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


Washington Mutual Bank (WaMu), with more than $300 billion in assets, $188 billion in deposits, over 2,300 branches in 15 states, and 43,000 employees, was by late 2008 the largest thrift under the supervision of the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) and among the eight largest financial institutions insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The bank's collapse in September 2008 came on the heels of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy filing, accelerating the unraveling of the financial markets. WaMu's collapse also marked one of the most spectacular failures of federal bank regulators in recent history.

In 2007, many of WaMu's home loans, especially those with the highest risk profile, began experiencing increased rates of delinquency, default, and loss. After the subprime mortgage backed securities market collapsed in September 2007, Washington Mutual was unable to sell or securitize subprime loans and its loan portfolio began falling in value. By the fourth quarter of 2007, the bank recorded a loss of $1 billion, and then in the first half of 2008, WaMu lost $4.2 billion more. WaMu's stock price plummeted against the backdrop of these losses and a worsening financial crisis elsewhere on Wall Street, which was witnessing the forced sales of Countrywide Financial Corporation and Bear Stearns, the government takeover of IndyMac, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the taxpayer bailout of AIG, and the conversion of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley into bank holding companies. From 2007 to 2008, WaMu's depositors withdrew a total of over $26 billion in deposits from the bank, triggering a liquidity crisis. On September 25, 2008, OTS placed Washington Mutual Bank into receivership, and the FDIC, as receiver, immediately sold it to JPMorgan Chase for $1.9 billion. Had the sale not gone through, Washington Mutual's failure could have exhausted the FDIC's entire $45 billion Deposit Insurance Fund.

OTS records show that, during the five years prior to its collapse, OTS examiners repeatedly identified significant problems with Washington Mutual's lending practices, risk management, and asset quality, and requested corrective action. Year after year, WaMu promised to correct the identified problems, but failed to do so. OTS, in turn, failed to respond with meaningful enforcement action, choosing instead to continue giving the bank inflated ratings for safety and soundness. Until shortly before the thrift's failure in 2008, OTS regularly gave WaMu a CAMELS rating of "2" out of "5," which signaled to the bank and other regulators that WaMu was fundamentally sound.

Federal bank regulators are charged with ensuring that U.S. financial institutions operate in a safe and sound manner. However, in the years leading up to the financial crisis, OTS failed to prevent Washington Mutual's increasing use of high risk lending practices and its origination and sale of tens of billions of dollars in poor quality home loans. The agency's failure to adequately monitor and regulate WaMu's high risk lending stemmed in part from an OTS regulatory culture that viewed its thrifts as "constituents," relied on them to correct the problems identified by OTS with minimal regulatory intervention, and expressed reluctance to interfere with even unsound lending and securitization practices. OTS displayed an unusual amount of deference to WaMu's management, choosing to rely on the bank to police itself. The reasoning appeared to be that if OTS examiners simply identified the problems at the bank, OTS could then rely on WaMu's assurances that problems were corrected, with little need for tough enforcement actions. It was a regulatory approach with disastrous results.

Over the five-year period reviewed by the Subcommittee, OTS examiners identified over 500 serious deficiencies in WaMu operations. Yet OTS did not once, from 2004 to 2008, take a public enforcement action against Washington Mutual, even when the bank failed to correct major problems. Only in late 2008, as the bank incurred mounting losses, did OTS finally take two informal, nonpublic enforcement actions, requiring WaMu to agree to a Board Resolution in March and a Memorandum of Understanding in September, but neither action was sufficient to prevent the bank's failure. OTS officials resisted calls by the FDIC, the bank's backup regulator, for stronger measures and even impeded FDIC oversight efforts at the bank. Hindered by a culture of deference to management, demoralized examiners, and agency infighting, OTS officials allowed the bank's short term profits to excuse its risky practices and failed to evaluate the bank's actions in the context of the U.S. financial system as a whole.

OTS not only failed to prevent Washington Mutual from engaging in unsafe and unsound lending practices, it gave its tacit approval and allowed high risk loans to proliferate. As long as Washington Mutual was able to sell off its risky loans, neither OTS nor the FDIC expressed concerns about the impact of those loans elsewhere. By not sounding the alarm, OTS and the FDIC enabled WaMu to construct a multi-billion-dollar investment portfolio of high risk mortgage assets, and also permitted WaMu to sell hundreds of billions of dollars in high risk, poor quality loans and securities to other financial institutions and investors in the United States and around the world. Similar regulatory failings by OTS, the FDIC, and other agencies involving other lenders repeated these problems on a broad scale. The result was a mortgage market saturated with risky loans, and financial institutions that were supposed to hold predominantly safe investments but instead held portfolios rife with high risk, poor quality mortgages. When those loans began defaulting in record numbers and mortgage related securities plummeted in value, financial institutions around the globe suffered hundreds of billions of dollars in losses, triggering an economic disaster. The regulatory failures that set the stage for these losses were a proximate cause of the financial crisis.

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G. Preventing High Risk Lending A. Subcommittee Investigation and Findings of Fact

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