But systemic corruption—and that is the right word—has been unveiled at lenders across the board. Two of the most revealing stories on the culture that overtook the lending industry were published early—February 4 and March 28, 2005—by the Los Angeles Times. Reporters Mike Hudson and E. Scott Reckard found court records and former employees who described the boiler-room culture that pervaded Ameriquest—hard-sell, scripted sales pitches, complete with the “art department” in Tampa. Ex-employees confirmed, as did Lisa Taylor, the loan agent quoted at the top of this story, that copies of Boiler Room, the movie about ethically challenged stockbrokers, was indeed passed around as an Ameriquest training tape.
As of last summer, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had opened criminal probes of lending practices at twenty-one companies, including Countrywide, IndyMac, and other market leaders.
And yet Fortune, again, sees only possible fraud against stock investors. Strange.
The problems will arise where the executives tried to distinguish their companies from the pack by highlighting their allegedly superior underwriting techniques, higher-quality portfolios, early anticipation of the downturn, or other purported advantages that proved to be insufficient at best and fictitious at worst. Some officials, like CEO Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide Financial, portrayed the growing market turmoil as an opportunity: “This will be great for Countrywide at the end of the day,” Mozilo told CNBC’s Bartiromo in March 2007, “because all the irrational competitors will be gone.”
In all these cases, prosecutors and the SEC will likely be scrutinizing the executives’ stock sales as the crisis played out, looking for both insider trading and evidence of the executives’ true state of mind…
The same myopia affects the magazine’s view of Wall Street behavior.
Here’s Fortune’s treatment of Bear:
Plaintiffs class-action lawyers claim that Bear’s problems should not end there [with already indicted Bear hedge-fund managers.] Two months after the hedge funds collapsed, CEO James E. Cayne assured investors that “the balance sheet, capital base, and liquidity profile have never been stronger. Bear Stearns’ risk exposures to high-profile sectors are moderate and well controlled.” Seven months later the company sought emergency funding from the Federal Reserve and was quickly sold to J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500).
Of course, as the world has seen, a lot can change in seven months, so it will be hard to prove that Cayne did not believe what he was saying. A tougher case is presented by his successor, Alan Schwartz, who was saying much the same thing as late as the morning of March 12, 2008, just 36 hours before seeking emergency funding. “Our liquidity and balance sheet are strong,” Schwartz told CNBC’s David Faber. “We don’t see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis.”
Although federal prosecutors in Brooklyn were asking some questions immediately after the company’s collapse, there does not appear to be any active criminal inquiry. Counsel for Schwartz declined to comment, as did U.S. Attorney Campbell.
What this and other Wall Street examples leave out is the sale, by Bear and others, of billions of dollars of defective securities, and the extent to which sellers knew they were defective. Fortune tosses off this entire category of behavior as “a bad business model.”
To begin with, bad business models - even business models that in retrospect look like prescriptions for disaster - are not crimes as long as they are fully disclosed to investors. And the fact that lenders were hawking outlandishly risky mortgages to people who were terrible credit risks was, in fact, no secret in America: It was bipartisan national policy. The fact that exotic mortgages (like “pick a payment option” AR Ms and “Alt-A” loans with no documentation of the buyer’s assets or income) were then being packaged into complex derivative securities - some rated AAA by Moody’s, S &P, and Fitch - was not just well known but also hailed as ingenious by some of the putatively best financial minds in the country.