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How Countrywide Covered the Cracks

Gretchen Morgenson|The New York Times
Saturday, 16 Oct 2010 | 5:30 PM ET

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On June 27, 2006, Countrywide Financial, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, was about to close its books on a record-breaking six-month run. The housing market was on fire and Countrywide’s earnings were soaring. Despite all the euphoria inside the company, some executives noticed that Angelo R. Mozilo, the company’s brash and imperious chief executive, seemed subdued.

Angelo Mozilo
Angelo Mozilo

On June 27, 2006, Countrywide Financial, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, was about to close its books on a record-breaking six-month run. The housing market was on fire and Countrywide’s earnings were soaring. Despite all the euphoria inside the company, some executives noticed that Angelo R. Mozilo, the company’s brash and imperious chief executive, seemed subdued.

At a town hall meeting that day with 110 of the company’s highest-ranking executives in Calabasas, Calif., Mr. Mozilo sat alone on a stage, fielding questions and offering rosy predictions about his company’s prospects. But then he struck a sober note in response to a question from one of his colleagues.

The questioner wanted to know what, if anything, worried Mr. Mozilo, according to a participant.

“I wake up every day frightened that something is going to happen to Countrywide,” Mr. Mozilo said.

A year and a half later, that day arrived. In January 2008, Countrywide, the company he had built from a two-man mortgage operation into a lending behemoth, had to sell itself to Bank of America at a bargain price because it was being smothered by losses tied to a mountain of sketchy loans.

Yet almost until the moment Countrywide was taken over, Mr. Mozilo was publicly buoyant about its ability to ride out the mortgage crisis. Privately, however, he occasionally offered a gloomier assessment of Countrywide’s prospects and practices, according to e-mail and interviews.

What Mr. Mozilo, now 71, knew about Countrywide’s problems, and precisely when he knew it, was what eventually led the Securities and Exchange Commission to file civil securities fraud charges against him last year. And on Friday, in the Los Angeles courtroom of John F. Walter, a federal District Court judge, representatives for Mr. Mozilo and for two of his top lieutenants — David Sambol, Countrywide’s former president, and Eric Sieracki, the company’s former chief financial officer — settled those charges.

"As is the case with most settlements, this is a compromise where nobody comes out a complete winner." -Tolins & Lowenfels, Lewis D. Lowenfels
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