Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse


Washington Mutual Bank, known also as WaMu, rose out the ashes of the great Seattle fire to make its first home loan in 1890. By 2004, WaMu had become one of the nation's largest financial institutions and a leading mortgage lender. Its demise just four years later provides a case history that traces not only the rise of high risk lending in the mortgage field, but also how those high risk mortgages led to the failure of a leading bank and contributed to the financial crisis of 2008.

For many years, WaMu was a mid-sized thrift, specializing in home mortgages. In the 1990s, WaMu initiated a period of growth and acquisition, expanding until it became the nation's largest thrift and sixth largest bank, with $300 billion in assets, $188 billion in deposits, 2,300 branches in 15 states, and over 43,000 employees. In 2003, its longtime CEO, Kerry Killinger, said he wanted to do for the lending industry what Wal-Mart and others did for their industries, by catering to middle and lower income Americans and helping the less well off buy homes. |105| Soon after, WaMu embarked on a strategy of high risk lending. By 2006, its high risk loans began incurring record rates of delinquency and default, and its securitizations saw ratings downgrades and losses. In 2007, the bank itself began incurring losses. Its shareholders lost confidence, and depositors began withdrawing funds, eventually causing a liquidity crisis. On September 25, 2008, 119 years to the day of its founding, WaMu was seized by its regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), and sold to JPMorgan Chase for $1.9 billion. Had the sale not gone through, WaMu's failure might have exhausted the $45 billion Deposit Insurance Fund. Washington Mutual is the largest bank failure in U.S. history.

This case study examines how one bank's strategy for growth and profit led to the origination and securitization of hundreds of billions of dollars in poor quality mortgages that undermined the U.S. financial system. WaMu had held itself out as a prudent lender, but in reality, the bank turned increasingly to higher risk loans. Its fixed rate mortgage originations fell from 64% of its loan originations in 2003, to 25% in 2006, while subprime, Option ARM, and home equity originations jumped from 19% of the originations to 55%. Using primarily loans from its subprime lender, Long Beach Mortgage Corporation, WaMu's subprime securitizations grew sixfold, increasing from about $4.5 billion in 2003, to $29 billion in securitizations in 2006. From 2000 to 2007, WaMu and Long Beach together securitized at least $77 billion in subprime loans. WaMu also increased its origination of Option ARMs, its flagship product, which from 2003 to 2007, represented as much as half of all of WaMu's loan originations. In 2006 alone, Washington Mutual originated more than $42.6 billion in Option ARM loans and sold or securitized at least $115 billion, including sales to the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac). In addition, WaMu dramatically increased its origination and securitization of home equity loan products. By 2007, home equity loans made up $63.5 billion or 27% of its home loan portfolio, a 130% increase from 2003.

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

WaMu's combination of high risk loans, shoddy lending practices, and weak oversight produced hundreds of billions of dollars of poor quality loans that incurred early payment defaults, high rates of delinquency, and fraud. Long Beach mortgages experienced some of the highest rates of foreclosure in the industry and their securitizations were among the worst performing. Senior WaMu executives described Long Beach as "terrible" and "a mess," with default rates that were "ugly." WaMu's high risk lending operation was also problem-plagued. WaMu management knew of evidence of deficient lending practices, as seen in internal emails, audit reports, and reviews. Internal reviews of WaMu's loan centers, for example, described "extensive fraud" from employees "willfully" circumventing bank policy. An internal review found controls to stop fraudulent loans from being sold to investors were "ineffective." On at least one occasion, senior managers knowingly sold delinquency-prone loans to investors. Aside from Long Beach, WaMu's President Steve Rotella described WaMu's prime home loan business as the "worst managed business" he had seen in his career.

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

From 2004 to 2008, WaMu originated a huge number of poor quality mortgages, most of which were then resold to investment banks and other investors hungry for mortgage backed securities. For a period of time, demand for these securities was so great that WaMu formed its own securitization arm on Wall Street. Over a period of five years, WaMu and Long Beach churned out a steady stream of high risk, poor quality loans and mortgage backed securities that later defaulted at record rates. Once a prudent regional mortgage lender, Washington Mutual tried—and ultimately failed—to use the profits from poor quality loans as a stepping stone to becoming a major Wall Street player.

Washington Mutual was far from the only lender that sold poor quality mortgages and mortgage backed securities that undermined U.S. financial markets. The Subcommittee investigation indicates that Washington Mutual was emblematic of a host of financial institutions that knowingly originated, sold, and securitized billions of dollars in high risk, poor quality home loans. These lenders were not the victims of the financial crisis; the high risk loans they issued became the fuel that ignited the financial crisis.


105. "Saying Yes, WaMu Built Empire on Shaky Loans," New York Times (12/27/2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/28/business/28wamu.html?_r=1 (quoting Mr. Killinger: "We hope to do to this industry what Wal-Mart did to theirs, Starbucks did to theirs, Costco did to theirs and Lowe's-Home Depot did to their industry. And I think if we've done our job, five years from now you're not going to call us a bank."). [Back]

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H. Financial Crisis Timeline A. Subcommittee Investigation and Findings of Fact

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