WASHINGTON — A trio of former Washington Mutual officials and a trove of documents on Tuesday portrayed a pattern of breakneck loan-making and alleged fraud at the biggest U.S. bank ever to fail.
Former CEO Kerry Killinger defended WaMu's actions at a Senate hearing and insisted the government should not have seized it at the height of the financial crisis in September 2008.
Killinger argued that WaMu had adequate capital and shouldn't have been shut down and sold for a "bargain" price of $1.9 billion. The bank "should have been given a chance to work its way through the crisis," he testified at a hearing by a Senate panel.
The 18-month investigation by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee found that WaMu's lending operations were rife with fraud, including fabricated loan documents. It concluded that management failed to stem the deception despite internal probes.
The bank's pay system of rewarding loan officers and sales executives for their volume of loans closed ratcheted up the pressure, the investigators found.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the panel's chairman, has said it will decide after its hearings this week whether to make a formal referral to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. Justice, the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened investigations into Washington Mutual soon after its collapse.
The Senate subcommittee is known for conducting hard-hitting investigations by bipartisan staff and has sometimes made such referrals to federal prosecutors. The former WaMu executives appeared before Congress for the first time since the bank's collapse.
Killinger deflected the criticism and laid blame on the government. He argued that even before the crisis struck with force, the government treated Seattle-based Washington Mutual unfairly. He noted it was excluded from a list of large financial firms whose stock couldn't be sold short under a temporary government ban in July 2008. In short-selling, traders bet a stock price will drop and use borrowed shares to profit from any decline.
"For those that were part of the inner circle and were 'too clubby to fail,' the benefits were obvious," Killinger said. "For those outside of the club, the penalty was severe."
Levin came armed with e-mail correspondence among senior executives at the bank showing anxiety over elevated rates of delinquency and default in the high-risk mortgage loans WaMu had made. The exchanges show the executives wanted to urgently sell the loans packaged as securities to Wall Street, Levin said.
Two former WaMu chief risk officers said they tried to curb risky lending practices by the bank. But they said they met resistance from top management when they brought their concerns to them.
As the housing bust deepened in late 2007 and early 2008, "I was increasingly excluded from senior executive meetings and meetings with financial advisers when the bank's response to the growing crisis was being discussed," Ronald Cathcart, who helped oversee risk until April 2008, testified at the hearing. By January 2008 he was "fully isolated" and was fired by Killinger a few months later, Cathcart said.
The other risk officer, James Vanasek, testified that he tried to limit loans to those who were unlikely to be able to repay and the number of loans made without verifying borrowers' income. But his efforts fell flat "without solid executive management support," Vanasek said.
He said the examiner on the ground at the bank from the U.S. Office of Thrift Supervision, Lawrence Carter, "did an excellent job" of raising issues of credit risk. But, Vanasek added, he was baffled why Carter's superiors at the Treasury Department agency "didn't take a tougher tone with the bank."
"There seemed to be a tolerance there or political influence," he said.
WaMu's release of toxic mortgage securities into the financial bloodstream contributed to the near-collapse of the system in the fall of 2008, Levin and other senators contended. Levin pressed Killinger and the other former executives on when they became aware of loan fraud at the bank and why they failed to act.
"You should have been disturbed," he told Killinger. "Instead you want to wrap it in hypotheticals."
At one point, Killinger did concede some blame. "As CEO, I accept responsibility for our performance and am deeply saddened by what happened."
Fueled by the housing boom, Washington Mutual's sales to investors of subprime mortgage securities leapt from $2.5 billion in 2000 to $29 billion in 2006. The 119-year-old thrift, with $307 billion in assets, was sold for $1.9 billion to JPMorgan Chase & Co. in a deal brokered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Killinger said it was "unfair" that Washington Mutual didn't get the benefits of government actions that helped other financial institutions in the days of the crisis in the fall of 2008. He was referring to steps such as a doubling of the limit on deposit insurance to $250,000 and new federal guarantees for bank debt.
Between 2003 and 2007 under his tenure, WaMu cut in half its staff in the home loans division and sold 30 percent of its portfolio of loans, Killinger testified.
WaMu's pay system rewarded loan officers for the volume of loans they closed on. Extra bonuses even went to loan officers who overcharged borrowers on their loans or levied stiff penalties for prepayment, according to the report of the Senate panel's investigation.
"Washington Mutual engaged in lending practices that created a mortgage time bomb," Levin said. "Because volume and speed were king, loan quality fell by the wayside."
WaMu was one of the biggest makers of so-called "option ARM" mortgages. They allowed borrowers to make payments so low that loan debt actually increased every month.
In some cases, sales associates in WaMu offices in California fabricated loan documents, cutting and pasting false names on borrowers' bank statements, the panel found. The company's own probe in 2005, three years before the bank collapsed, found that two top producing offices – in Downey and Montebello, Calif. – had levels of fraud exceeding 58 percent and 83 percent of the loans. Employees violated the bank's policies on verifying borrowers' qualifications and reviewing loans.
Washington Mutual was criticized over the years by its internal auditors and federal regulators for sloppy lending that resulted in high default rates, according to the report. Violations were so serious that in 2007, Washington Mutual closed its affiliate Long Beach Mortgage Co. as a separate entity and took over its subprime lending operations.