Pressure at Mortgage Firm Led To Mass Approval of Bad Loans

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

Maggie Hardiman cringed as she heard the salesmen knocking the sides of desks with a baseball bat as they walked through her office. Bang! Bang!

" 'You cut my [expletive] deal!' " she recalls one man yelling at her. " 'You can't do that.' " Bang! The bat whacked the top of her desk. As an appraiser for a company called New Century Financial, Hardiman was supposed to weed out bad mortgage applications. Most of the mortgage applications Hardiman reviewed had problems, she said.

But "you didn't want to turn away a loan because all hell would break loose," she recounted in interviews. When she did, her bosses often overruled her and found another appraiser to sign off on it.

Hardiman's account is one of several from former employees of New Century that shed fresh light on an unfolding disaster in the mortgage industry, one that could cost as many as 2 million American families their homes and threatens to spill over into the broader economy.

New Century has become the premier example of a group of companies that grew rapidly during the housing boom, selling working-class Americans with questionable credit huge numbers of "subprime" loans with "teaser" rates that typically rose after the first two years. This business transformed the once-tiny New Century into a lending powerhouse that was held up as a model of the mortgage industry's success.

But now, with home values falling and adjustable loan rates rising, record numbers of homeowners are failing to make their payments. And a detailed inquiry into the situation at New Century and other subprime lenders suggests that in the feeding frenzy for housing loans, basic quality controls were ignored in the mortgage business, while the big Wall Street investment banks that backed these firms looked the other way.

New Century, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month, has admitted that it underreported the number of bad loans it made in its financial reports for the first three quarters of 2006. Hardiman and other former employees of New Century interviewed said there was intense pressure from bosses to approve loans, even those with obviously inflated housing appraisals or exaggerated homeowner incomes.

"The stress in that place was ungodly. It was like selling your soul," said Hardiman, who worked for New Century in 2004 and 2005. "There was instant notification to everyone as soon as you rejected a loan. And you dreaded doing it because you paid for it. Two guys would come with a bat, and they were all [ticked] off because you cut their deals."

New Century officials would not publicly respond to the ex-employees' allegations. A senior executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of state and federal investigations into the company, acknowledged that the atmosphere in some branches might have been intense at times. But he said the firm had safeguards to make sure workers did not feel pressure to approve questionable loans.

Hearing what Hardiman went through, he said, was "upsetting" and "not representative of our offices."

"In an organization with this size . . . I'm not naive to think that [such behavior] didn't happen," the executive said. "But I find it highly implausible over the last 10 years that something systemic was going on and somehow it was disguised. . . . There were pressures, especially in a declining market, and those pressures became more robust. But we turned up our controls and our vigilance at the very same time."

As Industry Grew, Standards Loosened

Once a little-used lending tool, subprime loans made up 20 percent, or about $600 billion, of all mortgages issued in the country last year. These loans carry a high risk of default because they generally are made to home buyers with questionable credit. But because they require borrowers to pay high interest rates, they have been a gold mine for lenders in recent years, accounting for 30 percent of all profits made in the mortgage business, according to Mercer Oliver Wyman, a consulting firm.

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