Forty-five percent of its portfolio is adjustable loans—financial time bombs, basically.
And, here we see, Countrywide was peddling its worst junk until almost the very end:
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.
In case you were wondering, an individual member of the “human race” is running this bucket shop, I mean, bank: His name in Angelo R. Mozilo, Countrywide’s chairman and CEO, who hasn’t bought a Countrywide share in twenty years, but before the crash sold them like there was no tomorrow. That’s here:
As the subprime mortgage debacle began to unfold this year, Mr. Mozilo’s selling accelerated. Filings show that he made $129 million from stock sales during the last 12 months, or almost one-third of the entire amount he has reaped over the last 23 years. He still holds 1.4 million shares in Countrywide, a 0.24 percent stake that is worth $29.4 million.
And I feel sorry here for spokesman Rick Simon:
“Mr. Mozilo has stated publicly that his current plan recognizes his personal need to diversify some of his assets as he approaches retirement,” said Rick Simon, a Countrywide spokesman. “His personal wealth remains heavily weighted in Countrywide shares, and he is, by far, the leading individual shareholder in the company.”
Got it. Thanks.
Mr. Simon said that Mr. Mozilo and other top Countrywide executives were not available for interviews. The spokesman declined to answer a list of questions, saying that he and his staff were too busy.
Busy, busy, busy.
But back to James Grant. His ultra-long view also misses a point about what is emerging as a major regulatory failure.
Late in the 1880s, long before the institution of the Federal Reserve, Eastern savers and Western borrowers teamed up to inflate the value of cropland in the Great Plains. Gimmicky mortgages — pay interest and only interest for the first two years! — and loose talk of a new era in rainfall beguiled the borrowers. High yields on Western mortgages enticed the lenders. But the climate of Kansas and Nebraska reverted to parched, and the drought-stricken debtors trudged back East or to the West Coast in wagons emblazoned, “In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted.” To the creditors went the farms.
Every crackup is the same, yet every one is different.
But, this one is different because we do have a Federal Reserve, as well as a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Division of Banking Supervision and Regulation, which is supposed to keep an eye on the likes of Countrywide. Where were they?
I pick on the Grant piece not for its main point about the Fed. Indeed, he offers wise counsel:
In any case, to all of us, rich and poor alike, the Fed owes a pledge that it will do what it can and not do what it can’t. High on the list of things that no human agency can, or should, attempt is manipulating prices to achieve a more stable and prosperous economy. Jiggling its interest rate, the Fed can impose the appearance of stability today, but only at the cost of instability tomorrow. By the looks of things, tomorrow is upon us already.
I take issue, however, with the assumptions that Grant uses to get us there, and how they let the business press, too, off the hook.