By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Many of the banks receiving billions of dollars in federal aid owned or bankrolled subprime lenders that directly contributed to the unraveling of the global economy, according to a new report.
While many portrayed themselves as unwitting victims of the subprime mortgage meltdown, the banks also enabled that kind of lending because it was lucrative, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative reporting group funded largely by charitable foundations. The group analyzed federal data on 7.2 million mortgages made from 2005 through 2007, a period that covers the peak and collapse of subprime lending.
The report oversimplifies the problem and ignores the complexities of the market, said Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents some of the nation's largest lenders. "To say we are victims is understating, and to say we are enablers is overstating," he said.
Banks that received federal bailout money financed at least 21 of the top 25 subprime lenders, the investigation found. They owned these lenders, extended credit to them, or bought their loans and then sold them as securities.
Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Regions Financial Corp., GMAC, Capital One and the insurance company American International Group all owned subprime lenders, according to the center's tally. AIG still owns one of those lenders, American General Finance. Ten of the top 25 subprime lenders have paid to settle claims related to abusive lending, and 20 of them have closed, stopped lending or sold themselves.
The largest subprime lender, California-based Countrywide Financial, received cash and credit from various banks, including Bank of America, which purchased the company in July 2008 during the subprime meltdown.
The center's report also maintains that government officials were slow to react to warnings about the subprime crisis. It says that the top 25 subprime lenders spent at least $280 million on campaign donations and lobbying in the past decade.
In the first half of this decade, when home prices shot up, Americans raced to subprime loans, seduced by easy credit available to people with poor credit or little cash.
The federal government played its part in fueling the appetite for subprime loans, according to numerous analyses in recent years. After the technology stock bust of 2001, the Federal Reserve cut a key short-term interest rate to rev up the economy, enabling lenders to borrow money at low rates, lend that cash to home buyers and then sell the loans as securities to other institutions.
The authors of the articles, published at http://www.publicintegrity.org, said they tried to reach top-ranking officials at each bank with mixed results. Bank of America did not respond. A Wells Fargo spokesman said 93 of every 100 of its customers were current by the end of last year, which it said was a testament to how carefully it vets borrowers. And a Capital One spokeswoman said that the subsidiary cited in the report is not a subprime lender but rather a lender of Alt-A loans, which require little or no verification of income.