Sunday, September 9, 2007

Porker of the week: Countrywide Financial and Angelo Mozillo

Porker of the week: Countrywide Reaps what it Sowed

Well, hopefully all those crooked Countrywide executives making $300K + will be on the job market shortly.

MSNMoney is reporting
Countrywide to reduce workforce by 10,000 to 12,000.

Countrywide Financial Corporation CFC today announced a plan of action to address changing market conditions that positions the Company for continued growth and success.The Company presently estimates a total workforce reduction of 10,000 to 12,000 over the next three months representing up to 20 percent of its current workforce. Based on current interest rate levels, Countrywide presently expects that total market origination volumes will decline approximately 25 percent in 2008 compared to 2007 levels.Product guideline revisions have been made to ensure that all loans which the Company produces can be sold into the secondary market or are high quality prime loans to be held in Countrywide Bank's investment portfolio. This includes the Company's recent decision to no longer originate any subprime loans other than those eligible for sale or securitization under programs supported by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the FHA.[Mish comment: So with no Alt-A, no jumbos, no subprime, no nonconforming loans of any sort, and with increased competition for prime loans, Countrywide is only expecting loan volumes to drop by 25%!?]Growth plans will continue in areas of opportunity. Countrywide's retail and wholesale lending divisions plan to continue aggressively pursuing the increased opportunities presenting themselves in the current environment for profitable market share growth.[Mish comment: Growth plans? Yeah right. Let's talk growth while firing 20% of the workforce and reducing the types of loans you are willing to do?]"Each employee at Countrywide is considered an important member of the Countrywide family," said David Sambol, President and Chief Operating Officer. "While workforce reductions are therefore always very difficult, these decisions are being made with the utmost attention and sensitivity to the impact they will have on our Company and our people."

Inside the Countrywide Lending SpreeBut how and why did countrywide get so bloated in the first place? In case you missed it, the New York Times recently published a stunning look
Inside the Countrywide Lending Spree.
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.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."

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.In a mid-March interview on CNBC, Mr. Mozilo said Countrywide was poised to benefit from the spreading crisis in the mortgage lending industry. "This will be great for Countrywide," he said, "because at the end of the day, all of the irrational competitors will be gone."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.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.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.One reason these loans were so lucrative for Countrywide is that investors who bought securities backed by the mortgages were willing to pay more for loans with prepayment penalties and those whose interest rates were going to reset at higher levels. Investors ponied up because pools of subprime loans were likely to generate a larger cash flow than prime loans that carried lower fixed rates.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 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.

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.

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."few borrowers of any sort, even the most creditworthy, appear to escape Countrywide's fee machine.

When borrowers close on their loans, they pay fees for flood and tax certifications, appraisals, document preparation, even charges associated with e-mailing documents or using FedEx to send or receive paperwork, according to Countrywide documents.

It's a big business: During the last 12 months, Countrywide did 3.5 million flood certifications, conducted 10.8 million credit checks and 1.3 million appraisals, its filings show.

Many of the fees go to its loan closing services subsidiary, LandSafe Inc.According to dozens of loan documents, LandSafe routinely charges tax service fees of $60, far above what other lenders charge, for information about any outstanding tax obligations of the borrowers. Credit checks can cost $36 at LandSafe, double what others levy. Some Countrywide loans even included fees of $100 to e-mail documents or $45 to ship them overnight.

LandSafe also charges borrowers $26 for flood certifications, for which other companies typically charge $12 to $14, according to sales representatives and brokers familiar with the fees.A different broker supplied an e-mail message from a Countrywide official stating that it was not company practice to submit 1099s. It is unclear why Countrywide apparently chooses not to provide the documents.A former sales representative and several brokers interviewed for this article were granted anonymity because they feared retribution from Countrywide.

Closing Thoughts
It's really hard to know where to begin with this but for starters I hope the IRS cracks down good and hard on Countrywide over the 1099's.

I have been wanting to comment on the sleaze at Countrywide for a week but tonight it finally seems appropriate.
Certainly there are allegations of what can be construed as fraud and I would love to see Mozilo have a day of reckoning in court over this but I doubt that ever happens.

And while I have a hard time cheering for the demise of others, at a minimum it's certainly hard to feel sorry for anyone losing their job who was involved in such sleaze.

But what sums it up best is this:
As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap.Addendum:Here is Countrywide's Letter To Employees, addressing both the layoffs as well as taking exception to the New York Times article. You can choose to believe Countrywide's innocence if you choose. I don't.

Mike Shedlock / Mish
Mike Shedlock / Mish is a registered investment advisor representative for SitkaPacific Capital Management. Visit to learn more about wealth management for investors seeking strong performance with low volatility.