What to do with WaMu?

The Senate opens hearings today into the failure of Washington Mutual. Washington Mutual was among a group of banks that jumped into the subprime mortgage sector headfirst. Jumping into anything headfirst is not usually a good idea until you know how deep the pool truly is. It is estimated that over $700 billion of these subprime mortgages were handed out between 2004 and 2007. These were those famous adjustable-rate mortgages. Washington Mutual handed out over $133 billion in these adjustable mortgages. The former CEO Kerry Killinger stated that WaMu wasn’t being treated fairly by the government. He whined that WaMu “should have been given a chance to work its way through the crisis.” What I want to know is whether anyone in that hearing run over to Mr. Killinger and cry tears of sadness for this millionaire.

When people are given the wrong incentives, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do the wrong thing. Specifically, loan originating officers were given incentives to generate loans. It really didn’t matter what kind of loan. It didn’t matter whether the loan was fraudulent or legitimate. During Washington Mutual’s own internal investigation back in 2005, they found the two offices in California where over 50% of their loans were fraudulent. (At one location was over 80%.) Yet, the practice continued. Why? The money was too good. (Oh, I forgot to mention that their own risk officers were excluded from important meetings. This means that either these risk guys are lying to protect their butts or WaMu knew what they were doing was fraudulent and they didn’t want to rish telling them.)

In Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short, he describes an incident where a immigrant farm worker who made no more than $14,000 a year was given a loan for $750,000.

Lower middle class and upper lower class Americans were hit the hardest by these fraudulent practices. They were specifically sought out by these banks. These are Americans that are holding down one or two jobs. Both parents are working. They’re working extremely hard and they are very close to being able to afford a nice house, in a nice neighborhood with good schools. Something always gets in the way of their dream house. These are everyday expenses that they simply cannot afford — car breaks down, they need a new refrigerator, Johnny was hit in the head with a baseball and needs stitches. So Washington Mutual, IndyMac, Wachovia and others preyed on these Americans.

Here’s my whole problem with these shysters. They made tons of money off of unsuspecting Americans, off of Americans who wanted to believe in the American dream. When the banks collapsed, the Americans were kicked out on the street. Banks who were deemed too big to fail were rewarded for their size and they were allowed to buy the smaller failing banks at fire sale prices. Bankers who lost their jobs were given a little pot of gold on their way out the door. Bankers who kept their jobs were given big fat pay raises for acquiring new assets. Real, honest-to-goodness, hardworking Americans who believed that they would never be given a mortgage they didn’t qualify for were asked to bend over (and kicked in the seat-of-the-pants repeatedly).

So, I hope that something meaningful will come out of these Senate hearings. I hope this is not just a dog and pony show.

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.


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