WaMu: Mr. Smith goes to Washington and turns predatory

Remember the iconic Depression-era movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which Jimmy Stewart plays the wholesome young man in Washington out to do good? Well, Mr. Smith could just as easily have been your friendly banker at Washington Mutual. Unfortunately, Mr. Smith lost his way and turned predatory lender – and that’s the subject of the second part of a Seattle Times expose on the rise and fall of WaMu.

I posted yesterday on part one, which you should definitely read to get a sense of how WaMu culture changed. Now comes part two – also a must-read.

The lead-in says it all:

For decades, Washington Mutual lived up to its image as a staid, straight-laced Seattle institution. Its motto: "The Friend of the Family."

By the time WaMu made history last year as the nation’s biggest bank failure, it bore no resemblance to this homey image.

What few people knew was that bank executives crafted a radical new business strategy in 2003 that was intended to boost profits. The new WaMu used huge sales commissions and misleading marketing to hawk risky and overpriced loans to borrowers.

In short, WaMu became one of the nation’s biggest predatory lenders.


Here are a two quotes from the article:

  • WaMu lured borrowers with a very low interest rate of about 1 percent. But this "teaser" rate was good only for one month. After that, the option ARM could have far higher interest rates than conventional 30-year fixed-rate loans. With each minimum payment, unpaid interest piled up. Once the debt grew too large, WaMu canceled the minimum-payment option. You could suddenly get a new bill for two or three times what you had been paying.
  • "I always felt like I worked for a really honest industry that cared for the borrowers they dealt with," she said. The corporate culture changed to: "We just want to do the most we can to make money for the bank."
  • The 1 percent interest rate Houk thought he was getting was only good for the first month. It had reset to 7.4 percent, nearly 3 percentage points above his previous WaMu loan. This was buried in the fine print in a sheaf of legal documents he had signed. "Who in their right mind would give up a 4.6 percent loan?" Houk said. "I felt totally duped."

The overall gist of the article (in conjunction with the previous one) is of a company whose CEO was obsessed with the share price as validation of success.  As a result, the company morphed from an institution worthy of Mr. Smith to just another profit-oriented bank. 

The key changes came in crisis after profits were devastated by the recession of 2001 and the jobless recovery afterwards. WaMu was forced into huge layoffs.

It is often said true character is shown in crisis and at WaMu it would be no different.  Instead of accepting a temporarily lower share price and reduced earnings from its bread and butter mortgage products, WaMu went all-in, wading into sub-prime and option-ARM products which were not its mainstay. That is when the predatory lending began, ultimately setting the firm up for failure.

More here.

WaMu: Hometown bank turned predatory – Seattle Times

  1. Blake says

    Edward – sorry to use this format to reach out to you – but I cannot get your contact form to work (I’ve tried all three browsers).

    1. Edward Harrison says

      I’ve been having some problems with that. Thanks for alerting me. I will see if I can find a fix. See if clearing your cache works. Also, let me know what error message you are seeing. You can ping me at feedback at creditwritedowns dot com

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