From the New York Times:
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.
To be sure, Countrywide was not the only lender that sold questionable loans with enormous fees during the housing bubble. And as real estate prices soared, borrowers themselves proved all too eager to participate, even if it meant paying high costs or signing up for a loan with an interest rate that would jump in coming years.
But few companies benefited more from the mortgage mania than Countrywide, among the most aggressive home lenders in the nation. As such, the company is Exhibit A for the lax and, until recently, highly lucrative lending that has turned a once-hot business ice cold and has touched off a housing crisis of historic proportions.