new CEO was to shut down Encore. As for
Bear, the market wasn’t quite done with it. The next few months would
decide its future.
As for Carl Chamberlain, the grunt who had been working for
Clayton, reviewing subprime loans that Bear and other Street firms
purchased, in late 2006 he finally landed his dream job with a mortgage
trading desk of a foreign bank. (He named the firm but didn’t want it
publicized.) The bank decided to close the desk the next summer just
as Cioffi’s hedge funds collapsed.
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Chapter 11
Armageddon Times
The Tan Man Departs, Bye-Bye Bear
This is Armageddon.
—CNBC stock picker Jim Cramer, talking
about the growing credit crisis
in the summer of 2007
O
n June 8, 2004, Angelo Mozilo stood at the podium of the
National Building Museum in the heart of Washington a few
blocks from the National Mall. His wife Phyllis and some of
his grandchildren were in attendance to see him receive a lifetime
achievement award from the National Housing Conference, a 75-yearold nonprofit group whose mission for most of its life was to promote
affordable housing through lobbying. For several years running,
Countrywide had been the largest originator of home mortgages to
minorities, a notable achievement. Politicians and regulators were on
hand as well. Before Mozilo rose to speak in the cavernous building,
some of his best friends in the industry made testimonials about his rise
from the streets of the Bronx to create Countrywide, a lender that
helped to house millions of Americans over four decades, earning billions
249
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of dollars in the process and making its shareholders—including Mozilo,
his family, and all his top executives—wealthy.
Lewie Ranieri told the audience of 200 or so how Angelo was one
of the few who would listen to his “crazy ideas” when he was a young
bond trader at Salomon, toying with early versions of the mortgagebacked security (MBS). Jim Johnson, the former Fannie Mae chairman
and CEO, made glowing comments about Angelo’s business acumen and
work ethic; and Howard Levine, a commercial mortgage banking executive who was one of his best friends, cracked jokes about Angelo’s
love for tailored shirts and custom-made suits. (Levine also joked how
Mozilo had fired him a few times.) When Mozilo stood up to thank
the audience for their kind words and jokes, three F-18 fighter jets flew
overhead—as though on cue. Their roar could be heard throughout the
building, the jets’ silver wings outstretched, visible through the skylights
above, stark against a late afternoon blue sky. But the F-18s weren’t there
for Mozilo’s anointing by the National Housing Conference. It just happened to be the day that the casket of former president Ronald Reagan
was being wheeled down Pennsylvania Avenue before it came to lie in
state in the Capitol rotunda. The F-18s were flying in formation for the
40th president of the United States. But Mozilo had been in the right
place at the right time. It would be hard for him not to think of it as a
beautiful moment.
Two years later in the fall, the American Banker, a 100-year-old
daily newspaper that was the Wall Street Journal of the financial services
industry, bestowed upon Mozilo its lifetime achievement award.1 In
a special issue, the newspaper recapped the highlights of his career,
accompanied by a photo spread featuring Mozilo decked out in casual
fall clothes looking very much like a man who knew how to dress in
season. A few months after that Mozilo began working with a freelance writer on his autobiography. Several interviews were done and
shown to a literary agent. It was to be his life story—a tale of how
the grandson of immigrants rose from the streets of New York to create the largest home lender in the history of the world. It would be
1 In
late 2007 when Countrywide’s problems worsened even more, one American Banker
editor in Washington would occasionally joke, “I’m so glad we gave him that lifetime
achievement award. I wonder if we can take it back.”
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251
his story, capping a 40-year career. And then he would (presumably)
retire. But in July of 2007 Mozilo, without explanation, pulled the plug
on the project. Then in mid-August Merrill Lynch analyst Ken Bruce
issued his report entitled “Liquidity Is the Achilles Heel,” suggesting
that Countrywide might even go bankrupt.
The $2 billion investment that Countrywide received from Ken
Lewis and Bank of America on August 22 looked, initially, like a steal
($2 billion for 16 percent of a company that was recently worth $40
billion). What Lewis didn’t know was that earlier in the year Mozilo
had been holding private talks with Sandler O’Neill chief James
“Jimmy” Dunne about Countrywide buying the boutique investment
banker. Besides offering stock research, Sandler O’Neill was trying
to make its mark in initial public offerings (IPOs), private and public
equity placements, and mergers and acquisitions (M&A) work. In the
spring Mozilo had told National Mortgage News that he was in the hunt
for a “broker/dealer,” but didn’t let on it was Sandler O’Neill, where
Mike McMahon used to work.
Mozilo and Dunne belonged to the same golf club, the Quarry.
Plus, Sandler O’Neill now employed Brian Sterling, a former top executive at Merrill Lynch who had managed the Countrywide account
for the investment banking firm. (When Stan O’Neal took control of
Merrill, Sterling was one of thousands who lost their jobs in his housecleaning effort to streamline management.) If Countrywide had bought
Sandler O’Neill—which had been founded by Herman Sandler,2 a
former top executive at Bear Stearns—it would have put him in a business he had once loathed: Wall Street (though it can be argued that
through its capital markets group, which securitized subprime and nonconforming mortgages, Countrywide already was, in part, an investment banking firm).
By the early fall of 2007 Mozilo had other problems to worry about.
Ken Lewis and Bank of America had stepped in and calmed investors’
fears (and the fears of JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon) about Countrywide’s
cash position, but there were other concerns in the marketplace.
2 Company
founder Herman Sandler lost his life along with 65 other employees in the
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Sandler O’Neill had its headquarters in the
Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
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The 50-year pattern of home prices going up (on a national average)
had reversed. Now prices were going down. Late payments on all types
of mortgages—“A” paper loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
as well as subprime loans—were rising. After the Bank of America
announcement, Countrywide’s stock rose a few points but then began
to drift down again. The two Bear hedge funds started by Ralph Cioffi
were wrangling with creditors in bankruptcy court in the Caymans, and
the general media were beginning to jump on the “subprime contagion”
story with a vengeance. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times
had, combined, at least 20 reporters (counting their wire services) working on various mortgage-related stories.
Even though Treasury secretary Henry Paulson (on behalf of the
Bush White House) was trying to reassure world financial markets that
the country’s worsening subprime crisis was contained, it didn’t exactly
look that way. Over in the United Kingdom, Northern Rock, a large
mortgage lender headquartered in Newcastle in northeast England,
was the subject of depositor runs after rumors began to spread that
its bankers would no longer lend money to the company. Northern
Rock’s specialty was lending English home buyers up to 125 percent of
the value of their homes—just like First Plus had done in the United
States the decade before. To boot, Northern Rock, a top 10 lender in
the U.K., resembled Countrywide in that it was both a depository and
a borrower of warehouse lines from other banks. Its bank lenders, after
seeing what had happened to both Countrywide and the two Bear
Stearns hedge funds, suddenly had become skittish about extending
more loans to it. (This was also around the time CNBC stock picker
Jim Cramer was hopping around the set describing the situation as
“Armageddon.”)
Mike McMahon, who had left Sandler O’Neill the year before,
looked at the situation and Ken Bruce’s “sell” rating on Countrywide
and wondered whether Countrywide was going to make it—and
he had been a longtime fan of both the company and Mozilo. “Ken
Bruce’s ‘sell’ rating was right on,” he told a reporter. McMahon—who
on occasion had referred to Mozilo as “The Tan Man” (in a kind
way)—noted that the “sell” rating made by his former intern was not
made lightly. “It had to be approved by a supervisory analyst—one
person or a committee of people.” He also noted that by issuing the
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“sell” rating on Countrywide, “Merrill was kissing off ” any potential
business it might be doing for Mozilo’s company in the future, including debt and equity offerings. “By Bruce issuing that report, they were
going to lose business,” said McMahon. (Bruce’s “sell” rating also fueled
rumors that Merrill was continuing to do anything it could to eliminate competition to its subprime lending affiliate, First Franklin.)
By early October Mozilo was still angry with Merrill Lynch (and to
some degree Stan O’Neal) for the damage Bruce caused, but he could
no longer explain away some of the stark facts affecting his company.
Countrywide’s loan delinquencies were rising rapidly, especially on the
$118 billion in subprime loans it was servicing (though didn’t necessarily own) on a monthly basis. (As a servicer it received fee income off
of the loans for processing the monthly payments.) In a few weeks the
company was set to release its third quarter earnings, and when it did it
would reveal that almost 24 percent of its subprime servicing portfolio
($28 billion in mortgages) was delinquent. A year earlier the ratio was
16 percent. Countrywide was not only the largest residential servicer
of all types of home mortgages, but two years earlier had become the
largest servicer of subprime loans. Mozilo had conquered yet another
market—but it was a business now crumbling. He was trapped.
Increasingly, the Countrywide founder was becoming agitated by
the press coverage of his company. Over the years he had generally
had a good relationship with the media, especially CNBC and the
New York Times, which a few years earlier had done a glowing feature on him. But late in the summer Times columnist and reporter
Gretchen Morgenson wrote a story called “Inside the Countrywide
Lending Spree,” which quoted former loan officers and brokers who
told the reporter that Mozilo’s creation—which a decade earlier hadn’t
even been in subprime—was now steering customers into high-cost
mortgages so it could maximize profits. The allegations were no different than what some public interest groups had been saying on and
off over the years, but now that the accusations were published in the
New York Times it was as though they had been validated. (Mozilo and
company spokesman Rick Simon declined to talk to the reporter.)
Mozilo was so angry with the Times and the negative publicity
it had generated that he shot off an e-mail to his workers, rebutting
the story, telling his workers that Countrywide’s business practices
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chain of blame
“prohibit steering borrowers who qualify for prime loans into
subprime loans.” In an interview with National Mortgage News, Mozilo
called the story “99 percent inaccurate,” adding that “the press has a
tremendous amount of power and no one to answer to.”
But Betsy Bayer, the Countrywide compliance executive who was
about to resign, told National Mortgage News that the New York Times
story was “both right and wrong,” but her biggest concern, being the
company’s “rules person,” was that the company had “relaxed its credit
guidelines” to stay competitive with companies like Ameriquest, Argent,
and New Century, all of which were now out of business or soon
would be. She also had something else to say about subprime lending at
Countrywide: “It rarely made money for the company. All those years
it was losing money because it was spending so much [to expand] into
subprime.”
“And you know this for sure?” asked reporter Paul Muolo.
“I know this for a fact,” she said. “They were spending too much
money building it out, opening one subprime center after another.”
Countrywide never broke out its profits publicly by subprime versus prime, so it was impossible to tell. For his entire career Mozilo was
portrayed by the media as a man whose company put Americans into
homes. With loan delinquencies rising and homes falling in value, he
and Countrywide were now being portrayed in the media as the poster
child of the crisis. “We’re besieged,” he told National Mortgage News.
“The press has been very negative and inaccurate.”
In early September Mozilo told Muolo that Countrywide would
no longer originate subprime loans unless they could be sold to Fannie
Mae and Freddie Mac. Certain Wall Street firms—like Merrill Lynch—
were still buying subprime loans through their trading desks, but the
prices they were offering the originators for any new loans were, at
best, par—100 cents on the dollar for a mortgage. Some Street firms
were offering only 95, which meant lenders could only originate
subprime loans at a loss. Translation: The boom was over. Now it was
just a matter of what the aftermath would look like. What had been
an $800 billion a year business, one in which Wall Street securitized
almost every loan originated, was about to go up in smoke, and there
was nothing Mozilo, Stan O’Neal, or Bear’s Jimmy Cayne could do
about it.
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On September 11 Countrywide told its workforce of 60,000 that
it was laying off 10,000 to 12,000 over the next few weeks in reaction
to declining home loan volumes and declining profits. Bayer, the “rules
person” who held the title of vice president of wholesale compliance,
resigned before D-day, changing careers and becoming a paralegal at a
nearby law firm. She had seen the layoffs coming. In a few weeks the
company was set to release third quarter earnings. Stock analysts up
and down Wall Street were predicting that the loss could total well over
$2 billion, just about wiping out Countrywide’s profits for the prior year.
On October 24, two days before the earnings release, rumors began
circulating that Mozilo might resign as CEO but remain as chairman.3
In the morning Muolo from National Mortgage News on the East Coast
tried the CEO at his Calabasas office. Even though he often was there
by 8 am California time, he wasn’t there that morning. Muolo sent him
an e-mail asking about his resignation. Two minutes later Mozilo called,
angry. “What the hell’s going on? They’re saying I’m resigning? Who?
I don’t know where this stuff comes from. I’m not resigning.” He was
at the hospital visiting a sick family member.
A few days later he decided to give the newspaper an on-the-record
interview. Muolo asked him about Wall Street’s role in the widening
subprime crisis—its insatiable appetite for subprime loans that could
be securitized into bonds. “It’s easy to have hindsight,” he said. “No one
saw this coming. No one. Look at [Alan] Greenspan. The Fed increased
rates 17 consecutive times. Greenspan was testifying on Capitol Hill telling people to take out ARMs. If you want to play the blame game, let’s
go back and blame the Fed. A federal funds rate of 1 percent? When the
Street got into subprime there were virtually no delinquencies. There
were no foreclosures and there was equity building in these homes.
3 On October 24 Countrywide filed notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission
revealing that Henry Cisneros, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban
Development in the Clinton administration, had resigned from its board, saying he wanted
to spend more time managing his home building–related company, CityView. A director
since 2001, Cisneros had sold $5 million worth of stock from 2004 to 2007. Even though
the SEC statement was dated October 24, the resignation was effective October 18. In
March two other directors, Kathleen Brown of Goldman Sachs (and sister to former
California governor Jerry Brown) and Michael Dougherty, an investment banker from
Minnesota, announced their resignations.
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It was a classic bubble.You don’t know when you’re in a bubble. You can
blame everyone from al-Qaeda to the rating agencies.”
Question: Are you sorry you ever got into subprime?
Mozilo: “I can’t answer that. We have a stated mission to make a
difference in the lives of American families, to get low-income people into housing. You don’t know the stuff I’ve seen. People have sent
me photo albums, family albums, how happy they are to have a home.”
He paused for a moment. “Look,” he said. “I have nine grandkids. There
is too much division when you have haves and have-nots. You don’t
have peace in the world. I don’t know if I would have done anything
different.”
The reporter tried the Wall Street question again: Don’t they share
some of the blame for the growing crisis?
The Countrywide founder didn’t hesitate to answer this time.
“They were driven by our model [originating and securitizing those
same loans]. I didn’t realize that they didn’t know what they were doing.
It got out of control. They were like ‘We need more. We need more
subprime loans to buy.’ Remember back in the 1990s with 125 percent
LTV [loan-to-value] loans? We didn’t participate in that. But the Street
did—they securitized that crap.”
The next question was about loan brokers, but Mozilo declined to
talk on the record about what he thought of these freelance salespeople
that Countrywide had depended on for two-plus decades. His comments, rest assured, weren’t exactly charitable. It could have been that he
had suddenly remembered the warnings of his late partner, David Loeb,
who two decades earlier had cautioned about brokers: “They’re crooks.”
* * *
Just about the time Countrywide announced that it was laying off
10,000 to 12,000 workers, it embarked on an internal public relations
campaign to boost the moral of its employees, who not only feared losing their jobs but were barraged almost daily by the media about the
lender’s increasing problems. Even with the $2 billion investment from
Bank of America, Countrywide’s share price continued to slip, and the
Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in Washington had opened
an informal investigation into Mozilo’s insider stock sales over the
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previous three years, which had brought him $300 million in proceeds.
To the few reporters he was still talking to, including CNBC’s Maria
Bartiromo and Muolo, he continued to defend his actions, noting that
every option he had converted into stock and sold had been disclosed
and done through a selling program called 10b5-1. However, the SEC
also was examining a new program that he had put in place in October
2006 that speeded up the pace of those sales.4 His explanation boiled
down to this: He would be retiring within two years, and all his personal wealth was tied up in stock. “I’m not worried about the SEC
probe,” he told Muolo. (Mozilo’s base salary, though, wasn’t exactly paltry. At $23 million—before options and bonus money—it was among
the highest in the industry.)
The internal PR campaign was done in conjunction with BursonMarsteller, a public relations firm that specialized in crisis management
at companies whose names were being dragged through the mud. It was
aimed at Mozilo’s employees and involved dispensing green wristbands
that said “Protect Our House.” To obtain one, employees had to sign a
pledge about their commitment to the company and agree to “unflagging determination” to tell the “real” Countrywide story—the “story
about our 40-year mission of helping people. . . .” So went the “commitment” card sent to full-timers by Andrew Gissinger, the lender’s chief
operating officer.
In one of Countrywide’s Long Island branches, a loan officer had
this to say about the wristband campaign: “It’s a joke. I’m not signing
it. I don’t know anyone here who has.” She tried to cut and paste the
e-mail about the pledge and pass it on but was blocked from doing so
by Countrywide’s computer system. The loan officer said the company
was also putting the heat on its salespeople to increase originations at
a time when home buying was waning in most markets. “Over the
weekend I’m supposed to go out to 10 open houses and get the cards
of Realtors I’m not currently doing business with,” she said. “Then I’m
supposed to log into our Countrywide server and populate the network. I’m not going to do it. My kid has a game this weekend.”
4 Two
weeks before the Wall Street Journal broke the news about the informal SEC probe
of Mozilo’s stock sales, the Los Angeles Times first reported that Mozilo had adjusted the
timing of his sales multiple times over the previous year.
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The wristband campaign started just as Betsy Bayer was about to
leave the company. “The ‘Protect Our House’ thing went on for about
three weeks,” she said. “You had to sign the pledge to get one, but after
a while they just gave up and gave the things away.”
Another part of Countrywide’s campaign to lift the morale of
employees was to block their Internet access to a web site called The
Mortgage Lender Implode-O-Meter,5 which had been selling T-shirts
lampooning Mozilo, featuring an orange portrait of him (a sly comment
on his tan) dressed up like Colonel Sanders. Instead of saying “KFC”
(for Kentucky Fried Chicken) the shirts read “CFC” which stood for
“CountryFried Financial Corporation.” CFC was also Countrywide’s
stock symbol on the New York Stock Exchange.
Then came earnings day. On Friday, October 26, Mozilo and his
senior lieutenants once again marched down the carpet from the corporate suite to the conference room, where they told analysts and the
media on a conference call that the company had dropped $1.2 billion
in the third quarter—the largest loss in its history. The day before
the earnings release, its share price fell to $12, which meant that Ken
Lewis’ Bank of America was sitting on a paper loss of $600 million on
its $2 billion investment. Countrywide hadn’t lost money in decades.
Even during the recession of 2000–2001 it had managed to earn almost
$800 million. The reason for the losses, Mozilo explained, was the subprime “liquidity crisis,” adding that Countrywide had been forced
to revalue mortgages that it was holding on its books and pay more
5 The
Implode-O-Meter was started by a 27-year-old blogger named Aaron Krowne,
who considered himself a “citizen journalist.” Krowne’s web site, which attracted millions
of visits in 2007 and 2008, published a running list of failed mortgage companies
(and soon-to-be-failed mortgage companies) on the Implode-O-Meter. The web site
quickly became a clearinghouse for published news stories from coast to coast as well as a
forum for gossip and innuendo as to who might fail next—some of which landed Krowne
in legal trouble, which he escaped when one of the ailing lenders suing him for spreading
misinformation dropped its lawsuit. Krowne did an impressive job of tracking deceased
lenders, but his motives weren’t entirely altruistic. He soon began accepting paid
advertising on his web site, targeting mortgage firms. He also admitted that from time to
time he would short stocks that he was publishing information on. By early 2008 his web
site had became profitable enough that he quit his full-time job in software research at
Emory University and launched other Implode-O-Meter web sites targeting banks, hedge
funds, and home builders. “This is now an online media company,” he said.
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money to third parties for credit protection, which meant insurance to
cover potential losses.
During the Q&A with analysts, Mozilo stayed subdued, letting
company president David Sambol, his presumed successor, handle
many of the questions. But then he stepped in again, telling the investment banking community that during his 55 years in mortgages he
had never witnessed a correction this severe. One analyst took him to
task for saying a few months earlier that housing prices might have a
“soft landing,” but Mozilo said one thing he had learned over the years
was that “this business doesn’t lend itself to a soft landing. It’s way too
complex.” He clarified that his earlier remarks were meant to taken as a
“normal hard landing.” He stopped being subdued, boasting to the analysts that Countrywide would earn money in the fourth quarter and
next year.
The analysts seemed to like that, although right after the call some
would tell reporters working the story that they couldn’t possibly see
the company earning money in the fourth quarter. Mozilo boasted that
Countrywide’s bank, which took deposits from the public, would continue to open new offices. “It’s extremely important that we pick up
share,” he said. There he was again, talking about how Countrywide
would grow stronger as others failed. But as part of its earnings release
the company also admitted that its loan delinquencies had risen
significantly in the quarter. Almost 24 percent of its subprime loans
were late, not a good sign. And 3.27 percent of its “A” paper loans were
late, too, which on the surface may not seem like a huge number, but
Countrywide serviced $1.2 trillion in Fannie/Freddie loans, which
meant almost $40 billion in mortgages were in trouble. (Its “A” paper
late payments had risen 30 percent in 12 months.)
An analyst asked Mozilo about his nonperforming loans, but he
deferred answering the question, saying, “We can’t see out six months
from now.” The conference call had lasted almost two hours. One analyst thanked the Countrywide CEO and his staff for spending so much
time with them. “I think this conference call shows the quality of the
management team,” said the analyst. Even in the face of disaster it
appeared as though Mozilo had won over the analysts once again.
The Countrywide CEO seemed happy and quipped, “Well, then
write something nice about us in your papers.” Most of the investment
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bankers laughed—but not all of them. Analyst Steve Hanley of Munn
Wealth Management in Jacksonville, Florida, jumped in with one last
question. “You are asking me, as a money manager, to buy the stock.
I’ve invested other people’s money as well as my own. You guys have
been giving more detail than normal, but how much money will
Countrywide executives spend to support the stock?”
Mozilo seemed somewhat surprised by the question. Over the previous 12 months Countrywide executives, including him, hadn’t been
buying any of the firm’s stock on the open market—they’d been converting options into stock and dumping the shares right away. “It’s our
job to present the story,” he shot back. “It’s your job to decide whether
to buy or sell.” The conference call was over.
Over the next two months the story went something like this:
Countrywide’s stock would slide a bit, rise, then slide some more. Wall
Street firm after firm would announce that they were writing down
by billions of dollars the value of subprime CDOs they held on their
balance sheets. The numbers were getting huge: Citigroup ($11 billion
with potential exposure on CDOs and structured investment vehicles6
of $45 billion); United Bank of Switzerland (UBS, a major warehouse
lender to subprime nonbanks and an investor in CDOs, $10 billion in
write-downs); Merrill Lynch ($8.4 billion); Bear Stearns ($1.2 billion).
HSBC, the London bank that had bought subprime giant Household
Finance earlier in the decade, was taking a $3.4 billion loss on subprime loans it held. These were markdowns on their value, not necessarily net losses.7 The reason they were being marked down: subprime
delinquencies. If Countrywide was supposed to be one of the nation’s
more careful subprime lenders (to hear Mozilo tell it) and its late payments were 24 percent on A– to D loans, then just imagine what the
6 A structured investment vehicle (SIV) is an off-balance-sheet investment in subprime
bonds or related assets. Typically, a bank sets up an SIV, finds investors, and lends money to
those investors. The bank manages the SIV for its investors.
7A
write-down usually translates into a loss, but if a company has profits elsewhere in the
organization the write-down is merely deducted from gross revenues. Few firms reporting
billion-dollar write-downs earned enough money elsewhere to offset their subprime
problems.
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rate was for the 100 or so subprime lenders that had gone bust since
Bill Dallas’s Ownit closed its doors a year earlier.
News reports continued to focus on Countrywide’s delinquencies
and allegations about its lending practices. Several states were now
beginning to look at not only how it originated subprime loans and
payment option ARMs, but the lender’s foreclosure practices. Once
again rumors were flooding the market that Countrywide might
file for bankruptcy protection. Each time the company shot down the
rumors.
* * *
On the morning of December 3 Mozilo told National Mortgage
News that “These are unprecedented times for the world. We’re the
only survivor of the mortgage companies. How come nobody prints
that?” He was ranting again about the media coverage of his shop.
(Mozilo was under the mistaken impression that Countrywide was
still a nonbank, which it wasn’t.) In an hour he was set to speak at
the second annual housing summit of the Office of Thrift Supervision
(OTS) at the National Press Club in Washington, the same forum
that Ranieri had spoken at a year earlier, warning how Wall Street
was recklessly securitizing subprime loans, and investors in the end
bonds had no idea what they were buying. Still angry with the media,
Mozilo said he wouldn’t be talking to the press afterward, which was
true to a degree.
Late in the morning CNBC anchors kept boasting on air how
Maria Bartiromo would have an exclusive interview with Mozilo just
after the OTS summit concluded in Washington. Just because he wasn’t
talking to most of the media didn’t mean he wouldn’t be talking to
Maria. (Bartiromo was hosting a speakers’ panel at the OTS summit.)
She started off with a softball question about Countrywide’s efforts to
help delinquent borrowers get current again on their loans. In response
to a question about the lender’s financial strength, Angelo said the company had “adequate capital.” He once again mentioned industry consolidation and that as others went under—you got it—Countrywide would
gain market share.
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Then Bartiromo got tough. She asked him outright about the possibility of Countrywide filing for bankruptcy protection. With a smile,
Mozilo said, “The elements are not there for bankruptcy.” The CNBC
reporter noted that Bank of America’s $2 billion investment in his
company had now been halved. “Have you talked to them?” she asked.
“Bank of America has been around a long time,” he said. “They’re
a first-class corporation. Their investment in us is a chance for a great
company to invest in another great company. It’s a terrific relationship.”
When Mozilo said it there was no doubt that he honestly believed it—
even if CNBC viewers might have been thinking: He can’t be serious.
Next came the big question: Will Bank of America be investing
more in Countrywide?
“No, we’re not looking for any more money from them,” said
the CEO.
Two days later he agreed to another interview with Muolo at
National Mortgage News, continuing to gripe about the press coverage.
(In the weeks before, he had contemplated closing the lender’s PR
department but was talked out of it by other executives at the company.) He was now angry with the White House for refusing to
increase the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac loan limit, which prohibited the
two congressionally chartered mortgage investing giants from buying
any loans over $417,000 (the ceiling set by their regulator back in the
fall). Mozilo believed that if the White House and Treasury Department
allowed for the cap to be increased—at least temporarily—it would
help Countrywide, because the two could purchase more mortgages
in the secondary market, especially large-balance subprime loans in
California. Countrywide could then off-load much of the risk it held
on its balance sheet. The trading desks at Wall Street firms like Merrill
and Bear had stopped funding most kinds of subprime loans, especially
high-balance ones.
“The White House isn’t budging,” said Muolo, who was based in
his newspaper’s Washington bureau and had been covering the issue.
“They’re not going to raise the loan limit unless things get really bad.”
“They’re ideologues,” Mozilo said. “They never sat around their
kitchen table with their parents, trying to figure out how to make that
month’s rent.” Then out of nowhere he went into a rant about how
the SEC, regulators, and prosecutors were going after Italian-American
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businessmen. “They went after Quattrone, Nardelli, Grasso,” he said,
adding a few more names to the list that Muolo didn’t recognize.8
“You don’t really mean that,” said the reporter.
Mozilo paused for a moment. Silence. “Yeah, I do.” He repeated
that he wasn’t worried about the SEC probe of his stock sales at all.
“Everything was disclosed,” he said. “It was because of that LA Times
article.”
*
*
*
Besides the constant flow of bankruptcy rumors, its huge third quarter
loss, and spiraling subprime delinquencies, Mozilo had one other major
problem: payment option ARMs (POAs)—the adjustable-rate loan
where the borrower each month was offered four different payment
options. One of those options was something called “negative amortization” where the homeowner could keep his or her payments artificially
low by adding on to the debt owed. (This was the “I’ll worry about it
tomorrow” option.) Critics of the loan believed that POAs were dangerous for three reasons: Consumers (1) were building up even more
debt by choosing the negative amortization option, (2) were qualified
for the mortgage at the low start rates, and (3) were bidding up the
prices of homes because they could keep their monthly payments low.
Countrywide did not invent the POA, nor had it invented
subprime, but it now found itself the largest originator of POAs
8 Frank Quattrone was a former investment banker at Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB)
who took dozens of technology companies public during the 1990s tech boom. He was
later indicted for obstruction of justice as part of a federal probe into investment
banking firms (including CSFB) doling out much-sought-after IPOs to selected clients.
The charges against him were later dropped. Robert Nardelli was CEO and chairman of
Home Depot (whose board Mozilo sat on for a short time). Nardelli was criticized for
receiving a $210 million severance package after being let go when Home Depot’s share
price and revenue slipped. Nardelli was not the subject of any known government
investigations. Richard Grasso was CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. In 2003 it was
revealed that he had a deferred pay package of almost $200 million, which had been
approved by a compensation committee at the exchange consisting of executives whose
companies he regulated. When the SEC complained, Grasso was forced out. A year later
New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer sued him, seeking the return of most of the
deferred compensation.
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in the nation.9 It had reached that pinnacle by funding many of the
loans through brokers. Jerry Davis, who brokered loans in the Fresno
area, said Countrywide’s wholesale account executives began pushing
POAs on him in 2006. “Countrywide focused a lot of their business on
minorities in the county. World [Savings] did, too.” According to Davis,
Countrywide wanted POAs so badly that it was offering the broker
a three-point fee (3 percent of the loan amount) for bringing in the
product. “They rolled the points into the loan amount,” he said. “This
was the lender’s rebate to you.” Countrywide would offer brokers
training on how to pitch payment option ARMs, he said. “They would
say you could do these loans because the property’s value would go up
33 percent in a year.”
True to form, Countrywide under Mozilo found a product it liked
(the POA), carefully entered the market, and then, once comfortable
with the product, ramped up and dominated. But Mozilo was by no
means stupid. He read the company’s monthly reports and by the
spring of 2007 grew concerned that so many of Countrywide’s POA
borrowers were choosing the negative amortization option. In late
2006 Robert Gnaizda of the Greenlining Institute, a public policy and
advocacy group based in Berkeley, California, had met with Mozilo
to discuss the potential risks of POAs, first and foremost the fact that
the loan could lead to a tidal wave of foreclosures. Gnaizda described
Mozilo has being dismissive of the issue. If that was the case in 2006,
a few months later the Countrywide CEO was being dismissive no
more. By mid-2007 Countrywide had begun sending out letters to
some of its POA borrowers reminding them that the debt accumulated
under the negative amortization option had to be paid back at some
point. It was nice that Countrywide had been sending out warning
letters to its POA borrowers, but that raised another issue: Didn’t the
customers know that before they had taken out the loan? And what
9 Golden West Financial of Oakland, the publicly traded parent of World Savings, a thrift
managed by the husband-and-wife team of Herb and Marion Sandler, had pioneered the
POA loan two decades earlier. World Savings executives claimed that their S&L
conservatively underwrote the loan and had few problems with it. In 2006 the Sandlers
sold Golden West to banking giant Wachovia and retired from the industry.
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exactly had Countrywide, or the loan broker who funded the loan
through Countrywide, disclosed to the customer?
By late 2007 Countrywide held almost $30 billion in POAs on the
balance sheet of its thrift—with the negative amortization amount
(the “I’ll worry about it tomorrow” debt) totaling $1.2 billion. If consumers couldn’t repay the $1.2 billion, Countrywide would be on
the hook. By now Mozilo was tapping the Federal Home Loan Bank
(FHLB) system for advances,10 which replaced Countrywide’s reliance
on its commercial paper and warehouse lines. Instead of borrowing
from Wall Street and the large money center banks, it had borrowed
$47 billion from the FHLB system, a cooperative of 12 banks chartered
by the government. The borrowings caught the eye of Democratic
Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who headed a Senate committee with oversight over economic issues. The burgeoning mortgage
crisis (with Countrywide front and center) fit the bill. Schumer wanted
to know why Countrywide was borrowing so much money from the
FHLB—and he wanted to know what Mozilo was doing about helping all its troubled borrowers, especially the ones who had POAs or
subprime loans.
Every few weeks Schumer would be interviewed on CNBC criticizing Countrywide for not doing more, and singling out Mozilo,
which riled the Bronx native no end. (His reaction to Schumer was
not printable in a family newspaper.) Even though the senator from
Brooklyn was shining the light on Countrywide’s lending and workout practices, as chairman of the Joint Economic Committee he had
avoided criticizing the financial institutions that had supplied hundreds of billions of dollars in capital to nonbank subprime lenders: Wall
Street, whose executives (and companies) had donated handsomely to
his campaigns over the years.
By early December Countrywide and several other large lenders—
including Bank of America, Citigroup, Chase Mortgage, and Wells
Fargo—were part of a government-sponsored alliance of banks called
Hope Now, which was trying to help troubled borrowers restructure
10 The
12 FHLBs lend money to their members (mostly banks, thrifts, and credit unions)
in the form of advances. The advances are loans collateralized by assets held by member
institutions. The collateral can include mortgages.
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their subprime and POA loans. The plan—the supposed brainchild
of Treasury chief Henry Paulson and his top deputy, Robert Steel—
entailed lenders freezing the interest rates on troubled ARMs at or near
their low teaser rates. News of the Hope Now alliance began to leak
out to the press in late November but with few details reported.
Earlier in the month Mozilo had been in meetings with Paulson
and Housing secretary Alphonso Jackson about the plan. As the alliance
was being put together, Mozilo claimed that he had been the only
CEO from the nation’s five largest servicers in the meetings. “Paulson
doesn’t get it,” Mozilo told one reporter about the November meetings.
“Who’s going to pay for it? Payment option ARMs have resets. The
note rate is 2 percent, 3 percent. You can’t keep the rate at those levels.
The lender will go bankrupt.”
As the weeks wore on, so did the Countrywide bankruptcy rumors.
Charles Prince—who had cut his teeth in the subprime industry at
Commercial Credit of Baltimore—had been forced to resign as chairman and CEO of Citigroup as it continued to write down the value of
CDOs held on its balance sheet. First O’Neal at Merrill Lynch, then
Prince—the heads of the largest and most powerful investment banking firms in the United States were being fired because of their losses
in an industry whose roots could be traced back to repo men like Peter
Cugno and Dan Phillips. The biggest difference between the subprime
industry of yesteryear and the modern version was that management
trainees at Beneficial actually underwrote and collected on the loan,
and if the customer was late people like Cugno would visit them at
the office, reminding them personally that “You owe me money.” Back
then subprime firms lent only to borrowers who had a ton of equity
in their homes—and they didn’t securitize the loans and sell them to
overseas banks.
Jimmy Cayne was gone as CEO of Bear Stearns but remained as
chairman—but for how long? Bear’s stock price was sliding each week
as well. Despite Mozilo’s insistence that Countrywide had enough
capital, a team of examiners from the Office of Thrift Supervision had
decamped to Calabasas, where they were closely analyzing what type
of subprime and POA loans Countrywide held on its books and how
much the lender should mark down their value. If close to 24 percent
of the subprime loans that Countrywide serviced on a monthly basis
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were delinquent, chances were that billions of dollars’ worth of POA
and subprime loans (plus several billions more in “A” paper second
liens) it held could face markdowns.
On Tuesday morning, January 8, 2008, Countrywide’s shares fell
to yet another 52-week low: $5.76, which meant the $2 billion stake
that Bank of America had in Countrywide was now worth just $660
million. Ken Lewis, Bank of America’s chairman and CEO, wasn’t
looking too good. A company that a year before was worth $25 billion
(with a share price of $45) was now veering toward becoming worthless. Over the previous three weeks, almost on a daily basis, newspapers
all over the nation were reporting on a new Countrywide-related investigation somewhere. In Pennsylvania and Florida its foreclosure practices were under review—in particular extra fees and charges it heaped
on already struggling borrowers. In Illinois the attorney general’s office
said that as part of a far-reaching probe into the lender’s originating
practices it was looking at how Countrywide originated both POAs
and subprime mortgages through its retail loan officers and brokers.
“Payment option ARMs are at the top of our A list,” said Debra Hagen,
chief of the state’s consumer protection division.
In a brief interview with Muolo, Mozilo wrote off the Illinois
investigation as old news. “That’s been going on since September,” he
said. He had little else to say that day. “We received those subpoenas
several months ago.”
On Wednesday, January 9, the company released its monthly origination and servicing numbers for year-end: 7.2 percent of the $1.4 trillion
in mortgages it processed monthly were delinquent; this was a blended
figure that included both its “A” paper and subprime loans (plus POAs
and everything else). Countrywide refused to issue a subprime-only
delinquency number—that figure would come in a few weeks when
it released fourth quarter earnings, which Mozilo had promised back in
October would be in the black.
The company also said that 1.44 percent of those $1.4 trillion in
mortgages were in foreclosure—meaning “game over” for homeowners
who had borrowed $21 billion from the company. When analysts, institutional investors, and the general public saw the new figures, the selling
began. Countrywide was in the worst shape in its almost 40-year history.
The day before, its share price sank 28 percent, ending at $5.47. At one
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point the New York Stock Exchange halted trading in its stock—never
a good sign. On Wednesday at the market’s open, another 20 percent of
value had been lopped off. Ken Lewis’ investment in Countrywide was
starting to look like a fatal disaster. Mozilo wasn’t talking to the press
anymore—no more returned telephone calls to Bartiromo, Muolo, or
James Hagerty, the Countrywide beat reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
Amid the rumors about an impending bankruptcy filing were stories
that Warren Buffett or Hungarian-born speculator George Soros might
be a potential white knight for the company. On Friday, January 11, all
the speculation ended: Lewis’ Bank of America said it was buying all of
Countrywide for just $4 billion (about $7 a share)—twice what it paid
for the 16 percent stake in August. No word was given on what might
happen to Mozilo.
Over the next few weeks more banks and investment banking firms
preannounced or unveiled fourth quarter losses or write-downs tied
to their holdings of subprime mortgages, “A” paper second liens that
were part of 80/20 loans (a 20 percent second mortgage that served
as a down payment and an 80 percent first mortgage), and POAs. As
home prices continued to fall, housing values in once hot markets like
Florida and Southern California were now down 20 percent. CNBC
stock picker Jim Cramer’s vision of a financial Armageddon had arrived
for both homeowners and bankers. By the time the Bank of America–
Countrywide deal was unveiled to the public, Wall Street firms and
commercial banks (and a handful of thrifts) had already taken $100
billion in write-downs on their mortgage holdings. All sorts of financial
experts and analysts were predicting that eventual write-downs on
mortgages, MBSs, and ABSs might cost banks, investment bankers,
and thrifts anywhere from $150 billion to $300 billion. To some in
the industry it brought back memories of the S&L crisis, when it had
become something of a contest for financial analysts and economists—
people like independent thrift consultant Bert Ely—to top each other
on their predictions of just how costly bailing out the nation’s thrifts
might be.11
11 The S&L bailout cost the government (U.S. taxpayers) $150 billion, excluding
interest costs.
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As the financial news regarding mortgages and housing values
worsened, Countrywide unveiled its fourth quarter earnings in late
January. This time there would be no conference call with analysts,
no explanation of the numbers, no predictions by Angelo on housing
prices and when the market might turn around. What was the point?
The way things looked, the entire company—founded in David Loeb’s
kitchen almost 40 years earlier—would be the property of Ken Lewis’
bank by the end of September. A few days after the sale was announced,
Lewis broke his silence on Mozilo’s future: He would assist in the transition and then retire.
A few days before Countrywide released its fourth quarter earnings,
Muolo from National Mortgage News called Mozilo at his home early
in the morning. The reporter had covered him and Countrywide for
20 years and sometimes interviewed Mozilo early in the morning at
his mansion. This time the Countrywide founder had nothing to say.
“I’m not talking anymore,” he said. His career in mortgages, one that
had started as a messenger boy hopping buses and riding the subways
of Manhattan, was effectively over.
On January 28, a Monday, his company posted a $422 million loss
for the fourth quarter. The profit Mozilo had predicted never materialized. Another quarter like that, and all of Countrywide’s profit from the
previous year would be wiped out. It held $98 billion in mortgages on
its balance sheet under a category called “held for investment,” which
meant it didn’t necessarily have to write them down (like all the Street
firms had been doing) unless they went delinquent—but that was the
problem. The loans included subprime mortgages, POAs, and second
liens that were part of 80/20 structures. Countrywide kept its riskiest
loans because, given the events of the previous six months, there was
no place to sell them. Wall Street wasn’t buying anymore. For $4 billion
Bank of America was buying a potential black hole.
Speaking in New York at an investors’ conference held by Citigroup
where executives from publicly traded financial service firms were
asked to give overviews on their prospects, Bank of America’s Lewis
was asked about Countrywide’s loss and whether his bank still planned
on buying the ailing lender. “At this point everything is a go for completing this transaction,” said Lewis. Week after week he and his public
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relations staff would be asked the same question over and over again: Is
the Countrywide deal still a go? Each time the answer would be yes.
*
*
*
On January 17, Congressman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from
California who chaired the House Oversight Committee, delivered a
document request to Countrywide headquarters in Calabasas, asking
for hundreds of pages from Mozilo related to his stock sales, his severance package, and minutes from directors meetings where his pay package had been discussed, among other things. Waxman had scheduled a
hearing by his committee a few weeks hence called “CEO Pay and the
Mortgage Crisis.” Scheduled to testify were Mozilo, Stan O’Neal, and
Charles Prince, the recently dismissed chief of Citigroup. The hearing was delayed twice with no reason given, and then rescheduled for
Friday, March 7. Some columnists joked that it would be the hearing
of the “Three Horsemen of the Mortgage Apocalypse.” (In the book of
Revelation the Bible tells of the four horsemen of the apocalypse,
but when you’re talking billions of dollars in losses, what was one less
horseman?)
A week before the hearing, a few sources had been telling National
Mortgage News that yet another Wall Street firm was going to announce
a large write-down, but the sources—two of whom once traded mortgages for Wall Street firms—weren’t sure which one. The rumor was
Bear Stearns, which was about to release its earnings. Former Bear officials who had lost their mortgage-related jobs at the Wall Street giant
speculated that whatever losses were coming had to be tied to the
hedge funds that Cioffi had started and Spector oversaw. Not only had
Bear created the two hedge funds to invest in subprime assets, but the
investment banking company itself held billions of dollars in CDOs,
subprime ABSs, and other nonprime mortgage bonds on its balance
sheet. But what exactly were those assets worth? Bear, unlike a publicly
traded Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)-regulated bank,
didn’t have to disclose any details about what was on its books or in its
trading accounts. As Ranieri had pointed out 15 months earlier, it was
the job of the Securities and Exchange Commission to oversee bond
disclosures and the firms that played in the market.
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The day before Mozilo, O’Neal, and Prince were set to testify
before Waxman’s committee, the Federal Reserve made an announcement unlike any other in its history: It would provide $200 billion in
loans to financial institutions (Wall Street firms being at the top of
the list) that needed cash. The Fed, which was now chaired by Alan
Greenspan’s successor, Ben Bernanke, did so because investment banking firms were having a hard time completing trades on all sorts of
assets because of the nervousness surrounding the market. The concerns
about subprime assets that started in August with subprime bonds (and
the collapse of Bear’s hedge funds in late July) had spread to bonds that
were considered safe—like “A” paper Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac securities and municipal bonds issued by cities. Exacerbating the situation
was the ailing financial condition of the nation’s three largest bond
insurance agencies: Ambac Financial Group, MBIA Inc., and Financial
Guaranty Insurance Company (FGIC). Each was facing huge losses
because of insurance claims on about $50 billion worth of subprime
bonds they had guaranteed. Four years earlier the three were hardly
in the business of insuring subprime assets. Their bread and butter had
been the guarantee of municipal (muni) bonds.
On Friday morning, March 7, at 10 am, 25 reporters gathered in
room 2154 of the House Rayburn Building, a hundred yards south of
the Capitol, for Waxman’s hearing. About 15 photographers and cameramen were there as well, waiting inside room 2154 and outside in
the hallway for Mozilo, O’Neal, and Prince to arrive for the hearing.
But instead of facing the press out in the hallway where the reporters
might be able to ask questions before the members of Congress got to
them, the three men (and directors from their respective compensation
committees) entered the room through a back door up on the dais
where only elected officials and their staffers were usually allowed.
Mozilo entered first, walking down the stairs that descended into the
hearing room. As soon as the photographers saw him they began snapping away—click, click, click. Within a few moments he and the others
were gathered at the witness table—except for O’Neal, who hadn’t yet
arrived. The cameramen kept snapping photographs. The picture taking
must have gone on for almost five minutes. (For that purpose alone
Waxman seemed to be no rush to start the hearing.) Mozilo avoided
looking at the cameramen as well as the reporters sitting 30 feet to his
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chain of blame
right at the press table. He looked tired and beleaguered, like someone
who hadn’t slept in days. (His suit: charcoal gray with a red tie.) Then
O’Neal came down the stairs and joined them. He and Mozilo shook
hands but barely said a word to each other.
The three men and their directors were sworn in, and, as might be
predicted, Waxman and his fellow committee members—for the most
part—took them to task not only for their huge pay packages but for
their retirement and severance agreements: $161 million for O’Neal,
$40 million for Prince, and $36 million for Mozilo. In Mozilo’s defense,
a few days before the hearing he publicly announced that he was
giving up his severance money. In his testimony before the committee
he criticized the press and “governance experts” who estimated that he
might walk away with up to $115 million in severance pay. (The actual
figure was $36.4 million.) Mozilo told the committee that he gave up
the money because “I did not want this issue to detract from, or in
any way to impede, the important task of completing” Countrywide’s
sale to Bank of America. He still had the $400 million that he received
from selling stock the previous four years.
He also noted that in his 55 years in the business, “this is the worst
housing market I have ever seen,” and defended Countrywide’s efforts
to help its delinquent borrowers. “In 2007 we helped more than 81,000
families avoid foreclosure,” including modifying loan terms. The one
thing he didn’t mention was that his company’s foreclosure practices
were under investigation in several states.
During the hearing there were no major fireworks from the panel.12
It went on as might be expected—Democrats and Republicans raking
the three over the coals for making so much money in the face of an
economic disaster where three million borrowers might lose their homes
over the next year and where nine million had homes (according to
research cited by Waxman) that were worth less than their mortgages.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia
12 The only revelation of much significance was the fact that in late 2006, when Mozilo
increased the rate at which he exercised options and sold shares, Countrywide also adopted
a stock buyback plan where it spent $2.5 billion of its own money to purchase shares in
the open market—a move that would only benefit the share price. Mozilo’s response:
There was no “relationship” between Countrywide’s stock buyback plan and his exercising
of options.
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managed to criticize Mozilo while butchering his name, calling him
“Mozlo” over and over again even after being corrected. The lone dissenting Congressman was Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, a
Republican who at the start of the hearing called it a “sanctimonious
search for scapegoats.” Davis, who was set to retire at the end of the year,
had no problem with the money the three earned. “We may not like
it, but markets at times produce inequities and they correct them,” he
said. “Government involvement in that process generally makes matters
worse, not better.” The Republican noted that actors Jennifer Lopez and
Ben Affleck “didn’t have to pay reparations to moviegoers after Gigli.”
(The movie, to be kind, was a poorly received romantic comedy that
bombed financially.) There were a few chuckles in the hearing room at
Davis’s remark, but not many.
The fireworks came 10 days later—but they were in New York. The
previous week rumors had plagued Bear Stearns that it was having
liquidity issues. All week its new CEO, Alan Schwartz, the man with
no mortgage experience, denied that anything was wrong. But its share
price kept slipping. On Monday, March 10, Bear’s stock fell almost $8 to
$62, its lowest price since March 2003. Bear issued a statement: “There
is absolutely no truth to the rumors of liquidity problems.” But the market didn’t believe Cayne, Schwartz, or anyone else. The slide continued.
A few days later, on the 14th, a Friday, Bear’s stock plunged
27 points, closing at $30—a disaster for the company and its shareholders. Its 52-week high was $159, so shareholders were already unhappy.
But if they were depressed at $30, on Monday when the opening bell
rang on Wall Street, they would be downright suicidal on the news
breaking that morning: Bear, with Schwartz’s blessing, had agreed to sell
a controlling stake in the 75-year-old company for just $2 a share or
$236 million. Just over 84 percent of its value had been wiped out over
the weekend, billions lost. One hundred hours earlier the company
was worth $3.5 billion; a year before that, $20 billion. Monday was
also St. Patrick’s Day, a big event in New York with celebrations and
a parade down Fifth Avenue. But there was no celebrating at Bear. Its
new owner would be JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon’s bank. A $2 bill
had been taped to a window at the entrance of Bear’s headquarters on
Madison Avenue. That’s what Bear’s rank-and-file workers, from traders
to secretaries, thought of the deal: two measly dollars.
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chain of blame
The next day the New York Times reported, “Just like that, some
people’s stakes of $100 million or more in Bear were ravaged and senior
executives like Thomas A. Marano, the head of mortgages, and Bruce
Lisman, a co-head of equities, were furious.”
The deal had been put together by Schwartz with the assistance
of the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Ben Bernanke. As part of the
sale to Dimon’s bank, the Federal Reserve (which meant the federal
government/U.S. taxpayers) would take on the task of managing $30
billion worth of what regulators were calling Bear’s “riskiest” assets—
the majority of which were CDOs, ABSs, and mortgage derivatives,
including credit default swaps. No mention was made of Cioffi’s hedge
funds, though one former managing director speculated to a reporter,
“It has to be the hedge funds that caused this.” No one knew for sure.
Both Bear and the Fed were light on details.
The key issue with Bear’s $30 billion in problem assets was their
value. The company had loans against them, and banks that had been
lending money to the investment banking giant became nervous that
the collateral backing their loans (the CDOs and ABSs) was untradable,
hence the rumors of the week before. If Bear needed to sell any of the
$30 billion to raise money, there would be no buyers—which meant
the $30 billion was, as a technical matter, worthless. By March of 2008
there was no subprime market. Few lenders of note were still making the loans—and Wall Street firms like Bear, Merrill, Morgan Stanley,
and just about everyone else with a trading desk had stopped buying
subprime bonds. A market had died. Merrill had pulled the plug on
First Franklin, Bear on Encore, Morgan Stanley on its affiliate, Saxon
Mortgage. It was over.
The only firms buying subprime bonds were private hedge funds,
and according to one analyst, they were paying only 10 to 30 cents on
the dollar for various tranches of ABS securities. The hedge funds, many
of which employed quants who used to work in the mortgage departments of Nomura, Bear, Lehman, and other firms, smelled blood. All of
this bad news fed the rumors that Bear was close to bankruptcy. And just
as Bear had been margin-calling nonbanks that it had been financing
through warehouse lines of credit, Bear’s bankers began margin-calling
it. Even though the Federal Reserve had promised that $200 billion in
loans would be made available to banks and investment banking firms,
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institutional investors that had been trading and investing with Bear
felt it would be too risky to keep doing business with it. They began
informing Schwartz of their desire to pull their investments out of Bear.
When it became too much, Schwartz went to Bernanke, said investment
bankers familiar with the situation. Hoping to avoid an institutional run
on other Wall Street firms (there were rumors that Lehman Brothers was
in trouble, too), Federal Reserve officials approached Dimon. Dimon
agreed to the deal but told Bernanke that he didn’t want anything to
do with the $30 billion in CDOs and ABSs. The Fed said fine and outsourced management of the $30 billion to Black Rock Financial, a boutique investment banking firm managed by Larry Fink, a contemporary
of Lew Ranieri.13
A week later, after the panic about Bear’s condition had passed—
and after reports that chairman Cayne was preparing a counteroffer
to the $2-a-share bid—Dimon increased his buyout price to $10 a
share or $1.2 billion. Cayne quickly dropped his idea and sold all of
the remaining shares he owned in the company (about 5.6 million),
walking away with $60 million. His wife sold all her shares, too, taking
home $500,000. Bear was finished. Cayne was now available to play
bridge full-time.
13
In the early 1980s, Fink, then the head of First Boston’s mortgage department, took
Ranieri’s MBS structure and improved upon it, coming up with a similar bond called a
collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO). CMOs used a trust structure to pay
bondholders. The payments were guaranteed, which made investors feel better about
buying the instruments. In the modern era many mortgage securities are actually CMOs,
although the term MBS is still used.
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Chapter 12
What the Hell
Happened?
Ten Bad Years for Housing in America
The mortgage is an unstable asset.
—Lewie Ranieri
I see the bad moon arising.
—Creedence Clearwater Revival
J
im Rokakis is a serious man, one who looks at housing foreclosure
numbers and gets angry. He didn’t lose his home, but as treasurer of
Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes the rust belt city
of Cleveland and its surrounding suburbs, he saw almost three thousand
residents fall into foreclosure from 2004 to the end of 2007. For his neck
of the woods it was a huge number. He blamed what he calls a
“swarm of speculators, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and lenders”
who focused on the city of Cleveland, in particular a place called Slavic
Village, a once-stable neighborhood made up of Polish and Czech
immigrants whose demographic had been changing over to other
277
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minorities in recent years. He blamed the speculators and those who
funded them for the death of a 12-year-old girl named Asteve “Cookie”
Thomas, who stumbled into the crossfire of a suspected drug deal. To
some degree, he held them responsible for the death of Joe Krasucki, a
78-year-old resident who had lived in the neighborhood for 40 years.
One night Krasucki heard a loud scraping noise outside his home and
went to investigate. “He caught thugs ripping aluminum siding off his
house,” Rokakis later said in an interview. “The price of scrap aluminum
had gone up to $1 a pound.” Krasucki was beaten up by the gang of
teenagers who were doing some nighttime prospecting. The senior citizen died 10 days later.
Rokakis blames the destabilization of Slavic Village on the foreclosures, which left at least 800 homes vacant out of 4,500 (at last
count). Once vacant, they became prey to vandals; at least that’s how
Rokakis, the county treasurer since 1996, saw it. He blamed the foreclosures on what he called “weekend tycoons” who had access to easy
mortgage money and began flipping homes in the neighborhood. And
he blamed the easy money on lenders and the Wall Street firms that
securitized the loans, providing liquidity to the market. At the very top
of his “lenders to blame” list was Roland Arnall’s Argent Mortgage, the
wholesale originator that relied on loan brokers to pitch mortgages to
consumers. While Arnall was presiding over diplomatic affairs in The
Hague with his wife Dawn, the foreclosures continued rolling through
Slavic Village.
Using research conducted by Cleveland State University, Rokakis
pinpointed the cause of it all: Between 2003 and 2007, Arnall’s
company, using loan brokers, originated just over 11,000 mortgages in
the Cleveland area. By the fall of 2007, loans brought into Argent by its
account executives had negative equity of $230 million, which meant
the homes were supposedly overvalued by that much. When National
Mortgage News began working on a story about Cleveland State’s findings in September of 2007, Arnall’s PR man in Orange, Chris Orlando,
said he would comment but first he wanted to know how, exactly,
Rokakis and university investigators had arrived at their figures, a fair
question for sure. The answer was this: Investigators Thomas Bier and
Ivan Maric compared the loan amount funded by Argent to the county
auditor’s median market value. (The median is the halfway point
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between the highest and lowest value when all the homes in question
are lined up end to end.) When Muolo called Orlando to give him the
details for the National Mortgage News story, Orlando never returned
the phone call. What was the point, really? Argent was now part of
Citigroup.
By the fall, 25 percent of mortgages funded by Argent in Cleveland
neighborhoods like Slavic Village were in some stage of foreclosure. It
can be said of Rokakis that he has dedicated his life to public service.
A Democrat, he served 19 years on the Cleveland City Council before
he became county treasurer. He can point to the exact year when all
the trouble started in Cleveland: 2002, when lobbyists in Washington
working for the subprime industry beat back local efforts to eliminate
prepayment penalties on loans and mandate credit counseling for borrowers. “They felt they couldn’t have local governments—they couldn’t
tolerate local governments telling them what to do, dictating terms to
national lenders,” he said. When asked which firm in particular, which
lobbyists, he was at a loss to give specifics. “Lobbyists?” he asked. “It’s
just a sea of faces.”
In early 2006 when Ameriquest agreed to pay $325 million in
damages to settle abusive lending charges (without admitting any
wrongdoing), Argent wasn’t a party to the case. In his lawsuit against
Arnall’s holding company, Argent chief Wayne Lee highlighted the
wholesale unit’s “superior performance” (compared to Arnall’s retail
lender, Ameriquest), noting his division’s “legal protocol and financial
discipline.” In other words, Lee (who wanted the $50 million owed to
him under his consulting agreement) felt that even though Ameriquest
had some “bad apples” (Adam Bass’s words for renegade loan officers
who were playing fast and loose), Argent’s account executives weren’t
out there engaged in schemes to qualify borrowers for loan amounts
they couldn’t afford while charging them higher interest rates and fees.
These were the allegations that Ameriquest’s retail loan officers had
faced. Lee didn’t see Argent in that light at all. But Jim Rokakis did.
Tom Miller, the Iowa attorney general and the lead AG on the states’
case against Ameriquest, had been hearing predatory lending allegations
for years but decided to go after Arnall’s retail arm, leaving Argent out
of his sights. His game plan was to attack what he called the company’s
“culture” where the goal was to “do whatever it takes to make the loan.”
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chain of blame
The AG said the settlement negotiations with Arnall’s attorneys,
which included company general counsel Thomas J. Noto, were “hard
fought.” Despite all the allegations of what Miller called “misrepresentations” by Ameriquest’s loan officers, the company was tenacious—just
like its loan officers had been. “The big issue was money,” Miller told
reporter Mathew Padilla. “How much they would pay. They didn’t
make concessions easily. They would debate points.” On occasion Arnall
would be involved in the talks with the AGs but usually stayed out of
them. By the time Miller got around to going after wholesale lenders
and brokers, he had bigger problems on his plate: “Our focus now is on
the foreclosure crisis,” he said.
In late 2007 the Cuyahoga County treasurer said he wanted to sue
someone. He just didn’t know where to start. In the fall he wrote an
op-ed piece in the Washington Post, outlining what he felt had gone
wrong in Slavic Village, mentioning the deaths of Cookie Thomas
and Joe Krasucki. Financial news stories are usually anathema to television producers (because they’re generally about numbers, which
means boring pictures), but two homicides and video of hundreds of
boarded-up homes led ABC and NBC to send anchors Charles Gibson
and Brian Williams, respectively, to Cleveland. Even the foreign press
began arriving on Rokakis’ doorstep in Cleveland. “Japanese public
TV is here today,” he said. “On Monday French reporters are coming.”
The Cuyahoga County treasurer called the mortgage debacle the “perfect crime.” He listed the perpetrators: loan brokers, lenders, appraisers,
Realtors, and Wall Street.
The only major financial party missing from Rokakis’ chain of
blame was the rating agencies: Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch,
the three credit watchdogs whose job it was to analyze and then rate
subprime mortgage-backed securities (ABSs), all the various tranches1
contained within them, as well as collateralized debt obligations
(CDOs) built from those very same tranches. In time, he added them
to his list. In an interview with National Mortgage News he mentioned
an analyst from Moody’s named Sharon (he couldn’t remember her
1A
tranche represents a slice of all the different cash flows in a pool of mortgages. One pool
of loans can be cut into many smaller pieces, each with a different dollar amount, risk
profile, and prepayment rate. As Lewie Ranieri had once noted, “mortgages are about math.”
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full name) who had telephoned City Hall “and told me to stop talking
so much.”
Sharon, he said, had threatened to downgrade the city’s debt ratings.
“You’d better stop talking” accusations like that might make Rokakis
sound like someone who had gone off the deep end or at least a critic
who, perhaps, was carrying things a bit too far. Would an analyst from
Moody’s really do such a thing? But “Where were the rating agencies?”
was a point Lewie Ranieri had made back in December of 2006
when he noted that these bond market watchdogs had been cast into
the role of “quasi regulator” of the nonprime market because so many
mortgages—subprime, “A” paper 80/20 loans, stated-income mortgages,
and payment option ARMs—were now outside the boundaries of what
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would buy.
Forget subprime for a minute. In 2006, the second best year ever
for the mortgage industry, when lenders originated $3.2 trillion in new
loans, $665 billion of the total pie was subprime (A– to D in quality)
or about 21 percent, a near record. But another $650 billion or so
fell under the rubric of stated-income loans, payment option ARMs,
and 80/20 mortgages—loans where the borrowers supposedly had
decent credit scores. It appeared that the days of Fannie’s and Freddie’s
dominance in the mortgage market were over. The phrase private
label securities came into vogue to describe bonds being issued where
Fannie/Freddie loans weren’t being used as collateral. Wall Street was in
charge—lending money to nonbank originators (through warehouse
lines), buying and securitizing the loans, designing the loan products,
and then eventually owning some of the rank-and-file lenders. Merrill
Lynch owned First Franklin and part of Ownit. Bear Stearns laid claim
to EMC and Encore Credit. Lehman Brothers owned BNC Mortgage
and Aurora Loan Services. The Street, to some degree, had taken over
a huge part of the residential mortgage industry, and most Americans
who were taking out these loans had no idea that their lender might be
a Wall Street firm. Remember: Investment bankers didn’t put the names
of their firms on their mortgage affiliates. The managing directors from
lower Manhattan had borrowed from the Arnall playbook: They were
doing their best to “stay under the radar.”
* * *
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chain of blame
In late August of 2007, the McGraw-Hill Companies, the parent of
Standard & Poor’s, announced that the president of the bond rating
agency, Kathleen Corbet, would be stepping down. By then, Bear
Stearns’ hedge funds were in bankruptcy, Countrywide was struggling
with bankruptcy rumors, dozens of subprime nonbanks were closing
their doors every week, and New York Attorney General Andrew
Cuomo had begun talking to executives at the underwriting outsourcing firms (Clayton Holdings and The Bohan Group) about the loan
review work they had been doing for Wall Street over the past four
years. Just about every financial firm involved in the mortgage process
was now taking some type of heat for rising mortgage delinquencies, the mounting write-downs being taken by overseas banks and
investors in subprime CDOs, and the biggie: declining home prices.
Now the bond rating agencies were getting the spotlight pointed their
way. Wasn’t it their job to review the underlying collateral (receiving a
fee for their work) and grade the bonds by judging the probability of
default? Why hadn’t they spotted potential problems with all the subprime ABSs and CDOs being issued during those years? Instead, many
of these bonds that began defaulting in the spring of 2007 (and kept
right on defaulting) had received investment-grade ratings (BBB or
higher) from S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch.
When Corbet resigned from S&P, little was said about the reason she was leaving, but a spokesman for the company denied that
her departure was tied to all the new criticism being heaped on the
agency. In their defense, the rating agencies could argue that whatever
the underlying collateral (subprime, 80/20s, stated-income), the bonds
had protection because the cash flow on many of these securities was
insured by bond insurance giants Ambac Financial Group, MBIA Inc.,
and Financial Guaranty Insurance Company (FGIC). Richard Wilkes,
the mortgage industry veteran who spent most of his career making
“A” paper loans (and serving as a consultant to Wall Street), thought
otherwise. “Wall Street was into cranking out the volume,” he said.
“The Street would take out the worst credit pieces and overcollateralize them [with bond insurance]. They could get some of these up to an
‘AA’ rating. It was like polishing a turd.”
Mark Goldhaber, the Genworth mortgage insurance executive who
spent his days analyzing legislation, lobbying, and looking at loan level
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loss data, saw a different problem with the rating agencies. He viewed
them as being involved in an inherent conflict-of-interest situation. “If
you were a rating agency and wanted the business of a certain subprime lender, would you give them a bad grade?” he asked. Then again,
his criticism was slightly off. The lenders didn’t, as a technical matter,
pay the rating agencies. The investment banking firm issuing the bond
did. However, anyone who knows how Wall Street works realizes that
the idea is to pass on costs. The money Bear or Merrill might pay to
S&P to get its bonds rated ultimately will be borne by the lender selling the loans to the Street.
As the criticism of S&P, Fitch, and Moody’s continued, executives from the three were called to testify before the Senate Banking
Committee. Topic A: Were they asleep at the wheel during the past four
years? Vickie Tillman, executive vice president of S&P, in her testimony
made a salient point to the committee: “S&P does not rate the underlying mortgage loans made to homeowners or evaluate whether making
those loans was a good idea in the first place.” She noted that those
tasks fell to the actual lender who was dealing with the consumer. It
fell upon the company underwriting the loans.
Her agency’s job, she continued, was to weigh judgment on
“how much cash we believe the underlying loans are likely to generate” toward paying off the bondholders. Then, in her written testimony, she went into a long-drawn-out description of the different
software programs and models it had been using, noting that S&P
looks at 70 different “inputs” (loan characteristics), including such
things as equity in the home, whether the owner lives there, and the
extent to which the borrower’s income was verified. S&P’s job, she said,
was to create software models that calculate “probabilities of default and
losses realized on default.” In other words, it wasn’t their fault. Go talk
to the lender or the Wall Street firm or Clayton or Bohan, which were
supposed to be reviewing the loans prior to securitization.
But an executive at Clayton, who didn’t want to be identified, said
his company informed the rating agencies of the number of “exceptions” on loan pools as early as 2005. An exception meant the loans
being bought by the Street didn’t meet all the underwriting guidelines
(what the Street would accept on such things as loan-to-value ratios, for
example) they had laid out in advance. He said Clayton Holdings took
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the exception information to the rating agencies. Their reaction? “They
said, ‘We don’t want to see it,’” he told a reporter. “‘It doesn’t fit our
models,’ they told us.” He said that while grading loans in 2005 the
agencies were “basing their results on models from the year 2000.”
Then again, Clayton and Bohan—as Carl Chamberlain and other
laptop grunts told reporters Muolo and Padilla—were primarily interested in reunderwriting loans as quickly as possible, because that’s what
the managing directors at Bear, Merrill, and the other Street firms
wanted. As Richard Wilkes noted, “Wall Street was into cranking out
the volume.”
Shortly after S&P’s Tillman testified before the Senate, a source
began writing Muolo at National Mortgage News. He used the
pseudonym of “Jon Mayer” and only sent e-mails from his home computer. He claimed to be in upper/middle management at one of the
three rating agencies but declined to say which one. His specialty was
structured finance and commercial MBS. He said he liked his job but
admitted that all the public criticism of the rating agencies was, for the
most part, well deserved. In his first correspondence with the newspaper, a well-written three-page letter, he made these five points2:
1. We rate deals based upon banker-provided summaries almost
exclusively. We perform limited to no independent due diligence.
We do, however, disclaimer our ratings against this flaw in our
approach. Comical. In a previous work-life, if we ever took banker
[Wall Street] numbers at face value we would be fired.
2. We back-fill our files. Under increased scrutiny from regulators, we
are in the process of “cleaning up” our files to eliminate incriminating evidence. Most of it is likely related to banker [Wall Street]
collusion, which is commonplace even today.
3. We have developed highly sophisticated models and then don’t use
the results to rate the deals. . . . Then after the feedback is provided
to the bankers and they tell us our ratings are horrible and that the
other two agencies were better and that we will lose business, calls
are made and the ratings change.
2 The
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4. How do the primary contacts with the bankers from within our
firm make their case for pay raises? By how much business they
brought in.
5. The investor calls we normally receive are a sad commentary on
the system. Most (90%⫹/⫺) questions posed us about newly originated deals are so superficial and/or have so little relevance to the
real issues of the deals we rate, that it becomes clear very quickly
that they have no clue what they are ready to buy.
The man calling himself Jon Mayer didn’t want to be interviewed
right away. He said in time he might talk but he didn’t want his real
name used. He wanted to keep his job. Over the next five months
Muolo traded correspondence with the source. Eventually, they talked.
He still didn’t want to go on the record. By January Mayer’s tone had
softened somewhat but not too much. In one of his last e-mails he
wrote, “Better times are ahead eventually and securitizations are here to
stay and will help the markets in the long term I believe. I felt I had
to end this on a positive note.” Over that five-month period all three of
the rating agencies—S&P, Fitch, and Moody’s—downgraded subprime
bonds to which they had given glowing ratings the previous two years.
On January 30 S&P dropped the mother of all downgrades. Early
in the morning it issued a press release saying it had placed on its
“credit watch” list “with negative implications” 6,389 classes (tranches)
of first-lien subprime bonds that it had rated between January 2006 and
2007. The dollar amount of these bonds: $270 billion. But that wasn’t
all. It also placed on its watch list (with negative implications) 1,973
ratings on 572 CDOs that were comprised of 572 subprime ABSs. And
there was one other announcement out of the rating agency. It had
reviewed all of the subprime-related structured investment vehicles
(SIVs) it had rated as well, noting that nine of 133 had “exposure” to
the 6,389 tranches. SIVs were off-balance-sheet investments that were
similar to CDOs. The difference was that a bank or Wall Street firm
could create (or set up as an investment) SIVs (using borrowed money)
and not have to count them as an on-balance-sheet asset. This meant
that their regulator in Washington wouldn’t know anything about them.
By early 2008 the two banks with the largest SIVs outstanding were
Citigroup (whose in-house subprime feeders included Associates First
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chain of blame
Capital, Commercial Credit, and now what was left of the old Argent
franchise) and HSBC Holdings, the London-based bank that owned
not only a U.S. depository, but the old Household Finance franchise.
Each had $49 billion in SIV investments, which they began putting
on their books and taking write-downs against. Both anticipated large
losses in the months ahead.
By the spring of 2008 the average American trying to understand
the nation’s mortgage/housing/credit crisis was facing a barrage of
numbers to digest. One fact was certain: Housing and mortgages—so
essential to the U.S. economy—were (and still are) joined at the hip.
They were Siamese twins: One would not exist without the other.
When one does well the other follows. Roughly 27 percent of all outstanding subprime mortgages (1.4 million loans totaling $250 billion in
loans) were in some form of default. On the “A” paper side, at least
400,000 loans were late. How many of those mortgages would wind
up in foreclosure, and how many Americans would be forced into the
street, was unclear. It was all guesswork. Mark Zandi, chief economist
for Moody’s (the bond rating agency), predicted that 3.3 million home
loans would go into default, with two-thirds of the homeowners
(2.2 million) facing foreclosure.The hardest-hit markets: Florida, Nevada,
Arizona, California, with huge problems also in Ohio, Michigan, and
Indiana. The last three states were already in a downturn because of
high oil prices ($120 a barrel and rising), which in turn had decimated
the bread and butter of the U.S. auto industry: sport utility vehicles
and trucks.
Throughout the history of the mortgage industry, economists
working in its ranks always pointed to one key factor in determining loan delinquencies: employment figures. Even if home prices
weren’t rising much and the economy was tepid, borrowers wouldn’t
default as long as they had a job. But over the past year, one sector
of the economy had lost more than 120,000 workers: mortgage bankers and brokers. Also, 300,000 construction jobs had vanished. These
workers had homes, too. Dan Perl, who closed his small subprime lending company in early 2007 and went into the loan workout business
(investing and curing delinquent mortgages), remembers going surfing in the fall and seeing more young men out in the waves off of
Laguna Beach than ever before. He struck up a conversation with some
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of them. “They claimed they used to be in the mortgage business,” he
said. At least one of Perl’s former hires was living in his car. Richard
Wilkes recounted how a friend of his had visited a “gentlemen’s club”
one evening on the outskirts of Houston and bought drinks for two of
the dancers. Two months earlier the ladies had lost their jobs working
for a mortgage brokerage firm.
As for the lending companies (which had funded the loans) and
the investment bankers (the securitizers), how much in additional
pain they would suffer was unclear. By the spring the dollar volume
of write-downs taken by investment banking firms, banks, and thrifts
was at $200 billion. The S&L crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s
cost U.S. taxpayers $150 billion (not including interest payments on
the government bonds issued to rescue that industry). Investors in subprime bonds were looking to the bond insurers (Ambac, FGIC, and
MBIA) to recover some of their losses, but all three of those firms were
facing insolvency because of subprime claims—claims they never really
anticipated paying on.
With unemployment rising nationwide (and not just in mortgage and building sectors) and home prices slipping by 10 percent
to 20 percent in some metropolitan areas, the Federal Reserve under
Ben Bernanke began cutting short-term interest rates in the fall and
right on through 2008. By March the short-term overnight rate was
2.25 percent, compared to 5.25 percent the previous September. Even
though Bernanke and his fellow Fed governors were alarmed by
exploding oil prices and inflation, their greater worry was a wholesale collapse of the U.S. mortgage market and Wall Street, which had
securitized more than $1 trillion in subprime loans during the previous
30 months—which is why the central bank assisted in the sale of Bear
Stearns to JPMorgan Chase. Not only was the mortgage crisis playing
nightly on the network news, but so too were the woes of Wall Street.
A few days after the Fed-assisted sale of Bear Stearns to JPMorgan
Chase, protestors organized by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, a consumer rights lobbying organization (headed by
a former loan broker named Bruce Marks), stormed the lobby of Bear’s
headquarters on Madison Avenue, chanting “Help Main Street, not
Wall Street” and carrying signs that read, “Blame the mortgage tsunami
on Bear Stearns.” The protestors weren’t exactly there by invitation
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chain of blame
from Jimmy Cayne or Alan Schwartz. Thirty minutes later they were
escorted out by New York’s finest.
* * *
As the crisis worsened and became an issue in the 2008 presidential
race, one central question continually being asked was one of the most
obvious: Where were the regulators—that is, the folks in Washington?
What about the Federal Reserve? Hadn’t Alan Greenspan seen this
coming? Greenspan, who retired from the Fed in early 2006, had
made a speech before the National Credit Union Association, the
largest credit union trade group in the United States, pontificating
that Americans’ preference for long-term fixed-rate mortgages meant
many were paying more for their homes than if they had taken out an
adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM). ARMs typically had lower start rates,
and when those rates adjusted they might still be lower than long-term
fixed-rate mortgages, or so went the argument. Greenspan also noted
that consumers would benefit if only lenders offered more “alternative” loan products. Time and time again the speech would be cited
as an example of how Greenspan had basically became a spokesman
for all types of alternative (non-Fannie/Freddie) mortgages, including
payment option ARMs, and subprime ARMs that adjusted after their
two- and three-year start rates expired. The date of speech: February
2004, just before subprime and alt-A originations exploded along with
the securitization market.
Blaming Greenspan alone for the subprime crisis might be a
stretch, but there’s a rich irony that both the general public and media
missed. According to activist Bob Gnaizda of the Greenlining Institute
in Berkeley, California, Greenspan himself had a fixed-rate loan! The
group met with the central banker and his staff semiannually to discuss
policy issues such as mortgages and inner city development. In July of
2004, a few months after his ARM speech, Greenlining staffers, including director John Gamboa, sat down with Greenspan. The primary
topic was ARMs—in particular payment option ARMs, which were
just beginning to catch on in a major way with consumers. The group
was worried about potential abuses. Gamboa asked Greenspan whether
he had an ARM. According to the Greenlining people, the response
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from The Maestro was: “No. I have a fixed rate.” Had he ever had an
ARM? Answer: “No. I like the certainty.”
When Bernanke became the new Fed chairman, he and Mozilo
spoke before a Greenlining Institute conference in April 2006.
The Countrywide CEO was invited both because the company was the
nation’s largest lender and because, according to Gnaizda, “Mozilo said
the right things about minority home ownership rates, and that’s a laudable thing to do.” (Countrywide was also the largest home lender to
minorities, a fact of which Mozilo was extremely proud. Countrywide
even issued press releases each year when trade publications like Inside
Mortgage Finance and National Mortgage News published their annual
rankings of the largest originators to African-Americans, Hispanics, and
other groups. The figures ultimately came from the Federal Reserve.)
When the Greenlining Institute staffers met with Greenspan in
2004, the group tried to push the Fed into making lenders adhere to a
voluntary code of conduct in regard to how they dealt with mortgage
customers. Gnaizda, general counsel of the group, had been hearing
too many stories about loan abuses. The legal settlements on predatory
lending allegations regarding Household Finance and Associates First
Capital—now the properties of HSBC and Citigroup, respectively—
were still somewhat fresh. But Greenspan, according to Gnaizda, just
wasn’t interested. “He never gave us a good reason, but he didn’t want
to do it,” said the Greenlining attorney.3
* * *
The biggest problem with being a federal regulator of banks, thrifts, or
credit unions is that these agencies don’t necessarily regulate depositories on the front end where the loans are made. Federal regulators
working out of Washington dictate rules and regulations as to what
kind of loans depositories can originate and hold. By law, savings and
loans (S&Ls) are required to have a majority of their on-balance-sheet
holdings in home mortgages. Examiners in the regional offices of
both the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) and the Federal Deposit
3
Greenspan turned down a request by reporter Matt Padilla to discuss Gnaizda’s version of
their meeting and other matters.
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chain of blame
Insurance Corporation (FDIC) spent their time looking at the quality
of assets being held on the books of S&Ls and banks. Alarm bells don’t
go off until an institution under their control starts reporting losses
or write-downs. The predatory/abusive lending case against Arnall’s
Ameriquest, for example, was brought by 49 state attorneys general.
It had nothing at all to do with Washington. Even though Ameriquest
received warehouse lines of credit from Wall Street firms and banks, it
wasn’t an FDIC- or OTS-regulated company.
The Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the
Currency (OCC), which also regulated banks, had no jurisdiction whatsoever over Arnall’s companies. Long ago the future ambassador to the
Netherlands had sent a message to Washington by burning his S&L charter and placing its ashes in an urn sitting on a credenza behind his desk.
The closest Washington had come to issuing any type of policy statement
on how residential loans should be originated was the “Guidance on
Non-Traditional Mortgages” working paper that came out in the fall
of 2006—long after Ameriquest, Household Finance, Associates First
Capital Corporation, and dozens of other subprime lenders found
themselves in trouble, accused of taking advantage of homeowners by
charging them hidden fees, higher rates, and more points than they realized, and having them take out larger loan amounts than they needed.
But again, that working paper had no teeth; it was purely guidance. It
could be thrown in the trash and there wasn’t much a federal examiner
could do—until the late payment notices began to pile up.
Earlier in the decade, accusations of predatory lending were lobbed
by consumer groups at certain lenders that specialized in refinancings.
In general, a predatory lender is a firm that originates a loan without
caring whether the borrower can repay it. Why would a lender do such
a thing? Answer: because on a refinancing it can make a ton of money
on all the points and fees. If the borrower gets into trouble and can’t
make the payments, the lender forecloses. But if a company were truly
engaged in predatory lending for profit (instead of, say, just being reckless or greedy) such a business model would work only if a house had
enough equity that a foreclosure wouldn’t harm the profit picture.
The Federal Reserve was in charge of enforcing the Truth in Lending
Act legislation, whose lawyerly description is “to protect consumers from
unfair or deceptive home mortgage lending and advertising practices.”
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The description is so general that it actually gives the Fed more latitude
in dealing with dirtbag lenders. But as Alan Greenspan noted many
times, his job as Fed chairman was to fight inflation. Keeping a watchful eye on subprime lenders was not something the central bank did.
Alan Greenspan may’ve been considered one of the greatest Fed chairmen who ever lived, but he wasn’t infallible. In the mid-1980s when the
nation’s top S&L regulator, Edwin Gray, first began to raise questions
about Charlie Keating’s thrift, Lincoln Savings—eventually accusing the
Arizona businessman of speculating on commercial real estate projects
with government-insured deposits—Greenspan, then a private economist,
wrote to Gray telling him not to worry so much. On Keating’s behalf,4
he wrote a letter to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board,5 telling Gray
that deregulation was working as planned, naming 17 thrifts—including
Lincoln—that had reported record profits and were prospering. Four
years after Greenspan wrote his letter, 16 of those S&Ls had failed. (By
then Greenspan was ensconced as the new Fed chairman.)
In the fall of 2007, while promoting his memoir, The Age of
Turbulence, he told 60 Minutes that he was aware that some subprime
lenders were making ARMs with low teaser rates that might cause payment shock later on after the rate adjusted, but he didn’t realize the
harm it might cause. “While I was aware a lot of these practices were
going on, I had no notion of how significant they had become until
very late,” he said. “I didn’t get it until very late in 2005 and 2006.”
One thing the Fed didn’t do, at least until 2006, was to collect subprime loan volumes from lenders. It collected overall loan volumes—
including mortgages originated and sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie
Mac and insured by the government—but not specific information
on subprime mortgages. To be sure, though, the Fed did in fact have
subprime data; it just didn’t come from the Fed itself. It came from
National Mortgage News, which besides being a trade newspaper that
covered the industry also collected origination figures (both prime
and subprime) from some of its 10,000 readers. James Kennedy, one
of the agency’s top researchers working on a subprime project for
4 As
a consultant to Keating, Greenspan had received $40,000 for his work.
5 The
Federal Home Loan Bank Board was the predecessor agency to the Office of Thrift
Supervision.
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chain of blame
Greenspan, had ordered subprime origination figures for all the nation’s
top lenders from National Mortgage News. According to the newspaper’s
senior researcher, Deartra Todd, Kennedy in 2002 had ordered a list of
the top subprime originators for calendar year 2000, when the business hadn’t yet even taken off. A few years later Kennedy had inquired
about ordering more data but never followed through. Each year other
banks in the Federal Reserve System ordered data from the newspaper,
so at least some of them knew just how large the nonprime sector had
grown. Whether they shared the subprime rankings with Greenspan is
unclear.
If any other banking agencies in Washington were alarmed by the
boom that occurred in subprime lending—$2.4 trillion in A– to D
mortgages originated from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2007,
or 20 percent of all loans funded in the United States (a record)—they
hardly voiced much concern, at least publicly. Perhaps because Wall
Street was busy securitizing almost all of the loans being originated,
they figured: If it’s good enough for the Street it must be okay. But the
false sense of security (if there had been such a thing) ended in late
February 2007 when Fremont General of Santa Monica, California,
an FDIC-insured bank that was also the nation’s sixth largest subprime
lender, said it would delay both its fourth quarter and full-year earnings releases, which were due shortly. The news sent Fremont General’s
shares tumbling, down 20 percent alone on the day the news came out,
to a new 52-week low, $8.79 (its 52-week high was $24).
When it came to broker-produced loans, Fremont General was also
the fifth largest wholesale subprime lender in the nation. A few weeks
earlier the lender had cut 8,000 brokers from its approved list of thirdparty originators, a move that was revealed in a speech by company
vice president Mike Koch at an American Securitization Forum trade
show in Las Vegas. The reason given: Those brokers were responsible for
some of the highest delinquency rates in the nation. When the earnings
delay became public, Fitch lowered its ratings on the company, exacerbating its problems. The FDIC took notice. Just after the earnings delay
was announced by Fremont, the agency held an emergency meeting
in Washington with 28 of its senior executives and another 53 others
piped in from regional offices via telephone. “It was like a three-alarm
fire and the bells were going off,” said one FDIC attorney.
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At least four executives from Clayton Holdings were invited to give
testimony to the assembled regulators. Why Clayton? The company,
which had recently gone public, not only was a due diligence outsourcing contractor to Wall Street, but held itself out as an expert in subprime and alt-A securities, advising clients (buyers and sellers) on such
matters as compliance (making sure regulations and laws are adhered
to) and surveillance (tracking the performance) of bonds. Clayton had
been a paid consultant to the FDIC for about 15 years, noted one
company insider. The topic of the meeting: the growing mortgage crisis. According to one executive who attended the meeting (which was
never reported on by the press), Fremont was a key topic but “what the
regulators wanted to hear from Clayton was color.” The executive, who
didn’t want to be quoted by name, said a Clayton manager told the
regulators that the mortgage correction “was going to be painful but
that it wouldn’t turn out to be an S&L-like crisis.” The manager, whose
name wasn’t revealed, also said there would be “pain” and that it would
be “systematic,” the chief reason being adjustable-rate mortgages, both
subprime and “A” paper loans, $1.5 trillion of which were scheduled to
reset at (presumably) higher interest rates over the next 18 months. Not
only were consumers going to lose their homes, but if enough loans
went bad a couple of hundred banks could go under.
Banks failing could prove problematic for the FDIC, an agency
that under former chairman William Seidman had forged a reputation
as being a tough and proactive regulator during the S&L and banking
crises of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The FDIC insurance fund
almost went broke, but Seidman had steered the agency through troubled waters by raising insurance premiums on banks (which brought
in much-needed insurance money to help bail out depositors at failing institutions) and not hesitating to close troubled institutions.
(Seidman also chaired the S&L bailout agency, the Resolution Trust
Corporation.) How tough a regulator was Seidman? Serving in the
George H.W. Bush administration, he made the decision to sue one of
the president’s sons, Neil Bush, for his role in the collapse of a Denver
savings and loan called Silverado.6 But during the first administration
6 Neil Bush later settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay damages to the Federal Savings and
Loan Insurance Corporation, which insured the deposits of Silverado.
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chain of blame
of George W. Bush and part of the second, the agency’s chairman was
Donald Powell, a former Texas banker from Amarillo who also had
been a fund-raiser for Bush. In October 2004 Powell made the decision
to slash 10 percent of the agency’s 5,300-strong workforce through layoffs. Inside the agency some supervisors were concerned that by losing
so many workers the FDIC would be left flat-footed in the event of a
banking crisis.
Powell left the FDIC in the fall of 2005 after the White House
named him federal coordinator of the government’s Gulf Coast
rebuilding effort, dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina,
Rita, and Wilma. His successor was Sheila Bair, who had done a short
stint at the Treasury Department (2001–2002) and while there made
her mark by trying to persuade subprime lenders to adopt a bestpractices code. This was right before the boom in subprime lending
took off. Bair later told the New York Times that many subprime firms
rejected the idea outright, and those that adopted the code then quickly
abandoned it when competition and originations soared. It appeared as
though Bair had an idea early on that something wasn’t quite right in
the subprime industry—at least when it came to firms like Ameriquest,
Associates, and Household taking advantage of homeowners who were
desperate for money.
A few months after the FDIC’s emergency meeting on Fremont
General,7 Bair made a speech in Washington before the New York
Bankers Association, making note of rising residential loan delinquencies and an increase in troubled subprime lenders. She blamed the then
emerging subprime crisis (before it snowballed into a mortgage/housing
crisis and then a worldwide credit contagion) on loan brokers. She said
that mortgage lenders that use brokers “need to know” who they are
dealing with. During the Q&A, she said brokers “are a big chunk of
the problem,” but noted that “we don’t regulate brokers.” No, but the
FDIC regulated five of the 20 largest subprime lenders in the nation—
all of which used brokers.
7 In April 2008, under pressure from the FDIC, Fremont announced a tentative sale of
most of its assets for $90 million to an investment company in Maryland that wanted its
22 branches and $5.6 billion in deposits. Its share price had fallen to just 11 cents from a
two-year high of $25.
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Over the next year brokers would be pilloried for helping cause
the crisis, but there was one thing the critics were missing: Brokers
wouldn’t exist without wholesalers, and wholesalers wouldn’t be able to
fund loans unless Wall Street was buying. It wasn’t the loan broker’s job
to approve the customer’s application and check all the financial information; that was the wholesaler’s job, or at least it was supposed to be.
Brokers didn’t design the loans, either. The wholesalers and Wall Street
did that. If Wall Street wouldn’t buy, then there would be no loan to
fund. At the same time, brokers weren’t choirboys (and choirgirls),
either. Still, a loan where a broker could make several thousand dollars
in fees first had to be approved by an underwriter at a wholesale lender
like Merrill’s First Franklin. The wholesaler had the first opportunity
to spot trouble. If the underwriter missed it, there was one last wall to
breach: the contract underwriters at Clayton or Bohan, where people
like Carl Chamberlain worked.
It can be said of the mortgage/housing crisis of 2007 and 2008
that it was not caused by government deregulation. It wasn’t. No major
laws were changed to pave the way for what happened. But it also can
be said that during the Bush years regulators didn’t regulate. As Lewie
Ranieri noted in his December 2006 speech and then later on in subsequent interviews, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
was more or less absent—when it shouldn’t have been. The rating
agencies, as Jon Mayer noted, seemed to be rubber-stamping securities with investment-grade ratings just so they could gain business and
make additional fee income. In late 2007 and early 2008 when he came
to Washington, Ranieri would sometimes visit with regulators at the
Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift
Supervision, among other agencies. “I think they’re starting to get it,”
he said. “I think I’ve scared them enough.”
Maybe not. On Thursday morning, March 13, 2008, Treasury secretary Henry Paulson called a press conference in Washington to discuss the
results of a study done by the President’s Working Group on Financial
Markets, which consisted of his agency, the Fed, the SEC, and the
Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Seven months earlier, Paulson
had been pushing the White House’s line that the U.S. subprime crisis
would not spill over to other parts of the nation’s economy or to world
economies. Now, finally, the former Goldman Sachs CEO came clean.
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The report he was discussing that morning before 50 reporters and TV
cameramen (most of them live) had concluded: “The turmoil in financial markets clearly was triggered by a dramatic weakening of underwriting standards for U.S. subprime mortgages, beginning in late 2004 and
extending into early 2007.” The report’s diagnosis singled out the credit
rating agencies (Fitch, S&P, and Moody’s) and “those involved” in securitizing subprime. The diagnosis bullet-point section of the report never
once used the phrases Wall Street or investment bankers.
Paulson told the press that securitization had paved the way for
lower-cost mortgages to be made to millions of Americans but also
complained about what he called “extreme complexity” of financial instruments (credit default swaps, among other instruments) and a
lack of transparency for investors. But he also blamed investors for not
knowing what they were buying and cautioned that whatever regulatory changes might lie ahead, the Treasury under his direction would
not stifle “financial innovation” in the marketplace, which meant that
the creation and trading in such instruments as credit default swaps
(used to hedge or speculate, depending on what the customer wanted
to do) would continue. The next day Bear Stearns’ stock plunged, and
by the following Monday the government had arranged its sale to
JPMorgan Chase.
* * *
As part of his newspaper’s coverage on accelerating home foreclosures
in Southern California, Orange County Register reporter Padilla and
another member of the paper, Andrew Galvin, decided to observe a
trustee’s sale at the steps of the Santa Ana Courthouse, part of a sprawling campus of civic buildings in the heart of Orange County. A trustee’s
sale is when an agent for a bank (or many banks) auctions homes of
delinquent (foreclosed) owners. That day 80 properties were originally
set for auction, a total much higher than in previous months. But when
the reporters arrived they learned most planned sales were canceled or
postponed, often because an owner filed for bankruptcy—a tactic that
can delay a foreclosure in California but not prevent it.
It was late 2007. There was a sizable crowd, about 40 people, for
the trustee’s sale. Crowds tend to be small, because buyers have to show
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up with the full amount of the home, several hundred thousand dollars,
in cashier’s checks. Not many folks like carrying around that kind of
coin. And homes are auctioned as is, sight unseen. Buyers don’t get to
peek inside unless they contact the current homeowners and convince
them to open up—not a likely scenario.
With a big crowd, Padilla was hoping for some activity. But as
Travis Toth, the agent for Fidelity National Title, read off details of
homes, the would-be buyers just stood around, still as statues. Almost
no one bid, and when someone did make an offer it was a halfhearted
lowball bid. No takers for a four-bedroom house in Anaheim, home
to the happiest place on Earth (Disneyland), offered for a minimum
$684,000 when the buyer owed $778,484. No takers for a twobedroom condo in coastal Huntington Beach—the bank wanted a
little more than the debt of $394,952. And on and on. All 30 properties
went straight back to the bank for lack of serious interest. The Orange
County Register reporters interviewed some folks in the crowd, and
found that most were just getting interested in the idea of foreclosure
investing. A few serious investors said the properties they wanted had
been postponed and also complained it was becoming seriously difficult to make money on foreclosures, since it took time to clean them
up and find a buyer, while all that time home prices were sliding to no
one knew where.
By the spring of 2008 the two biggest guessing games in economic
and finance circles became: (1) How much would the mortgage/housing
mess cost companies (and the U.S. economy)? and (2) Just how many
Americans would lose their homes? Mark Zandi of Moody’s was saying 3.3 million homes. Some consumer groups were saying that by
2009 the number could reach 5 million. On Wall Street and at the large
money center banks like Citigroup and Wachovia, the billion-dollar
write-downs and losses tied to subprime CDOs kept rolling along.
Some firms bolstered their capital by getting overseas investors to buy
into their once-vaunted franchises. Citigroup and UBS received sizable
investments from Middle Eastern and Singaporean investors.
To make matters worse, the Justice Department was still investigating
the collapse of Bear Stearns’ two hedge funds, and the FBI had started
a new task force to investigate (mostly) subprime companies, with
17 firms on its “must call” list including Countrywide, New Century,
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chain of blame
and others.8 In New York, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo had
granted immunity to top officials at Clayton Holdings. Cuomo’s hope
was that Clayton executives would turn on managing directors at Bear,
Merrill, and other Wall Street firms that had bought mortgages through
their trading desks, securitized them, and then sold them to domestic and foreign investors. Because subprime volumes had cratered, Bear
had been firing salespeople and traders on its desk and elsewhere in its
mortgage and structured finance departments. As one former company
executive told a reporter, “All the people Cuomo should be talking to
just walked out the door.”
Frank Fillipps, a former mortgage insurance executive who headed
Clayton, issued a statement saying his company was cooperating with
the AG’s office in regard to subprime loans it reviewed that were
“exceptions.” An exception was a loan characteristic that fell outside
the mortgage guidelines a Wall Street firm gave Clayton. Exceptions
were supposed to have been flagged by the laptop grunts employed
by the firm. But as Carl Chamberlain told reporter Muolo, the guidelines given to the grunts were a joke. “They provided us with one or
two copies of the lender’s guidelines for a whole job. Sometimes there
would be 50 underwriters on-site utilizing these few copies they would
give, which were never used by anyone except in a rare instances.”
Even though Cuomo’s office made a big deal of the cooperation agreement with Clayton, confirming it publicly, one thing his
investigators were not doing was talking to the grunts working on the
Wall Street underwriting jobs. Several contract underwriters working for both Clayton and Bohan interviewed by reporters Muolo and
Padilla said they had never been contacted by the AG or his investigators. But who was at fault, then? Clayton’s lead supervisors (who
oversaw the grunts) or their contacts at the Wall Street firms? According
to Chamberlain, both. “If there was a questionable file, the Clayton lead
would consult with Bear, Merrill, whoever was buying. If they felt it
was not such a bad issue they would ‘make it work.’”
One Clayton official, who did not want to be identified, told
Muolo that Cuomo was on a “fishing expedition” with his investigation.
8 According
to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Countrywide was the subject of a
criminal investigation.
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(The conversation occurred a few weeks before the company cut its
immunity deal.) “Andy is a gorilla. He can be brutal. Some of his own
investigators don’t like him. They don’t know what they’re doing.” The
Clayton executive said the Street didn’t really care about loan quality,
noting that rejected loans (which received a three rating) were not necessarily turned down by Street loan buyers. “It just meant that the Street
firm could use that rating to negotiate a better price [with the lender
selling the loan].” The Clayton official wasn’t done talking. He blamed
the mess on “young Street guys in their 20s,” adding, “Due diligence is
done only on a small portion of the deals. On the Street it became a
case of lemmings. They all followed each other.” (In May 2008 Clayton’s
management issued a statement to reporters Muolo and Padilla in
response to several questions. They denied putting any type of quota
system on the grunts. “While we do measure productivity and encourage our underwriters to work efficiently, we do not have quotas and we
don’t fire people or not ask them back for another assignment based
on how quickly they work,” it said. Clayton added that it was unaware
of any instances where leads told underwriters not to use the term
fraud. It also flatly denied that it was trying to make the loans it reviewed
look better than they were, noting that it issued “exception reports” to
its Wall Street clients.)
Cuomo wasn’t talking with the press about the details of his investigation. A former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban
Development (HUD) during the Clinton administration, he was a
lawyer by training who came from a politically well-connected family. His father Mario had been governor of New York, and for a while
he was married to a Kennedy. In the late 1980s he was involved in
a bitter legal battle that pitted him and his business associates against
the original management of a Florida S&L called Oceanmark Federal
Savings. At the time the younger Cuomo was a private-sector attorney.9
The group he represented was allegedly trying to take over control
of the thrift from its founders. According to a report in the New York
Times, the matter was eventually settled out of court with Cuomo’s
group disgorging, at breakeven, the 37 percent stake in Oceanmark
9 Andrew Cuomo was a partner in the New York law firm of Blutrich, Falcone and Miller.
The New York Times described him as his father’s “chief political advisor.”
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chain of blame
it had accumulated. But before the matter was settled, Cuomo filed a
libel suit against one of his opponents at Oceanmark, accusing them of
attacking him personally to embarrass the Cuomo family and force him
into a settlement. When the headlines got messy (his father was still
governor) both parties settled. In the spring of 2008 Chamberlain was
considering calling the AG’s office himself but then decided against it.
Just before Angelo Mozilo stopped talking to Muolo at National
Mortgage News he had given a few interviews on various topics. Time
and time again he touched on how best to stem the rising tide of
delinquencies. “You have to stop home prices from sliding,” he said.
“You need to get prices going in the other direction.” But that wasn’t
likely to happen anytime soon. All those payment option ARMs that
his company and countless others had originated—$500 billion worth
in 2006–2007—had given home buyers the ability to buy more house
with less money now. These POAs, which technically weren’t even
subprime loans, had played a central role in driving up home prices.
The loans also fueled speculators who used these mortgages to keep
their monthly payments low while renting out homes in the hope of
flipping them for a quick profit.
During the housing boom so many families in once red-hot markets
like Orange County, San Francisco, Boston, Long Island, Las Vegas, and
others turned to POAs because they could keep their monthly payments
low and worry about paying the piper later. What came first: high housing prices or the POA? It can be argued that prices boomed artificially in
those markets because POA loans created more bidders for homes. It
was a simple case of supply and demand: The more buyers for a house,
the more the price goes up. Take away the POA and no-down-payment
loans and suddenly the pool of buyers is reduced significantly.
By the spring of 2008 economists at Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac,
and other players in the market were forecasting that housing prices
wouldn’t begin to stabilize until 2009 or 2010. But at the same time
so much more was going on in the U.S. economy that was setting the
stage for a 10-year potential drought for housing, chief among them:
rising unemployment (no job means no money to pay a mortgage);
inflation (eventually the Federal Reserve will have to hike rates); rising
oil prices (feeding inflation); baby boomers aging (meaning this important demographic would soon be past its peak home-buying years);
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and failing lenders (meaning fewer companies would be alive to
offer mortgages). From December 2006 to the spring of 2008 nearly
300 mortgage lenders either failed or stopped doing business with loan
brokers, eliminating this once important way of doing business with
the public. Another 10,000 or so loan brokerage firms (out of about
50,000 active companies) had closed, with another 10,000 in danger of
failing by the end of 2009.10 By Mozilo’s estimate, almost 40 percent
of the lending industry’s capacity had been wiped out. Home foreclosures hit a record high, and housing starts (the construction of new
homes) reached a 17-year low.
At Countrywide, Mozilo was no longer calling the shots. Executives
from Bank of America were running things in Calabasas, consulting with
David Sambol, who had been chosen by the bank to head the combined mortgage operation of the two companies and given a hefty salary
in the process. However, two months later, Sambol, too, would be out
of a job, suddenly announcing his “retirement” when Bank of America
has control of Countrywide. Both Bank of America and Sambol would
not elaborate. He was 48 years old. Two questions remained: how best
to merge Countrywide’s huge (but shrinking) mortgage business into
Bank of America’s and whether the new (combined) mortgage company
would still use loan brokers. Bank of America had made it clear from
day one of the merger announcement that subprime loans would not be
offered. The future of the loan brokerage looked dim.
Just after the merger had been unveiled, Mozilo was still scheduled
to speak at Dick Pratt’s midwinter housing conference in Park City,
Nevada. Each year for two decades the former Merrill Lynch executive
held a three-day seminar on the most important issues affecting the
housing and mortgage industries. Attendees got to hear the best of
the best voice their opinions, eat fine food, and ski at one of the best
resorts in the state. Those who spoke at the meetings were the all-stars
of the industry and Wall Street—people like Mozilo, who was scheduled to speak at the 2008 event. Typically, Pratt allowed a few select
members of the media to attend and only under the stipulation that
all comments were off the record unless the speaker allowed it to be
10 According to tallies done by both The Mortgage Lender Implode-O-Meter web site and
National Mortgage News.
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chain of blame
otherwise. Two weeks before the meeting, Mozilo canceled without
explanation. Bill Dallas gave the forum’s opening speech, entitled
“What the Hell Happened? (It Wasn’t My Fault. I Just Moved Here.).”
Adam Bass of Ameriquest Capital Corporation, Arnall’s holding
company (now winding down what was left of its assets after the sale
of Argent and Ameriquest’s servicing business to Citigroup), was in
attendance. The only reporter there was Lew Sichelman, the nationally syndicated housing columnist. (Sichelman dined with Bass during
the conference.) A few weeks later Arnall died of cancer in Los Angeles
after having resigned his ambassadorship to the Netherlands. He had
come back to the United States from Europe to be with a seriously
ill son who was also battling cancer. The intensively private man had
never let on publicly that he, too, was sick. True to form, he had done
his best to live under the radar.
In Calabasas, Mozilo was presumably making retirement plans, but
no one knew exactly what his next move might be.11 If the events of
August 2007 had turned out to be merely a correction in the business
and not a full-scale decimation of an industry, of the American financial
landscape, he would’ve exited the business something of a hero. Here
was a man from the streets of New York who had created a company
once worth $45 billion, who built it up against all odds to become
number one—and who thirsted to maintain that status in anything
having to do with mortgages. He was, more or less, Mr. Mortgage, the
public face of an industry, a man who could speak bluntly and honestly about housing and the lenders that financed the clichéd American
dream of home ownership.
Those who have known him, friends (and even foes), give him credit
for creating a model organization. (Some who had known and competed against him for years were less kind. “Arrogant” was the word used
by a former Houston mortgage chief to describe him.) When Mozilo
11
In the spring of 2008 there were indications that Bank of America’s purchase of
Countrywide might yet fall apart. A research report issued by Eric Billings’ firm, Friedman
Billings Ramsey, predicted that Bank of America might have to write down the value of
Countrywide’s mortgage holdings by up to $30 billion because of defaults and
delinquencies. FBR’s advice to the bank: walk away from the deal. FBR analyst Paul J.
Miller valued Countrywide’s shares at $0 to $2 compared to the purchase price of $7.
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spoke of housing the poorest Americans as well as immigrants (like his
grandparents), he was sincere. He had helped millions buy homes, some
who never would have had that chance otherwise. He also had become
fabulously wealthy doing it. His, like Arnall’s, was a rags-to-riches story.
If only he hadn’t followed Ameriquest into subprime. Mozilo hadn’t
liked the B&C business in the first place. For most of Countrywide’s life,
the company had shied away from it.
In one of his last interviews with the Countrywide founder, Muolo
again asked him whether he was sorry he had entered that part of the
business. Mozilo admitted, “We got caught up in it,” and then defensively added, “You had to have an incredible crystal ball to see home
values coming down like this.” But Mozilo had been in the business
for five decades, witnessing boom-and-bust cycles many times before.
Should he have known that in this latest cycle (the last of his career)
home prices could not keep appreciating at 15 percent to 20 percent a
year in some markets, like California?
“I dedicated my life to Countrywide,” he said, concluding that day’s
interview. “I never did spend enough time with my kids. I regret that.
My grandkids—I want to go to their games and plays. I told my wife
that. It’s about the legacy, the name you leave to them.”
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Afterword
We Buried (Some of )
Our Garbage Overseas
The men on the trading floor may not have been to school, but they
have Ph.D.’s in man’s ignorance.
—Michael Lewis, former bond salesman
for Salomon Brothers
I
n 1990 the American Dialect Society began picking a “word of the
year.” At its annual convention several dozen members would spend
a few days locked in a conference room debating which word
would get the distinction. Just because a word got picked as word of the
year, that didn’t necessarily mean it was getting official entry into
the English language. Not at all. It was just something that the group—
which dated back to 1889 and whose members included grammarians,
linguists, historians, and others (the “rules people,” you might say, of
language)—did every year to have fun at conventions. In early January
2008 while holding its annual bash in Chicago, the Society (after some
debate) chose the word subprime to be its word of the year. The finalists
included Facebook, Googleganger, and waterboarding—stiff competition all
around.
305
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306
a f te rword
For at least two decades the term subprime had been used in the
mortgage industry to refer to consumers whose credit was less than
perfect. Now it had entered the American lexicon for two reasons:
America’s subprime debacle had sparked a worldwide credit crisis.
Overseas banks and investors were now suffering because the subprime
collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) they had purchased from Wall
Street firms were now defaulting, causing huge losses. A month after
Bear Stearns’ two hedge funds filed for bankruptcy protection in late
July 2007, an Australian hedge fund called Basis Yield Alpha Fund also
filed for bankruptcy. Its lenders included the cream of the crop from
Wall Street: Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill
Lynch. In its bankruptcy filing, Basis Yield Alpha Fund cited mounting
losses from subprime mortgage assets—that is, bonds—sold to them by
investment bankers in the United States.
And the second reason the word subprime had entered the vernacular? American teenagers were now using it as a verb to describe screwing
up, doing something bad. As Sherry Muolo, the 13-year-old daughter of
co-author Paul Muolo, once put it, “I’d better not subprime that test.”
As 2007 rolled into 2008, more tales of foreign banks and financial
institutions suffering multibillion-dollar losses because of their investments in subprime CDOs “made in America” began to pile up. In France,
Société Générale took a $3 billion loss. In Germany, the government was
forced to merge two ailing banks because of their subprime investments.
A former investment banker who used to work for Lew Ranieri relayed
this story to a reporter: “I just heard the other day about an investor in
Abu Dhabi. He said to the Street firm that sold him the CDOs: ‘How
come I’m losing money? It’s triple-A rated.’ The Street firm just crapped
all over him.”
In the summer of 2007, Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had
tried to explain away the nation’s subprime crisis and housing collapse as
something that was contained to the 50 states—that it wouldn’t spread
overseas. Paulson’s public declarations to that effect had turned out to be
horribly wrong. When it came to economic forecasts, the former head
of Goldman Sachs wasn’t looking too good. America’s mortgage mess
had sparked an economic worldwide contagion. One little fact that had
gone underreported: American bond salespeople were the ones pulling
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Afterword
307
the trigger; they had been peddling subprime CDOs overseas. Did the
buyers—both in the United States and in Europe—really understand
what they were purchasing?
If you asked Lew Ranieri that question back in 2006 his answer
would be an unequivocal “no.” Ranieri, when pressed more about the
issue, noted, “It’s not what you disclosed; it’s what you didn’t.” He said
investors didn’t necessarily know what the borrower’s combined loanto-value (CLTV) ratio was (the first and second mortgage combined),
whether it was a real appraisal or one pulled off the Internet (automated valuation model), or “whether the guy is a self-employed dishwasher.” The way Ranieri saw it, Wall Street, where he had once ruled
the roost, was taking CDOs and “selling them to nontraditional mortgage guys. You take these [mortgage] tranches, you put them in CDOs
and sell them all around the world.” (Even though Ranieri warned
against subprime quality and the lack of disclosures on bonds, Franklin
Bank, where he was the largest shareholder, ran into financial problems
in May 2008. The institution had to mark down the value of what it
called “certain uncollectable” second liens. A company investigation also
found that management there did not take proper “mark-to-market”
write downs on some of its assets.)
Arturo DiCifuentes, the former Wachovia CDO expert, wasn’t so
sure about Ranieri’s assessment that investors were clueless. “Investors
not knowing what they’re doing? The disclosures were there,” said
DiCifuentes. “The information was there. That’s a lot of bullshit.”
A reporter asked him another question: Okay, so maybe all the essential
information is there. Then how many investors actually read the prospectuses? DiCifuentes paused and thought about it: “Some do, and
some don’t,” he said.
In other words, when a bond salesperson from Merrill Lynch calls
an Australian hedge fund, the fund manager trusts the person on the
other end of the telephone because, after all, the salesperson works at
Merrill Lynch. In his book Liar’s Poker, author Michael Lewis grew disgusted with his career as a corporate bond salesman because, in part,
he grew to see how the business was all about making the sale and not
worrying about what might happen to clients if they were sold a risky
corporate bond. It was about making money, or, as Lewis wrote, “In any
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a f te rword
market, as in any poker game, there is a fool.” In the world of subprime
CDOs, it was all about transferring risk: from the mortgage lender into
an ABS into a CDO. The fool was the last one holding the bond.
Some of these fools were headquartered overseas in faraway lands.
Others were foreign banks or investment banking firms that had set up
shop in New York City to lend money to nonbank subprime lenders,
securitize their mortgages, create tranches, package them into CDOs,
and send them across the Atlantic. Some were unlucky enough not to
find investors for the CDOs, which meant they held them in their own
investment accounts. Germany’s Deutsche Bank, Switzerland’s UBS
Securities, and Royal Bank of Scotland’s Greenwich Capital were all
major players in the U.S. subprime market. In April 2008 UBS took a
$19 billion write-down on its subprime business, which included securities that had fallen in value and were now worth a fraction of their
original worth.
Two weeks before UBS unveiled its huge loss, Ameriquest founder
Roland Arnall died of cancer and was buried in Griffith Park in Los
Angeles. Terry Rouch, who used to work for Arnall as an account executive, was in attendance, as were family, friends, other former employees,
and politicians far and wide, including Los Angeles mayor Antonio
Villaraigosa, former governor Gray Davis, and current California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the retired movie star. During the entire
ceremony and procession, Schwarzenegger stood near Rouch, who
with his sunglasses and athletic build blended in with the governor’s
security detail. “Arnold put his hand on my shoulder a few times,”
remembered Rouch. “He thought I was one of his bodyguards.”
Rouch didn’t recall anything being said at the funeral about
Ameriquest. It was obvious to him that it was neither the time nor the
place. The focus, as it should have been, was on Arnall’s achievements
as a humanitarian, his work with the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “It felt
like a political rally with the amount of politicians coming to pay their
respects,” said Rouch. “It was a touching Jewish ceremony. You could
say there wasn’t a dry eye in the place—but it wasn’t necessarily for the
passing of the father of subprime. It was for our own futures.”
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Source and
Interview Notes
T
his book is the result of more than 200 interviews conducted
by Paul Muolo and Mathew Padilla since July 2007 when the
outline for this book was first being put together. Several more
interviews date back to early 2006 when the subprime market slowly
began to unravel. A few occurred as far back as 1998, around the time of
the nation’s first subprime crisis, which began in the middle of that year.
Many of those we spoke with gave multiple on-the-record interviews,
meaning we could identify them by name. Others preferred to speak
“on background,” which meant we could use their quotes and even say
which firm they worked for, but nothing more than that. Some of what
was said wound up in news stories appearing in National Mortgage News
and the Orange County Register.
As noted in the text of this book, “Carl Chamberlain,” the freelance
loan underwriter who worked for PCI (which in turn staffed jobs
for Clayton Holdings) requested that his real name not be published
in favor of an alias. We granted the same arrangement to “Alex” from
309
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310
s o u rc e an d i n t e rv i e w n o t e s
New Century. Both provided valuable insights into what went on at
those organizations. We know their real names but have pledged not
to disclose them unless they first give us permission. The source calling
himself “Jon Mayer,” who claimed to work for one of the big three rating agencies, did not provide his real name. As this book went to press,
he said he was still employed at a rating agency and wished to remain
anonymous.
Several Wall Street managing directors (who are now no longer
employed in that capacity) agreed to speak on background. Some of
those who provided insight worked at Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and
other firms. There are many others who worked on Wall Street who
denied our requests for an interview, including former Merrill Lynch
CEO Stanley O’Neal. In regard to the collapse of New Century, all
four of the lender’s co-founders turned down or ignored requests to be
interviewed on the record, as did David Einhorn, head of Greenlight
Capital, which invested in New Century. Eric Billings of Friedman
Billings Ramsey (FBR) also would not talk to us.
During part of the research for this book, Countrywide co-founder
Angelo Mozilo provided generous access. Over the years he has granted
dozens of on-the-record interviews (on various topics and issues) to
co-author Paul Muolo. Mozilo’s relationship to National Mortgage News
goes back two decades. Very little of what he has said over the years was
specified by him as off-the-record. His agreement to cooperate with
this book began before Countrywide’s fortunes started to crumble in
earnest in December of 2007. Originally, this book was slated to be less
about Mozilo and Countrywide, but all that changed in late 2007 as the
lender began to lose money and became the subject of investigations in
several states. Mozilo stopped granting interviews in early January 2008.
We attempted to interview all of the people who played significant roles in the mortgage and credit crisis. We tried to reach them by
both telephone and e-mail. If this book goes into paperback, we continue to be all ears. Give us a call. Roland Arnall (who died in March
2008), to the best of our knowledge never gave an on-the-record
interview regarding any of his mortgage lending ventures. His nephew,
Adam Bass, who eventually became vice chairman of Ameriquest
Capital Corporation (ACC), occasionally has given press interviews
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Source and Interview Notes
311
but declined interview requests for this book. ACC spokesman Chris
Orlando did, however, answer certain questions via e-mail.
We have made every effort to avoid errors. We reviewed the
chapters on many occasions, as did our editors and attorneys at John
Wiley & Sons. But because we and our sources are human, it’s possible that somewhere in this mass of 100,000-plus words there may
reside factual errors. For that we sincerely apologize and would be
glad to set the record straight in future editions. Also, some of the
subjects in this book may not agree with our central premise that
Wall Street’s thirst for profits and its near-total disregard for loan
quality inflicted massive damage on the U.S. and world economies.
For those who see it differently, we strongly encourage you to write
your own books.
Also, in 2005, the peak year of the housing boom in the United
States, a drumbeat arose decrying the housing market as a dangerous bubble that could threaten the U.S. financial system. But the persistent and
often passionate outcries did not always come from the world’s largest
newspapers or CNBC. The concern about an overheated market came
from a new medium that didn’t exist 10 years ago: blogs. Among those
bloggers who were the earliest to raise questions and sound the alarm
were Calculated Risk, Angry Bear, Housing Panic, and Housing Wire.
Finally, even though this book is based on original research conducted by the co-authors, there have been other reporters who have
done an admirable job covering this crisis as it unfolded and whose
work we noticed and credited in this book. We’d like to cite the working journalists at the Orange County Register and National Mortgage
News, but two others as well: E. Scott Reckard of the Los Angeles Times
and James R. Hagerty of the Wall Street Journal. Reckard broke one of
the earliest stories about lending abuses at Ameriquest, while Hagerty
broke key stories about Countrywide, including the SEC investigation
into Mozilo’s stock sales and other developments.
Here we list source notes (documents, lawsuits, news stories, web
sites) that helped shape the 12 chapters. (Most of these are cited in the
text, but a few may have slipped past our radar.) We also list two books
that provided invaluable historical insight into the S&L crisis and the
inner workings of Wall Street.
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Newspaper Articles, News Service Reports,
Lawsuits, Other Documents
Chapter 1 Angelo Speaks, the Worldwide Contagion Begins
Ken Bruce’s “sell” rating and bankruptcy comment on Countrywide: “Liquidity Is
the Achilles Heel” by Kenneth Bruce, research analyst, Merrill Lynch, August
15, 2007.
Deposit run on Countrywide Bank: “The Mortgage Meltdown” by E. Scott
Reckard and Annette Haddad, Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2007.
Angelo Mozilo, personal history and company history: Several interviews
conducted by the authors. Also: “The Mortgage Maker vs. the World” by Jeff
Bailey, New York Times, October 16, 2005; biography and history of Mozilo by
the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, no date provided;
Countrywide corporate history, available through the company’s web site at
http://about.countrywide.com/History/History.aspx.
Bankruptcy information on HomeBanc: Chapter 11 filing, August 9, 2007, U.S.
Bankruptcy Court, District of Delaware.
Chapter 2 The Repo Man Meets the Bald Granny
Associates First Capital Corporation, history: Citigroup web site.
Beneficial Corporation/Beneficial Finance, history and background: Interviews
with Peter Cugno, Dan Phillips, and others; International Directory of Company
Histories, Vol. 8 (St. James Press, 1994).
The Money Store, history and background: “The Money Store: The Rise and Fall
of a Subprime Giant,” National Mortgage News (no author cited), July 10, 2000.
Subprime origination and servicing figures: Mortgage Industry Directory, published
in several editions by Thomson Financial and then SourceMedia.
Chapter 3 The Death of Bailey Building and Loan, the Rise of Millionaire
Loan Brokers and Countrywide
Government sanctions against the Jedinaks: United States (on behalf of the Office of
Thrift Supervision) vs. Russell M. Jedinak, December 9, 1995, Stipulation and
Consent to Issuance of Order of Prohibition and to Cease and Desist for
Affirmative Relief; U.S. vs. Rebecca Manley Jedinak, December 9, 1995, similar action filed against Mrs. Jedinak. Both actions are in regard to Guardian
Savings and Loan of Huntington Beach, California.
Loan broker behavior: “Mortgage Brokers’ Sleight of Hand” by Elizabeth Warren,
Boston Globe, October 2, 2007.
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313
Allegations against Metropolitan Money Store in regard to foreclosure rescue
scams: Melvin J. Proctor, Jr., et al. vs. Metropolitan Money Store Corp., Joy Jenise
Jackson, Kurt Fordham, et al., filed July 24, 2007, U.S. District Court for the
Southern District of Maryland; “Prince George’s Fairy Tale Unravels for
Woman at Center of Fraud Probe” by Keith L. Alexander and Ovetta
Wiggins, Washington Post, August 25, 2007; District of Columbia vs. Metropolitan
Money Store, New Century Mortgage Corporation, Joy Jenise Jackson, Kurt Fordham,
et al., August 29, 2007, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Civil
Division.
Chapter 4 The Beach Boys of B&C
IPO information on Long Beach Financial Corporation: S-1, filed February 19,
1997. Underwriter: Friedman Billings Ramsey & Company.
In Wayne Lee’s legal battle with Ameriquest, Roland Arnall is not named as a
defendant but is mentioned in the complaint several times. Source: Wayne
A. Lee vs. Ameriquest Capital Corporation, Docs. 1–20, filed January 26, 2007,
in Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Orange—
Central Justice Center.
Abusive lending allegations against Ameriquest: “Workers Say Lender Ran ‘Boiler
Rooms’” by Mike Hudson and E. Scott Reckard, Los Angeles Times, February
4, 2005; “Ameriquest Accused of Unfair Practices,” Orange County Register (no
byline), February 5, 2005.
Ameriquest closing retail operations: “Ameriquest Shutters Retail,” National
Mortgage News Online (no byline cited), May 2, 2006; “Ameriquest Shutters
Retail, Vows to Carry On” by Paul Muolo, National Mortgage News, May 8,
2006.
Origination and servicing figures on Ameriquest: Various sources, including
National Mortgage News, Quarterly Data Report (SourceMedia), and investor
documents prepared by Ameriquest Mortgage Company for a Bear Stearns
conference in 2004.
Divorce of Roland and Sally Arnall: “Roland Arnall’s Ex-Wife Reopens
Settlement Issue,” Associated Press, August 23, 2005.
Ameriquest lobbying activities: “Lender Lobbying Blitz Abetted Mortgage Mess”
by Glenn R. Simpson, Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2007.
Adam Bass’s response to predatory lending allegations and his “bad apples” comment: Baseline magazine, September 7, 2005.
Information on Dawn L. Arnall: Official State Department biography, Embassy of
the United States, The Hague, the Netherlands.
Campaign donation information on the Arnalls: Center for Responsive Politics.
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Chapter 5 Angelo Rising
Historical information on Fannie Mae and background on former chairman/
CEO James Johnson: Various interviews conducted by the authors; “A History
of Fannie Mae,” company web site; “HMDA Revelation: GSEs Depend on
Few for Bulk of Business,” National Mortgage News, September 30, 2002;
“A Medici with Your Money” by Matthew Cooper, Slate, February 23, 1997.
Background on Countrywide and its history: Biography of Angelo Mozilo by the
Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans (no date provided);
Countrywide corporate history, available through the company’s web site at
http://about.countrywide.com/History/History.aspx.
Chapter 6 The Holy Roller of REITs
Background on HomeBanc: Interviews conducted by the authors with various
sources, including Patrick Flood; “Mortgage Woes Take Toll on Lender with
Roots in Faith” by Valerie Bauerlein, Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2007;
“Keeping the Faith Wasn’t Enough, Collapse Leaves Staff in a Lurch” by Dan
Chapman, Atlanta-Journal Constitution, September 2, 2007.
Historical background on Friedman Billings Ramsey and its three co-founders:
International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 53 (St. James Press, 2003);
Form 8-K filed by FBR with the Securities and Exchange Commission, July
28, 2006; biographies on Eric Billings and Rock Tonkel, published on FBR’s
web site, 2007, 2008.
Information on mortgage real estate investment trusts (REITs) taken public by
FBR was supplied by the company to the authors.
Chapter 7 The End of the (New) Century
Income of New Century and its founders as well as their stock sales: Various filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1997 to 2007.
New Century’s start-up money allegedly coming from a Ponzi scheme: “As
Bankruptcy Looms for BFA, Questions Arise about Overseers” by Terry
Greene Sterling, Phoenix New Times, October 21, 1999.
Baseball bat anecdote in regard to poor underwriting: “Pressure at Mortgage Firm
Led to Mass Approval of Bad Loans” by David Cho, Washington Post, May 7,
2007.
Torrence James and Ronald Fontenot’s alleged fraud: “Group of Former Inmates,
Others Accused in Colorado Real Estate Scheme” by David Olinger, Denver
Post, October 31, 2006.
Mozilo’s “aggressor” quote: “Countrywide Counters Trend in Margins” by Jody
Shenn, American Banker, April 27, 2005.
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315
Chapter 8 A Conspiracy by Merrill?
Background on Bill Dallas and Ownit Mortgage Solutions: Various interviews and
Loan Tool Box biography on Bill Dallas (www.loantoolbox.com); bankruptcy
filing by Ownit Mortgage Solutions, January 9, 2007, U.S. Bankruptcy Court,
Central District of California, San Fernando Valley Division.
Background on Michael Blum: Various interviews; “Never Has So Much Money
Been Flowing into Studio Coffers” by Daniel Gross, Variety, January 9, 2006.
Background on Stanley O’Neal: Various interviews; “Merrill Takes $8.4 Billion
Credit Hit” by Randall Smith and Jed Horowitz, Wall Street Journal, October
25, 2007; “A Risk-Taker’s Reign at Merrill Ends with a Swift, Messy Fall” by
Landon Thomas Jr. and Jenny Anderson, New York Times, October 29, 2007;
Merrill Lynch company history at www.ml.com.
Merrill Lynch margin-calling its mortgage banking customers, and loan buyback
disputes: “Stung by EPDs, Merrill Margin Calling Its MB Clients” by Paul
Muolo, National Mortgage News, February 19, 2007; “ResMAE Goes BK,
Cites Merrill Dispute,” National Mortgage News Online (no byline), February
19, 2007.
Merrill Lynch and CDOs: Various interviews; “Wall Street Wizardry Amplified
Credit Crisis” by Carrick Mollenkamp and Serena Ng, Wall Street Journal,
December 27, 2007; testimony of William F. Galvin, Secretary of the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts, before the U.S. House of Representatives,
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, March 7, 2008.
Chapter 9 A Warning from Lewie
Background and history on Ranieri: Original interviews with subject and several
individuals who worked for him; “A Job Easier Said Than Done for New
Savings-Unit Owner” by Sarah Bartlett, New York Times, February 20, 1998.
Ranieri’s warning on ABS securitizations: “Ranieri: SEC Needs to Step Up on
NTMs,” National Mortgage News Online (no byline), December 11, 2006.
Chapter 10
Deep in the Belly of the Bear
Bear’s loan buyback disputes with Encore Credit Corporation and sale of ECC to
Bear: “Troubled B&C Lender Sells to Bear Stearns” by Paul Muolo, National
Mortgage News, October 11, 2006; SEC filing, Bear Stearns 8-K, October 10,
2006.
Warren Spector’s departure from Bear: “A Top Official at Bear Stearns Ousted” by
Landon Thomas Jr., New York Times, August 6, 2007; “How Bear Stearns Mess
Cost Executive His Job” by Kate Kelly and Susanne Craig, Wall Street Journal,
August 6, 2007.
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Merrill’s seizure of collateral from Bear Stearns in regard to hedge funds: “Merrill
Auctions Subprime Assets in Bear Hedge Funds,” National Mortgage News (no
author listed), June 25, 2007.
Ralph Cioffi’s and Michael J. Levitt’s management of Everquest Financial, which
entails BSAM, CDOs, and more: Form S-1 filing with the Securities and
Exchange Commission, May 9, 2007, by Everquest Financial Ltd.
Background on Ralph Cioffi: “Cioffi’s Hero-to-Villain Hedge Funds Masked
Bear Peril in CDOs” by Yalman Onaran and Jody Shenn, Bloomberg News,
July 3, 2007.
Allegations against Ralph Cioffi of Bear Stearns and Bear Stearns Asset
Management (BSAM) regarding management of the firm’s two subprimerelated hedge funds that filed for bankruptcy in July 2007: Barclays Bank vs.
Bear Stearns Asset Management Inc., Ralph Cioffi, Matthew Tannin, Bear Stearns
& Co., et al., filed December 19, 2007, U.S. District Court, Southern District
of New York; The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Securities Division) vs. Bear
Stearns Asset Management Inc., filed November 14, 2007.
Existence of criminal probe of Bear’s two subprime hedge funds: Bear Stearns
Form 10-Q, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, October
10, 2007 (pg. 66).
Jeff Verschleiser’s role in Bear’s mortgage trading operations: Various interviews
conducted by the authors with industry sources, including Pat Flood.
Chapter 11 Armageddon Times
Allegations against Countrywide on abusive lending: “Inside the Countrywide
Lending Spree” by Gretchen Morgenson, New York Times, August 26, 2007.
Countrywide’s “Protect Our House” wristband campaign: “Countrywide Tells
Workers, ‘Protect Our House’” by James R. Hagerty and Jonathan Karp,
Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2007; memo from Andrew Gissinger III,
Countrywide president and chief operating officer.
Background on public relations firm Burson-Marsteller: Corporate Watch, Issue #2,
Winter 1996.
Information on stock sales by Countrywide insiders courtesy of Thomson
Financial; trading information available through Yahoo! Finance.
SEC probe of Mozilo’s stock sales: “SEC Investigating Stock Sales by Countrywide
CEO” by Kara Scannell and James R. Hagerty, Wall Street Journal, October
17, 2007.
Countrywide’s payment option ARM problems and investigations: “CFC’s POA
‘Debt’ at $1.2 Billion and Growing,” National Mortgage News (no byline),
March 10, 2008; “Illinois Probes Countrywide’s Practices,” Associated Press,
December 13, 2007.
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Chapter 12 What the Hell Happened?
Argent’s lending practices in the Cleveland area: “Argent Mortgage Company
Lending and Foreclosure Activity, Cuyahoga County, Ohio” by Thomas Bier
and Ivan Maric, Center for Housing Research and Policy, Maxine Goodman
Levin College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University, June 3, 2007.
Argent’s lending activity in Slavic Village: “The Shadow of Debt,” op-ed piece by
Jim Rokakis, Washington Post, September 30, 2007.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller targeting loan brokers and wholesale lenders: “Iowa AG Warns on LO Culpability,” National Mortgage News (no byline),
April 3, 2006.
Standard & Poor’s downgrades on 8,342 ratings: S&P press release, January 30, 2008.
Standard & Poor’s response and defense of its rating practices: Testimony of Vickie
A. Tillman, executive vice president of S&P’s credit market services before the
Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, September
26, 2007.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the roots of the credit crisis: “Policy
Statement on Financial Market Developments” by the President’s Working
Group on Financial Markets, March 13, 2008.
S&L-related lawsuits involving Andrew Cuomo: “Florida Suit Names Andrew
Cuomo,” December 23, 1987, Associated Press (no byline); “Suit Involving
Cuomo’s Son over Savings-Loan Is Settled” by Jeffrey Schmalz, New York
Times, April 19, 1988.
Foreclosures in Orange County: “Bidders See Bargain Homes at Anaheim
Auction” by Andrew Galvin, Orange County Register, February 3, 2008.
Books
Inside Job: The Looting of America’s Savings and Loans by Stephen Pizzo, Mary
Fricker, and Paul Muolo (New York: HarperCollins, 1989, 1991).
Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street by Michael Lewis (New York:
W.W. Norton, 1989).
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Glossary
Note: In the world of mortgage lending, definitions can vary from company to company and from professional to professional—which may be
why there is sometimes so much confusion surrounding the mortgage
process. What follow are definitions of loan types, products, origination
channels, company types, and other phrases that make up the alphabet
soup of residential mortgage banking.
“A” credit quality loan A mortgage where the borrower has the
best credit rating possible—usually north of 700. Fannie Mae and
Freddie Mac—which have government charters—tend to buy these
loans, although they also purchase some subprime and alt-A credits. By
purchasing mortgages, Fannie and Freddie provide liquidity to the residential market. Also known as a prime or conventional loan.
ABX index An index or instrument created by a handful of Wall
Street firms, including Deutsche Bank, that represents the value of a
basket (sample) of asset-backed securities collateralized by subprime
loans. Investors can go either long or short the index.
account executive (AE) A professional whose job it is to work
with loan brokers. Brokers sell or facilitate mortgages to the public but
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do not use their own money to originate the loan at the closing table.
An account executive works for a wholesale lender who “table funds”
(brings a check) to the closing, where the house is actually sold and the
title changes over to the new owner(s).
alt-A mortgage (loan) A nonconforming mortgage where the borrower has a higher than subprime credit score. Alt-A is short for alternative A.Typically, these loans may not be immediately eligible for purchase
by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac because they have underwriting anomalies that might include higher than normal debt-to-income ratios, or
irregular income. However, Fannie and Freddie have bought billions of
dollars’ worth of bonds backed by some alt-A loans.
asset-backed security (ABS) A bond backed by subprime, alt-A,
or other types of nonconforming loans. The term ABS is used to distinguish these securities from bonds backed by Fannie Mae/Freddie
Mac quality loans.
automated valuation model (AVM) An electronic appraisal based
on property information gathered on the ground in a neighborhood
and then disseminated over the Internet.
collateralized debt obligation (CDO) A bond created from
tranches of other bonds. A tranche represents cash flow from a pool of
different mortgages. In an attempt to diversify risk, a CDO might contain
many different tranches from different asset-backed securities. (CDOs not
only buy tranches of other securities, but they issue their own tranches,
layering and complicating the risk inherent in the security.)
collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO) A type of mortgagebacked security (MBS) where the cash flows from the underlying loans
are paid into a trust that guarantees payments to the end investor. CMOs
consist of various tranches that have different cash flows and maturities.
correspondent channel (lender) Under a correspondent loan transaction, a mortgage company purchases an already originated loan from
another lender. Usually, the purchase happens right away or shortly after
the loan is funded in the primary market.
credit default swap An instrument used to hedge against losses, or
to speculate on the value of bonds (mortgages or otherwise). Credit
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Glossary
321
default swaps act as an insurance policy of sorts where one party must
pay another one in the event the bonds lose value. The total credit
default bets against a bond can actually outweigh the size of the bond
being bet against.
credit score/FICO score A grade given to a consumer based on
his/her credit history. A credit score involves a statistical analysis of a
borrower’s ability to pay. Credit scores were first developed by the Fair
Isaac Corporation of Minneapolis. (In general, a subprime borrower is
someone whose score is 620 or under. “A” paper borrowers have scores
north of 700. A borrower whose credit is in between those two numbers might be considered an alt-A or some other type of credit.)
early payment default (EPD) A loan that goes delinquent within
60 to 90 days of being originated. Wall Street firms require lenders
(the sellers of the loans) to buy back EPDs or compensate them for the
potential loss.
80/10/10 loan A loan transaction where a borrower buys a home
with a down payment of 10 percent, borrows another 10 percent using
a second lien, and then takes out a first mortgage for 80 percent of the
purchase price.
80/20 loan A loan transaction where the borrower takes out two
mortgages simultaneously: a first lien representing 80 percent of a
home’s purchase price and second lien that serves as a down payment.
By doing so a borrower can avoid paying private mortgage insurance
(PMI), because the first lien represents 80 percent of the loan amount.
(Mortgage insurance is required on Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac–eligible
loans if the down payment is less than 20 percent.)
FHA/VA loan A mortgage insured by one of two government
agencies, either the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or the
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). These loans often are packaged
into bonds issued by the Government National Mortgage Association
(GNMA, Ginnie Mae). The FHA and GNMA programs are administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose
secretary is appointed by the president.
first lien (mortgage) The first deed of trust recorded against a
house. Some consumers have two loans taken out against their house
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(or even three or four). The lien that is recorded first has priority over
all other liens, which means in the event of foreclosure if any money is
recovered on the sale of the house the first lien holder gets paid before
other debtors.
gain-on-sale (GOS) accounting After a company securitizes subprime loans into a bond, accounting rules allow that institution to
book all the future income (based on the bond’s expected cash flows)
immediately. For the lender issuing the bond, the goal is to conservatively estimate what those cash flows might be, taking into account
loan prepayments and delinquencies.
government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) An investment company
chartered by the federal government to buy residential mortgages from
banks, savings and loans (S&Ls), nondepository mortgage bankers, and
others as a way to add liquidity to the market. Fannie Mae and Freddie
Mac are the two largest GSEs serving the residential mortgage market. Even though they have government charters, the federal government does not, as a technical matter, insure their bonds, debt, or stock
(though investors believe that in the event of defaults, the federal government would in fact guarantee payments). Fannie and Freddie also
guarantee the bonds they issue.
home equity loan A second deed of trust (or lien) that is taken
out by a consumer on his/her home. There are two types of seconds: a
closed-end loan for a fixed (set) amount and an open-end loan that has
a cap but can be borrowed against in different increments.
jumbo mortgage A loan whose dollar amount is above the Fannie
Mae/Freddie Mac loan limit, which was $417,000 up until early 2008,
when the ceiling was temporarily increased to $730,000.
league table A ranking of mortgage companies. This can apply to
investment banking firms that securitize loans, lenders, servicers, or
some other type of data point.
loan broker A mortgage professional who offers different loan products to the consumer. The loan or mortgage broker does not use his/her
own money to originate the loan. The money comes from a wholesale
lender (a firm like Wells Fargo, Countrywide, etc.). The broker receives
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Glossary
323
a fee from the wholesale lender once the transaction closes. The wholesale lender funds and then owns the loan.
loan buyback agreement A contractual obligation between the
originator of a loan (the lender) and the investor that buys the mortgage in the secondary market whereby the lender agrees to repurchase
the note if it goes bad. The buyback period usually covers loans that go
delinquent within 60 to 90 days of being originated. Some buyback
clauses might cover 30-day delinquencies.
loan officer (LO) A professional who sells and facilitates mortgages
to a consumer. A loan officer usually works for a retail lender, though
sometimes loan brokers or account executives are referred to as loan
officers.
loan production (loan funding) Activity that entails the origination of a mortgage to a consumer. The phrases loan production, loan funding, and loan origination are synonymous.
loan-to-value (LTV) ratio When a mortgage is originated, the
LTV is a calculation that shows how much cash or equity the home
buyer is putting into the house. If a homeowner makes a $10,000 down
payment on a $100,000 house and takes out a mortgage of $90,000,
the LTV would be 90 percent.
loan trader A professional who buys and sells (trades) loans for a living. The loans are sold to the trader by a mortgage lending company
such as a bank, S&L, or nonbank lender. A loan trader might work at a
Wall Street firm or a large lender like Wells Fargo.
mortgage-backed security (MBS) A bond backed (collateralized)
by residential loans.The term MBS usually refers to “A” paper bonds that
are guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, but not always. MBSs can
range in size from several hundred million dollars into the billions.
mortgage banker A company that originates loans to borrowers
using its own money. This might be a bank, savings and loan, credit
union, or nonbank lender. The nonbank lender would need to borrow
from a warehouse provider to obtain the money to make mortgages.
mortgage broker See loan broker.
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mortgage conduit A legal structure (legal company) through which
a Wall Street firm or mortgage banker buys already funded mortgages
from another firm. Conduits are registered with the Securities and
Exchange Commission to facilitate bond offerings.
mortgage insurance A policy issued by one of the nation’s seven
mortgage insurance firms that generally covers up to 20 percent of a
lender’s loss on a delinquent loan. (Not all types of loans are eligible for
mortgage insurance.)
nonbank lender (or nondepository) A mortgage lender that
finances its residential originations by borrowing money from a Wall
Street firm or commercial bank. Nonbanks do not offer deposit accounts
to the public and are not regulated by a federal bank or S&L regulator.
payment option ARM (POA) An adjustable-rate mortgage loan
where the consumer is offered four different payment plans each month,
including a negative amortization choice where a low monthly payment
(if this option is used) will actually increase the debt owed to the holder
of the loan.
primary market A term used to describe the actual origination of
a loan, where the loan process begins. After a loan is originated and
funded, it might be sold. When it is sold, that is considered a secondary
market transaction.
real estate investment trust (REIT) An ownership structure
where a company pays out 90 percent of its earnings from real estate
in the form of dividends to its shareholders. REITs were created to
lessen the federal corporate tax rate a company must pay.
retail origination A mortgage made directly from a lending institution to a consumer with no intermediary (broker) being involved in
the transaction. A retail origination can be done through a branch or
over the Internet or through some other direct-to-consumer channel.
secondary market After a loan has been originated to a consumer
(in the primary market), it may then be sold to another company; this
is considered a secondary market transaction. A loan, like a bond, can
change hands more than once.
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Glossary
325
second lien (second mortgage) This often is a home equity loan
that is taken out after a first mortgage has already been recorded. On a
new home purchase, sometimes both a first and second mortgage (lien)
are recorded at the same time, but the first always has priority (must be
paid off first).
securitize To issue a bond backed by a pool (group) of mortgages.
servicing Entails the monthly processing of a loan, including collecting the payment from the consumer and passing on the principal, interest, taxes, and other charges to the proper parties. For doing this each
month the company (the servicer) receives a fee. Servicing is a separate
business from lending, although the two businesses are related.
stated-income loan (liar loan) A mortgage where the consumer
states his/her income without the lender asking for documentation of
the salary stated. The lender accepts the income stated as is if the borrower has a FICO score north of 700, which is considered “A” paper
or prime quality. There are variations on this loan, including “low-doc”
(maybe a bank statement with no W-2) and “no-doc” (no income or
asset documentation or verification).
structured investment vehicle (SIV) An off-balance-sheet investment in subprime bonds or related assets. Typically, a bank sets up an
SIV, finds investors, lends money to them, and then manages the investment. A bank may be an investor in its own SIV. Investors in SIVs generally use short-term loans (commercial paper) to buy into long-term
assets (bonds backed by subprime mortgages/ABSs). Borrowing shortterm to invest long-term can be a dangerous financial wager if interest
rates move rapidly up or down.
subprime mortgage (loan) A loan originated by a lender that is
A– to D in quality. Consumers who have the best credit ratings with
the highest FICO scores are considered “A” credit quality. Subprime
borrowers usually have several blemishes on their credit histories,
including missed payments on mortgages and other types of installment
debt such as credit cards.
warehouse line of credit A loan extended from a large bank or
Wall Street firm to a nonbank, which uses that money (line of credit)
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to originate mortgages directly to the public or through loan brokers.
Nonbank mortgage lenders use warehouse lines because, unlike
government-insured depositories (banks, S&Ls, credit unions), they do
not have any other source of funds. (S&Ls and banks use the deposits
they hold to originate loans.)
wholesale lender A mortgage company that uses loan brokers to
find customers for it. A wholesaler does not employ loan brokers but
instead pays the broker a fee once the mortgage actually closes. The
wholesaler supplies a check at the closing table to fund the mortgage
being made to the consumer.
yield spread premium (YSP) This represents a fee payment from
the wholesale lender to its loan broker for bringing in a mortgage at an
interest rate higher than prevailing rates. It is a reward for the higheryielding loan. The YSP must be disclosed on the loan closing documents. Consumers might accept a higher rate on their loan because the
points being charged are lower. However, they also might be unaware
that they are not getting the best possible interest rate.
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About the Authors
Paul Muolo is co-author of Inside Job: The Looting of America’s Savings
and Loans, a New York Times best seller. He also is executive editor of
National Mortgage News, the leading independent trade publication/web
site for the residential finance industry. Over the years his articles have
appeared in Barron’s, the Sunday New York Times, the Washington Post,
EuroMoney, Playboy, and other publications. He has appeared as a guest
on mortgage, real estate, and banking issues on ABC, CNN, CNBC,
and Fox Business Network. Inside Job won several journalism awards,
including the Investigative Reporters and Editors best book of the year
and the Adult Editors Book Award. It was nominated for a Pulitzer
Prize. Muolo lives in Maryland with his wife and two daughters.
Mathew Padilla is a business reporter for the Orange County Register,
which reaches close to 300,000 homes. He led the paper’s breaking coverage of several Orange County–based subprime lenders that
eventually failed. His work, and that of two colleagues, was selected by
the Register’s editors as a submission for the Pulitzer Prize. His work
327
babout.indd 327
6/3/08 8:57:19 PM
328
about th e auth or s
has been recognized by the Society of American Business Editors and
Writers. He hosts the Mortgage Insider blog (www.ocregister.com/
mortgage), which has been featured on CNBC, MarketWatch, and
Editor & Publisher. Padilla also is a regular business news commentator
on KOCE and KDOC television. He lives in Southern California with
his wife and daughter.
babout.indd 328
6/3/08 8:57:19 PM
Index
Aames Financial, 37–40, 43, 141
ABSs, see Asset-backed securities
Acoustic Home Loans, 241
Adjustable rate mortgages, see ARMs
Aegis Mortgage, 142, 143–144, 145,
181–182, 229
Akre, Chuck, 136
Aldridge, Renu, 243
“Alt-A” lending, 15, 142, 181
Ambac Financial Group, 271, 282
American International Group, 118
Ameriquest Capital Corp. (ACC), 90, 93,
97, 98, 99, 302
Ameriquest Mortgage:
branding of, 93–94
Cole and, 79
damages paid by, 96–97, 279–280
FBR and, 95–96, 144–145
Lee and, 98–99
loan officers of, 82–83, 84–85, 87–89
Mozilo and, 74
New Century and, 169, 170
origins of, 78
predatory lending and, 143, 290
retail branches of, 97–98
subprime market and, 86–87, 92–93,
94–97
Amlung, Bern, 199
Amresco Inc., 64
Andrews, Lisa, 93
Andrews, Wright, 92
“A” paper mortgages, 48, 139
Aramburu, Soc, 182
Argent Mortgage, 71, 74, 90–91, 93–94,
97–99, 144, 278–279
ARMs (adjustable rate mortgages), 124,
181, 215, 263–270, 288, 300
Arnall, Claude, 90–91
Arnall, Dawn, 90, 91, 97
Arnall, Roland, 73–81, 83–84, 91, 96–99,
101, 302, 308. See also Ameriquest
Mortgage; Argent Mortgage
Arnall, Sally, 80
Ashmore, Bill, 15–16, 65
Asset-backed securities (ABSs), 41, 186,
188, 197, 219–222
Associates First Capital Corp., 35, 46,
85, 223
329
bindex.indd 329
6/3/08 8:58:40 PM
330
Aurora Loan Services, 191, 192
Automated valuation models, 86
Bair, Sheila, 294
Balboa Casualty & Life, 118
Baldwin, Fred, 24, 193
Bank of America, 20–21, 33, 166, 251,
258, 262, 267–270, 301
Bank United, 114, 205, 206–207, 212
Barclays Bank, 242
Bartiromo, Maria, 14, 56, 257, 261
Bartlett, Kevin, 121
Basis Yield Alpha Fund, 306
Bass, Adam, 89, 90, 92, 97, 302
Bayer, Betsy, 19, 122–125, 254, 255, 258
Bear Stearns:
Cioffi and, 239–246
Clayton Holdings and, 234
EMC Mortgage and, 237–239
First Plus and, 41
“fixed income” department of, 115
FTEs and, 229–230
hedge funds of, 6–7, 10–11, 240–242,
244–245, 246
HomeBanc and, 133
JPMorgan Chase and, 273–274
margin calls on, 274–275
New Century and, 164, 176–177
protests against, 287
reputation of, 229
residential loan unit of, 191–192
rumors about, 270, 273
Spector and, 234–237
stock price of, 273
subprime market and, 26, 42–43, 201
warehouse credit of, 185, 236
Beneficial Finance, 26–34, 36, 46
Bentley, John, 154, 155, 157
Berkshire Hathaway, 118–119
Bernanke, Ben, 271, 274, 275
Berson, David, 215
Bier, Thomas, 278
Billings, Eric, 130–135, 140–145,
147–148, 163. See also Friedman
Billings Ramsey
bindex.indd 330
index
Black Rock Financial, 275
Blue-sky laws, 208
Blum, Michael, 189, 193, 195
The Bohan Group, 181, 183, 197, 230,
231, 233, 284
Bond insurance companies, 224, 271,
282, 287
Bond rating agencies, see Rating agencies
Bond sale commissions, 7
Bowcott, Greg, 61
“B” pieces of ABSs, 219–222
Brendsel, Leland, 147
Brokered deposits, 55
Broker movement, 59–66
Bruce, Kenneth, 16–18, 19, 199, 251,
252–253
Buckley, Evan, 64
Buffett, Warren, 118–119
Burkholder, Barry, 211–212
Burnett, Erin, 19
Burrell, William, 241
Bush, George W., 18, 85, 91
Butera, James, 93
Campbell, Bill, 212
Campillo, Carlos, 88–89
Cason, Jim, 190, 200
Cayne, James, 229, 236, 245, 246, 275
CDO, see Collateralized debt obligation
Cerberus Capital, 142, 143–144
Chamberlain, Charles, 227–228, 229,
230–234, 247, 284, 298
Chase Manhattan Bank, 33
Chu, Sherman, 154
Cioffi, Ralph, 7, 229, 239–246
Citigroup, 7, 20, 99–100, 176–177, 202,
220, 222–223, 285–286
Cityscape Financial, 43, 45, 46
Cityscape Mortgage, 81
CIVC Partners, 186, 193
Clayton Holdings, 181, 183, 197, 228,
230–234, 238, 283–284, 293,
298–299
Cleveland, Ohio, 277–279, 280
Clinton, Bill, 35
6/3/08 8:58:40 PM
Index
CMO, see Collateralized mortgage
obligation
CNBC, 56. See also Bartiromo, Maria
Coalition for Fair and Affordable
Lending, 92–93
Cole, Craig, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 82, 84, 90
Cole, Robert, 153–155, 157–158, 163,
166, 168–169, 172, 176
Coleman, Norm, 96
Collateralized debt obligation (CDO),
6–7, 185, 197, 202, 217, 219–224,
306–308
Collateralized mortgage obligation
(CMO), 57
Collins, Brian, 97
Collins, Jeff, 169
Commaroto, Michael, 188, 199
Commercial Credit, 223
Commercial real estate, 137–138
Community Reinvestment Act loans,
115–116
Compensating factors, 231
Compliance departments, 122
CompuDyne Corporation, 145
Consumer finance companies, 35–36, 37.
See also Beneficial Finance
ContiMortgage, 43, 46
Corbet, Kathleen, 282
Cornerstone Equity Partners, 154–155
Countrywide Financial Corp.:
Bank of America and, 20–21, 301
Bruce and, 16–18, 19
compliance department of, 122–125
delinquencies and, 201, 203,
260–261, 267
earnings call of, 1–2, 5, 8–10, 258–260
Fannie Mae and, 111, 112–114
First Plus and, 45
fourth quarter earnings of, 269
growth of, 64–65, 114, 121–122
history of, 32–33, 108–109
HomeBanc Mortgage and, 12–13
idea of selling, 118–120
internal PR of, 256–258
investment into, 251
bindex.indd 331
331
jumbo and CRA loans and, 115–116
layoffs at, 255
life insurance and, 118–119
loan brokers and, 46
loan officers, recruiting of, 13
loan products of, 48, 49, 82
McMahon on, 103, 109, 252–253
Merrill Lynch and, 187, 252–253
minority loans and, 289
Pasadena and, 14
POAs and, 263–270
press coverage of, 253–254
run on banks of, 14–16
as servicer, 253, 259
S&L failure and, 57–59
stock price of, 121, 203, 267–268
subprime market and, 7–8, 117,
120–121, 123–124, 144, 254
wholesale division of, 59, 60–61
See also Mozilo, Angelo
Countrywide Securities Corp., 189
Cramer, Jim, 18–19, 249, 252
Credit crisis, worldwide, 306–308
Credit default swaps, 6
Credit rating agencies, see Rating
agencies
Credit Suisse, 7, 26, 166
Crutchfield, Ed, 69
Cugno, Peter Samuel, 26–32, 36, 59,
117, 216
Cuomo, Andrew, 298–300
Curley, Bill, 143
Curry, Frank, 101, 241
Dall, Bob, 208
Dallas, Bill, 23–24, 185–186, 188, 189, 302.
See also Ownit Mortgage Solutions
Davies, Craig, 120
Davies, George, 189, 190
Davis, Jerry, 264
Davis, Tom, 273
Debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, 196
Derivatives, 6–7
Deutsche Bank, 26, 166, 198–199,
223, 224
6/3/08 8:58:40 PM
332
DiCifuentes, Arturo, 246, 307
Dickenson, Bruce, 195, 196, 200, 224
Dime Savings, 137, 138
Dimon, Jamie, 19–20, 273, 275
Dinovitz,Yankee, 77
Dodge, Patti, 172, 173
Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, 64
Drexel Burnham Lambert, 223
Dubrish, Bob, 101, 152
Due diligence firms, 228–229. See also
Underwriting outsourcing firms
Duffy, Dave, 203
Dunne, Jimmy, 17, 251
Eckert, Richard, 175
Einhorn, David, 164–165, 176–177
Elmore, Kevin, 89
EMC Mortgage, 191–192, 237–239
Encore Credit, 146, 243–244, 247, 274
Escrow funds, 108
Everquest Financial, 243, 246
Exceptions on loan pools, 283–284, 298
Fan, Henry, 142
Fannie Mae, see Government-sponsored
enterprises
Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC),
29, 51, 137, 214, 289–290, 292–294
Federal Home Loan Bank system, 76,
265
Federal regulators, 289–292, 295. See also
Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.;
Office of Thrift Supervision
Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 44
Federal Reserve (The Fed), 271, 274,
287, 290–292
Federal Savings and Loan Insurance
Corp. (FSLIC), 51, 55, 137
Feinberg, Steven, 143–144, 145
FHA/VA mortgages, 33, 48, 49–50, 109
FICO score, 41, 86
Fieldstone Investment Corp., 141
Fillipps, Frank, 298
Financial Guaranty Insurance Co.,
271, 282
bindex.indd 332
index
Financial Institutions Reform Recovery
and Enforcement Act, 137
Financial Services Funding Group, 26
Fink, Larry, 56–57, 275
First Boston, 56–57
First Franklin Financial Corp., 23–26,
185–186, 193, 195–196, 198–200,
202, 203, 274
First Interstate Bank, 36, 39, 152
First Plus Financial, 40–46, 81, 238–239
First Union Bank, 69
Fitzpatrick, Tim, 188
Flanagan, Pat, 83
Flood, Patrick, 11–12, 127–133, 140, 187
FM Watch, 218
Fontenot, Ronald, 168
Ford, Gerald, 142
Fordham, Kurt, 69, 70
Forster, Fredric, 161
Fort,Vincent, 92
Forward commitment, 180
Franklin Bank, 213–214
Fraud, 95, 197, 233
Freddie Mac, see Government-sponsored
enterprises
Fremont General, 292, 294
French, Jack, 151–153
Friedman, Manny, 132, 134–136, 138,
143, 145. See also Friedman Billings
Ramsey
Friedman Billings Ramsey (FBR), 96,
130–142, 144–148, 201
Fulmer, John, 111
Gain-on-sale accounting, 184–185
Galvin, Andrew, 296
Gamboa, John, 288
Garcia, Carlos, 121
Garn, Jake, 49, 52
Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions
Act, 48–49, 52–53
Gast, Zach, 174
Genworth Financial, 218
Georgia, 128
Georgia Fair Lending Act, 91–92
6/3/08 8:58:41 PM
Index
Gibraltar Savings, 142
Glendale Federal, 136, 138
Gnaizda, Robert, 264, 288, 289
Goldhaber, Mark, 218, 282–283
Goldome Bank, 116
Goode, Chris, 123
Gordy, Berry, 38
Gotschall, Ed, 152, 153, 160, 163, 166,
168–169, 172, 175–176
Government-sponsored enterprises
(GSEs):
accounting scandals at, 146–147, 185
conventional loans and, 48, 49–50,
109–110
description of, 7, 33
DTI for, 196
industry trade groups and, 50
Johnson and, 110–114
loan limits of, 262
Ranieri and, 213
underwriting standards of, 216–217
Gray, Edwin, 54, 55, 291
Greenberg, Alan, 235
Greenlining Institute, 288–289
Greenspan, Alan, 288–289, 291
Greenwich Capital, 81
Groesbeck, John, 188
Guardian Savings and Loan, 61–63,
77, 152
Gutfreund, John, 210
Guy, Barney, 142, 149
Haldin, Bill, 200, 201
Hamilton, Alexander “Zan,” 193
Hanley, Steve, 260
Harrison, Lee Hecht, 153
Hattemer, Frank, 114, 184, 205–206,
211, 212
Hedge funds, 43, 44, 240, 274–275
Holbrooke, Richard, 110
Holder, Steven, 101, 144, 146, 153–158,
162, 243
HomeBanc Mortgage, 11–12, 128–133,
141, 187
Home equity lending, 34, 35
bindex.indd 333
333
Home Federal Savings, 127–128
Home ownership, as dream, 50
HomeSide Lending, 11
Hope Now, 265–266
Household Finance, 35, 46, 66, 85
Housing prices, 252, 286, 300–301
Howard, Bob, 201
HSBC, 260, 285–286
Hughes, Tim, 84
Hultquist, Steve, 181
Impac Mortgage, 13, 15
Industry trade groups, 50–51, 92–93
IndyMac, 123
Ingram, Kevin, 237
Interest only loans, 133
Interest rates, 180, 184, 194, 287
Investigations, launch of, 297–298
IPO market for subprime lenders,
143, 145
Israel, Jim, 14–15
It’s a Wonderful Life (film), 51
Jackson, Alphonso, 266
Jackson, Joyce Jenise, 69–70
James, Torrence, 168
Jedinak, Russell and Rebecca, 61–64,
75, 77
Job losses, 286–287
Johnson, James A., 5, 110–114, 250
Johnston, Lemon & Co., 135, 136
JPMorgan Chase, 19–20, 244–245,
273–274
J.P. Morgan Securities, 131
Judis, Gary, 37–38, 39
Jumbo loans, 115–116
Katz, Edwin, 106, 108
Katz, Steve, 188
Kaufman, Henry, 208
Keating, Charles, 55–56, 291
Kennedy, James, 291–292
Killinger, Kerry, 118, 120
Koch, Mike, 292
Kornsweit, Neil, 64
6/3/08 8:58:41 PM
334
Kovacevich, Richard, 2–3, 118
Kurland, Stanford, 4–5, 121
Langs, Kirk, 82, 84, 94
Lawyers Mortgage and Title, 105, 106
League table, 186
Lederman, Jess, 229, 235
Lee, Matthew, 99
Lee, Wayne A., 78, 89, 90, 93, 98–99, 279
Lehman Brothers, 7, 26, 42–43, 115,
143–144, 185, 186, 191, 201
Levine, Howard, 5, 250
Levitt, Michael J., 243
Lewis, Ken, 20, 21, 251, 267, 269–270
Lewis, Michael, 211, 305, 307
Liar loans, see Stated-income mortgages
Liar’s Poker (Lewis), 211, 307
Lincoln Savings, 55, 291
Lippmann, Greg, 199, 224, 242
Loan brokerage firms, 66–67
Loan brokers, 46, 59–66, 67–71, 83, 124,
181–182, 294, 295
Loan delinquencies, 6, 201, 203, 252,
260–261, 267, 286, 300
Loan officers, 57–59, 82–85, 87–88, 95,
97, 121, 130
Loan pools, see Mortgage pools
Loeb, David, 32, 33, 47–48, 57, 58–59,
106, 107, 108
Loewenthal, Marc, 168
Loiacono, Eileen, 197, 233
Long Beach Financial Corp., 79–81, 138
Long Beach Mortgage, 73–74, 76–80, 85
Long Beach Savings, 75–76
Long-Term Capital Management, 44
Lopez, Jude, 61, 62
Malzo, Ray, 4
Mangione, Paul, 188
Mangual, Higinio, 90
Margin calls, 200, 242–243, 274–275
Maric, Ivan, 278
Marin, Richard, 244
Market share, gaining, 8
Marks, Bruce, 287
bindex.indd 334
index
Martin, Paul, 179
Maxwell, David O., 111
Mayesh, Jack, 78, 80–81, 101, 138–139
MBIA, Inc., 271, 282
MBSs, see Mortgage-backed securities
McCain, John, 55
McMahon, Mike:
Aames Financial and, 38–39
Bruce and, 17
on Buffett, 119
career of, 36–37
on Countrywide, 103, 109, 252–253
GSEs and, 146, 147
on loan brokers, 46
on Mozilo, 119, 120
New Century and, 162–163
on securitization of mortgages, 44
Meriwether, John, 44, 45
Merrill Lynch:
CDOs and, 220
Countrywide and, 187, 252–253
Cugno and, 26
as deposit broker, 54–55
First Franklin and, 24–26
“fixed income” department of, 115
margin calls of, 242–243
New Century and, 176, 177, 194
O’Neal and, 187–188
subprime market and, 7, 188, 189–191,
194–203
warehouse credit of, 190, 220
Merrill Lynch Mortgage Capital,
192–193
Metropolitan Money Store (MMS),
69–70, 71
MILA Inc., 142
Milken, Michael, 219, 223
Miller, Matt, 188
Miller, Paul, 5, 9
Miller, Tom, 279–280
The Money Store, 34–35, 43, 44, 69, 81
Moody’s, 280–281, 286
Mora, Vince, 194
Morgan Stanley, 201
Morgenson, Gretchen, 253
6/3/08 8:58:41 PM
Index
Morrice, Brad, 150–153, 155, 162, 166,
168–173, 175, 176–177
Mortgage-backed securities (MBSs),
56–57, 92, 115, 207–209, 216,
235–236
Mortgage Bankers Association, 50, 66,
114
MortgageIT, 199
The Mortgage Lender Implode-OMeter, 258
Mortgage lenders, 2, 6, 12, 49, 300–301.
See also Nonbank mortgage lenders
Mortgage pools, 190, 232, 283–284, 298
Mortgage trading, 179–180, 183, 188,
189–190, 209–210
Mozilo, Angelo:
Ameriquest and, 95
on Arnall, 73, 74, 87
awards for, 249–250
on Billings, 144–145
Buffett and, 119
career of, 2, 3, 106–108, 302
on delinquencies, 300
family of, 4, 105–106
as financial news junkie, 56
on First Franklin, 24
friends of, 2–3
HomeSide Lending and, 11
Johnson and, 112–113
Kurland and, 4–5
loan brokers and, 67
on loan business, 81–82
loan officers and, 58–59
Loeb and, 47–48, 57
on Merrill Lynch, 192, 199
minority loans and, 289
Mortgage Bankers Association
and, 114
on New Century, 150
O’Neal and, 25, 187, 189, 193–195,
202–203
physical description of, 103–104
press and, 253–254, 255–256, 261–263
on price war, 169
Ranieri and, 220–221
bindex.indd 335
335
on REITs, 127, 134
reputation of, 2, 3–4, 9, 13–14,
302–303
retirement of, 269
sales of shares by, 10
SEC and, 256–257, 262–263
on subprime market, 199, 255–256
Wall Street, opinion of, 3
at Waxman hearing, 271–272
working phones, 19, 20
as youth, 104–105
See also Countrywide Financial Corp.
Muolo, Paul, 42, 97, 257, 262
National Association of Home Builders,
50, 104
National Association of Mortgage
Brokers, 50
National Association of Realtors, 50
National Bank of Australia, 11
National City Corp., 23, 24, 25, 195
National Home Equity Mortgage
Association, 50, 92
National Housing Conference, 249
National Mortgage News, 291–292
Negative amortization, 217, 263, 264
Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of
America, 287
New Century Financial Corp.:
accounting errors of, 174–176
Ameriquest and, 169, 170
Bear Stearns and, 164, 176–177
FastQual system of, 159–161
FBR and, 141
growth of, 149–150, 166–167
Holder and, 101, 156–157
IPO of, 158
marketing of, 158–159
Merrill Lynch and, 176, 177, 194
Morrice and, 150–151, 168–169
mortgage brokers and, 167–168
origins of, 153–155
as REIT, 149, 163–165, 172–173
reserves of, 173–174
retail part of, 170
6/3/08 8:58:41 PM
336
New Century Financial Corp. (Continued)
road show of, 160–161
rule-bending at, 171–172
Southern California and, 102
subprime market and, 144
Nierenberg, Mike, 188, 230
Nocella, Tony, 206–207
Nolan, Pat, 53
Nolan Act, 53–54, 75
Nonbank mortgage lenders, 140–141,
143, 145
Nonconventional loans, originating,
115–116
Nontraditional mortgages (NTMs),
214, 215
Northern Rock, 252
Norton, Eleanor Holmes, 272–273
Norwest Mortgage, 42, 112
Oceanmark Federal Savings, 299–300
Office of Thrift Supervision, 76, 214,
215, 266, 289–290
O’Grady, John, 191
Olson, David, 66
Olympus Mortgage, 90
144-A filing, 141, 219
O’Neal, Stanley, 17, 23, 25, 187, 189,
193–194, 202–203, 272
Option One Mortgage Corp., 101,
151–153
Opus Capital, 181, 183, 230
Orlando, Chris, 89, 96, 97, 278
Ostendorf, George, 25
Outsourcing firms, see Underwriting
outsourcing firms
Ownit Mortgage Solutions, 185–186,
190, 192–193, 195–199, 215
Padilla, Mathew, 169, 296
Pass-through bonds, 208
Paulson, Henry, 6, 18, 252, 266, 295–296,
306
Payment option ARMs (adjustable-rate
mortgages, POAs), 124, 181,
263–270, 300
bindex.indd 336
index
PCI Group, 230
Pephens, Laura, 64
Perl, Dan, 65, 67–68, 77, 100, 286–287
Perlowitz, Jeff, 188
Phillips, Dan, 40–42, 45, 234, 236–237,
239
Plaza Home Mortgage, 151, 152–153
POAs, see Payment option ARMs
Posner, Ken, 5
Powell, Donald, 293–294
Pratt, Richard, 54, 301
Predatory lending, 87, 143, 289–291
Price war, 169, 170
Primary market, 108
Prince, Charles, 99, 222, 266, 272
Private label securities, 281
Proctor, Melvin and Nadine, 69–70, 71
Prudential Securities, 39
Public Strategies, 110
Pugh, Jarrett, 88
Pusateri, Joanmarie, 242
Quality Mortgage, 63–64
Quant (quantitative analyst), 182–183
Race, Kevin, 12
Raice, Ed, 191, 238, 244
Raines, Franklin, 113, 147
Ramsey, Chuck, 235
Ramsey, Russell, 135, 139. See also
Friedman Billings Ramsey
Ranieri, Lewis, 40, 45, 56, 105, 152,
205–221, 225, 250, 277, 281, 307
Rank, Pat, 101, 152
Rating agencies, 217, 224, 280–281,
282–285, 295–296
RBC Mortgage, 170
Reagan, Ronald, 48–49, 52
Real estate investment trust (REIT),
130–133, 137–141, 146, 147, 149,
162–165, 172–173
Recessions, 85–86
Reckard, Scott, 15–16
Regan, Donald, 55
Reighard, Ike, 12, 129
6/3/08 8:58:42 PM
Index
Residential Mortgage Assistance
Enterprise, 101, 200
Residential mortgage market, 81–82, 188,
191–192, 207–208, 281
Responsible Mortgage Lending
Coalition, 92–93
Rizzuto, Phil, 34–35
Rokakis, Jim, 277–278, 279, 280–281
Rolling, 228, 231–232
Roth, Jonas, 115–117, 122
Rouch, Terry, 94, 308
Royal Bank of Scotland, 186
Russian debt crisis, 42, 44, 158, 184
Sachs, Michael, 154
Salomon Brothers, 56, 152, 155, 207–209,
210–211
Sambol, David, 16, 115–116, 121, 259,
301
Sandler O’Neill, 17, 251. See also
McMahon, Mike
Savings and loan crisis, 48–49, 51–56,
114–115, 136, 206, 237, 238
Saxon Mortgage, 146, 274
Schroeder, Greg, 158–160
Schumer, Charles, 265
Schwartz, Alan, 247, 273, 275
Secondary market, 108, 180
Second mortgages, 30, 31, 34
Securities and Exchange Commission
(SEC), 217–218, 256–257, 263, 295
Securitization of mortgages, 39–40, 44,
100–101, 115
Seidman, William, 293–294
Seraki, Eric, 121
Short selling, 136
Sichelman, Lew, 18, 302
Silverstein, Baron, 188
Simmons, John, 132
Simon, Rick, 14, 253
SIV (structured investment vehicle), 222,
285–286
Slavic Village, 277–279, 280
Southern California, 100, 102, 136, 223,
231–232, 296–297
bindex.indd 337
337
Spagna, Neil, 188, 201, 234, 238
Spector, Warren, 10–11, 41–42, 45, 229,
234–237, 239, 241, 242, 245–246
Standard & Poor’s (S&P), 280, 282, 283,
285
Stanfield, Kelly, 70–71
Stated-income mortgages, 7, 86, 87,
124–125, 197, 217, 227–228
Steel, Robert, 266
Sterling, Brian, 251
St Germain, Fernand, 49, 52
Stockman, David, 110
Strachan, Stan, 209
Structured investment vehicle (SIV), 222,
285–286
Subordinated bonds, 219
Subprime, as term, 305–306
Subprime market:
Ameriquest/Argent and, 144
crises in, 43–45, 139, 286
delinquencies in, 201–202
end of, 274
government and, 49–50
history of, 6, 181, 238–239, 266
interest rates and, 180, 184
investors in, 6–7
life span of loans in, 45–46
loan brokers and, 60
terminology of, 34
Wall Street and, 184–185, 201,
216–217, 240
See also “Alt-A” lending
Sunset Direct, 201
Tachine, Rich, 62, 63
Tannin, Matthew, 242
Tax Reform Act, 36
Taylor, Lisa, 95
Taylor, Mark, 92
Tennenholtz, Barry, 41
Thompson, Rick, 142, 143
Tillman,Vickie, 283
Todd, Deartra, 292
Tonkel, Rock, 133, 138, 139, 142, 144
Tranches, 221–222
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338
Travelers Group, 222–223
Trillium Mortgage, 193
Trustee sales, 296–297
Truth in Lending Act, 290–291
Turtletaub, Alan, 34, 35
Turtletaub, Marc, 35
Underwriting outsourcing firms, 183, 197,
200–201, 228–229, 230–231, 282
United Bank of Switzerland, 260, 308
United Mortgage, 107–108
Upselling, 97
U.S. Bancorp, 158
Usury laws, 36
Verschleiser, Jeff, 188, 230
Visconti, Bill, 143
Wall Street:
Aegis and, 182
blame for, 295–296
MBSs and, 115
New Century and, 166–167
nonbanks and, 141
outsourcing firms and, 183, 228–229
quants and, 182–183
residential mortgage industry and, 281
salespeople and, 181–182
Schumer and, 265
bindex.indd 338
index
stocks, bonds, and, 186–187
subprime market and, 26–27, 184–185,
201, 216–217, 240
warehouse credit of, 171, 172, 183–184,
185, 190, 236
write-downs by, 260–261, 268,
287, 297
See also specific corporations
Walsh, Tim, 101
Warehouse lines of credit, 171, 172,
183–184, 185, 190, 236
Warren, Elizabeth, 68
Washington, Larry, 192
Washington Mutual (WaMu), 80–81, 88,
118, 119–120, 191, 207, 212, 229
Waters, Maxine, 110
Waxman, Henry, hearing, 270, 271–273
Weaver, Karen, 223, 224
Weill, Sandy, 222
Wells Fargo, 118, 119
Whalen, Matt, 194
White, Dan, 160, 161
Wilkes, Richard, 177, 183, 229–230, 282,
284, 287
Yield spread premiums, 68–69
Zandi, Mark, 286, 297
Zennedjian, Chris, 88
6/3/08 8:58:42 PM
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