Kristof Finds a Banker With Regrets

I’ve praised Bloomberg News a couple of times this week for digging up years-old muck on the financial crisis, so here’s some for Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times for doing the same (extra points for namechecking one of those Bloomberg reports and linking to it).

Kristof talks to James Theckston, a former regional executive for press favorite Jamie Dimon’s JPMorgan Chase, and he’s got regrets:

Theckston says that borrowers made harebrained decisions and exaggerated their resources but that bankers were far more culpable — and that all this was driven by pressure from the top.

How refreshing it is to see a banker who admits error—who mostly blames the bankers, not the borrowers. It’s reminiscent of Jesse Eisinger’s column yesterday on the Wall Street dissenters.

Eisinger noted these dissenters tend to be on the periphery, and it’s worth noting that Theckston isn’t in Manhattan. He was at ground zero of the housing fiasco: In South Florida, where his team made $2 billion in loans in 2007 alone, Kristof reports.

Importantly, Theckston says responsibility for the fiasco goes up the chain of command, where the pressure to churn out predatory loans originated:

One memory particularly troubles Theckston. He says that some account executives earned a commission seven times higher from subprime loans, rather than prime mortgages. So they looked for less savvy borrowers — those with less education, without previous mortgage experience, or without fluent English — and nudged them toward subprime loans.

These less savvy borrowers were disproportionately blacks and Latinos, he said, and they ended up paying a higher rate so that they were more likely to lose their homes. Senior executives seemed aware of this racial mismatch, he recalled, and frantically tried to cover it up.

Theckston, who has a shelf full of awards that he won from Chase, such as “sales manager of the year,” showed me his 2006 performance review. It indicates that 60 percent of his evaluation depended on him increasing high-risk loans.

So the year the bubble burst, Chase based more than half of his performance review on how fast he was creating toxic waste loans to be sent to Manhattan where they could be bundled, sliced up, and sold to suckers. I’m not surprised, but I don’t think I’ve seen the pressure from on high so explicitly spelled out. Can somebody follow this up Chase’s organizational flowchart?

And what about the senior executives who “frantically tried to cover it up”? Who were they? What did they do?

It’s good that Kristof, like Bloomberg and folks like Michael Hudson, hasn’t put this scandal behind us yet.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,