“I want to be sure you are getting the best loan possible” – A Shocking Look Inside How Countrywide Helped Rape A Nation
August 27th, 2007 by MG
In an article titled “Still Think That The Housing Bubble Is The Fault Of The Buyers And Not The Lenders?”, I proposed that while borrowers were not completely innocent, the lenders were still using quite devious practices to lure the borrowers into the fire.
If you’ve been following the news at all, you’ve no doubt heard of Countrywide’s layoffs and what else has been going on with them. But The New York Times just ran an expose of sorts on the inside of this lending giant.
Taken below were some of the more interesting parts. Because of the size, I highlighted some of the more eye-popping moments in blue for you:
Providing “the best loan possible” to customers wasn’t always the bank’s main goal
On its way to becoming the nation’s largest mortgage lender, the Countrywide Financial Corporation encouraged its sales force to court customers over the telephone with a seductive pitch that seldom varied. “I want to be sure you are getting the best loan possible,” the sales representatives would say.
But providing “the best loan possible” to customers wasn’t always the bank’s main goal, say some former employees. Instead, potential borrowers were often led to high-cost and sometimes unfavorable loans that resulted in richer commissions for Countrywide’s smooth-talking sales force, outsize fees to company affiliates providing services on the loans, and a roaring stock price that made Countrywide executives among the highest paid in America.
Countrywide’s entire operation, from its computer system to its incentive pay structure and financing arrangements, is intended to wring maximum profits out of the mortgage lending boom no matter what it costs borrowers, according to interviews with former employees and brokers who worked in different units of the company and internal documents they provided.
One document, for instance, shows that until last September the computer system in the company’s subprime unit excluded borrowers’ cash reserves, which had the effect of steering them away from lower-cost loans to those that were more expensive to homeowners and more profitable to Countrywide.
Homeowners, meanwhile, drawn in by Countrywide sales scripts assuring “the best loan possible,” are behind on their mortgages in record numbers. As of June 30, almost one in four subprime loans that Countrywide services was delinquent, up from 15 percent in the same period last year, according to company filings. Almost 10 percent were delinquent by 90 days or more, compared with last year’s rate of 5.35 percent.
Many of these loans had interest rates that recently reset from low teaser levels to double digits; others carry prohibitive prepayment penalties that have made refinancing impossibly expensive, even before this month’s upheaval in the mortgage markets.
Few companies benefited more from the mortgage mania than Countrywide
“In terms of being unresponsive to what was happening, to sticking it out the longest, and continuing to justify the garbage they were selling, Countrywide was the worst lender,” said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “And anytime states tried to pass responsible lending laws, Countrywide was fighting it tooth and nail.”
Countrywide lends to both prime borrowers — those with sterling credit — and so-called subprime, or riskier, borrowers. Among the $470 billion in loans that Countrywide made last year, 45 percent were conventional nonconforming loans, those that are too big to be sold to government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Home equity lines of credit given to prime borrowers accounted for 10.2 percent of the total, while subprime loans were 8.7 percent.
Regulatory filings show that, as of last year, 45 percent of Countrywide’s loans carried adjustable rates — the kind of loans that are set to reprice this fall and later, and which are causing so much anxiety among borrowers and investors alike. Countrywide has a huge presence in California: 46 percent of the loans it holds on its books were made there, and 28 percent of the loans it services are there. Countrywide packages most of its loans into securities pools that it sells to investors.
But Countrywide documents show that it, too, was a lax lender. For example, it wasn’t until March 16 that Countrywide eliminated so-called piggyback loans from its product list, loans that permitted borrowers to buy a house without putting down any of their own money. And Countrywide waited until Feb. 23 to stop peddling another risky product, loans that were worth more than 95 percent of a home’s appraised value and required no documentation of a borrower’s income.
As recently as July 27, Countrywide’s product list showed that it would lend $500,000 to a borrower rated C-minus, the second-riskiest grade. As long as the loan represented no more than 70 percent of the underlying property’s value, Countrywide would lend to a borrower even if the person had a credit score as low as 500. (The top score is 850.)
The company would lend even if the borrower had been 90 days late on a current mortgage payment twice in the last 12 months, if the borrower had filed for personal bankruptcy protection, or if the borrower had faced foreclosure or default notices on his or her property.
Such loans were made, former employees say, because they were so lucrative — to Countrywide. The company harvested a steady stream of fees or payments on such loans and busily repackaged them as securities to sell to investors. As long as housing prices kept rising, everyone — borrowers, lenders and investors — appeared to be winners.
Blowing The Whistle: Countrywide’s commission structure rewarded sales representatives for making risky, high-cost loans
One former employee provided documents indicating Countrywide’s minimum profit margins on subprime loans of different sizes. These ranged from 5 percent on small loans of $100,000 to $200,000 to 3 percent on loans of $350,000 to $500,000. But on subprime loans that imposed heavy burdens on borrowers, like high prepayment penalties that persisted for three years, Countrywide’s margins could reach 15 percent of the loan, the former employee said.
Regulatory filings show how much more profitable subprime loans are for Countrywide than higher-quality prime loans. Last year, for example, the profit margins Countrywide generated on subprime loans that it sold to investors were 1.84 percent, versus 1.07 percent on prime loans. A year earlier, when the subprime machine was really cranking, sales of these mortgages produced profits of 2 percent, versus 0.82 percent from prime mortgages. And in 2004, subprime loans produced gains of 3.64 percent, versus 0.93 percent for prime loans.
As a result, former employees said, the company’s commission structure rewarded sales representatives for making risky, high-cost loans. For example, according to another mortgage sales representative affiliated with Countrywide, adding a three-year prepayment penalty to a loan would generate an extra 1 percent of the loan’s value in a commission. While mortgage brokers’ commissions would vary on loans that reset after a short period with a low teaser rate, the higher the rate at reset, the greater the commission earned, these people said.
Persuading someone to add a home equity line of credit to a loan carried extra commissions of 0.25 percent, according to a former sales representative.
“The whole commission structure in both prime and subprime was designed to reward salespeople for pushing whatever programs Countrywide made the most money on in the secondary market,” the former sales representative said.
When borrowers had difficulty making payments, Countrywide cashed in
Consider an example provided by a former mortgage broker. Say that a borrower was persuaded to take on a $1 million adjustable-rate loan that required the person to pay only a tiny fraction of the real interest rate and no principal during the first year — a loan known in the trade as a pay option adjustable-rate mortgage. If the loan carried a three-year prepayment penalty requiring the borrower to pay six months’ worth of interest at the much higher reset rate of 3 percentage points over the prevailing market rate, Countrywide would pay the broker a $30,000 commission.
When borrowers tried to reduce their mortgage debt, Countrywide cashed in: prepayment penalties generated significant revenue for the company — $268 million last year, up from $212 million in 2005. When borrowers had difficulty making payments, Countrywide cashed in again: late charges produced even more in 2006 — some $285 million.
The company’s incentive system also encouraged brokers and sales representatives to move borrowers into the subprime category, even if their financial position meant that they belonged higher up the loan spectrum. Brokers who peddled subprime loans received commissions of 0.50 percent of the loan’s value, versus 0.20 percent on loans one step up the quality ladder, known as Alternate-A, former brokers said. For years, a software system in Countrywide’s subprime unit that sales representatives used to calculate the loan type that a borrower qualified for did not allow the input of a borrower’s cash reserves, a former employee said.
The monthly payment on the F.H.A. loan would have been $1,829, while Countrywide’s subprime loan generated a $2,387 monthly payment
According to the former sales representative, Countrywide’s big subprime unit also avoided offering borrowers Federal Housing Administration loans, which are backed by the United States government and are less risky. But these loans, well suited to low-income or first-time home buyers, do not generate the high fees that Countrywide encouraged its sales force to pursue.
A few weeks ago, the former sales representative priced a $275,000 loan with a 30-year term and a fixed rate for a borrower putting down 10 percent, with fully documented income, and a credit score of 620. While a F.H.A. loan on the same terms would have carried a 7 percent rate and 0.125 percentage points, Countrywide’s subprime loan for the same borrower carried a rate of 9.875 percent and three additional percentage points.
The monthly payment on the F.H.A. loan would have been $1,829, while Countrywide’s subprime loan generated a $2,387 monthly payment. That amounts to a difference of $558 a month, or $6,696 a year — no small sum for a low-income homeowner.
“F.H.A. loans are the best source of financing for low-income borrowers,” the former sales representative said. So Countrywide’s subprime lending program “is not living up to the promise of providing the best loan programs to its clients,” he said.
Countrywide’s Oasis of Rapport
Workdays at Countrywide’s mortgage lending units centered on an intense telemarketing effort, former employees said. It involved chasing down sales leads and hewing to carefully prepared scripts during telephone calls with prospects.
One marketing manual used in Countrywide’s subprime unit during 2005, for example, walks sales representatives through the steps of a successful call. “Step 3, Borrower Information, is where the Account Executive gets on the Oasis of Rapport,” the manual states. “The Oasis of Rapport is the time spent with the client building rapport and gathering information. At this point in the sales cycle, rates, points, and fees are not discussed. The immediate objective is for the Account Executive to get to know the client and look for points of common interest. Use first names with clients as it facilitates a friendly, helpful tone.”
If clients proved to be uninterested, the script provided ways for sales representatives to be more persuasive. Account executives encountering prospective customers who said their mortgage had been paid off, for instance, were advised to ask about a home equity loan. “Don’t you want the equity in your home to work for you?” the script said. “You can use your equity for your advantage and pay bills or get cash out. How does that sound?”
Other documents from the subprime unit also show that Countrywide was willing to underwrite loans that left little disposable income for borrowers’ food, clothing and other living expenses. A different manual states that loans could be written for borrowers even if, in a family of four, they had just $1,000 in disposable income after paying their mortgage bill. A loan to a single borrower could be made even if the person had just $550 left each month to live on, the manual said.
Independent brokers who have worked with Countrywide also say the company does not provide records of their compensation to the Internal Revenue Service on a Form 1099, as the law requires. These brokers say that all other home lenders they have worked with submitted 1099s disclosing income earned from their associations.
One broker who worked with Countrywide for seven years said she never got a 1099.
“When I got ready to do my first year’s taxes I had received 1099s from everybody but Countrywide,” she said. “I called my rep and he said, ‘We’re too big. There’s too many. We don’t do it.’ ”
Countrywide Gets Sued
Last April, Countrywide customers in Los Angeles filed suit against the company in California state court, contending that it overcharged borrowers by collecting unearned fees in relation to tax service fees and flood certification charges. These markups were not disclosed to borrowers, the lawsuit said.
Appraisals are another profit center for Countrywide, brokers said, because it often requires more than one appraisal on properties, especially if borrowers initially choose not to use the company’s own internal firm. Appraisal fees at Countrywide totaled $137 million in 2006, up from $110 million in the previous year. Credit report fees were $74 million last year, down slightly from 2005.
All of those fees may soon be part of what Countrywide comes to consider the good old days. The mortgage market has cooled, and so have the company’s fortunes. Mr. Mozilo remains undaunted, however.
In an interview with CNBC on Thursday, he conceded that Countrywide’s balance sheet had to be strengthened. “But at the end of the day we could be doing very substantial volumes for high-quality loans,” he said, “because there is nobody else in town.”
A very scary thought indeed.