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Fraud and Folly: The Untold Story of General Electric's Subprime Debacle

The industrial giant jumped into the subprime business in 2004, lending blue-chip respectability to the market for risky home loans.

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General Electric didn’t answer questions from  iWatch News about the accounts provided by Riedel and other ex-employees. It also declined to provide detailed answers to a series of questions about how much it knew about alleged fraud at the Burbank, Calif.-based lender and what steps it took to deal with it. 

In a written statement, GE says that “following its acquisition by GE, WMC strengthened and expanded its compliance programs and standards. WMC held people to those standards. In those instances where WMC learned of violations of these standards, management took disciplinary action, including terminations of employment.”

‘All kinds of crazy loans’

WMC made a name for itself long before GE came courting.

Founded in 1955, it had been known for much of its life as Weyerhaeuser Mortgage, a subsidiary of the pulp and paper giant Weyerhaeuser Co. 

By the late 1990s it had a new owner — billionaire financier Leon Black’s Apollo Management LP — and it had moved into the subprime game, spurring production by rolling out a “Race to the Top” program that gave top sales performers the use of Porsche Boxsters.

The push to book mortgage deals produced a rash of bad loans around the country. WMC claimed it had been victimized by on-the-ground fraudsters who’d used bogus appraisals and other deceits to get mortgages approved.

In Minnesota’s Twin Cities, however, so many WMC loans ended up in or near foreclosure that a local newspaper, the  Star Tribune, suggested WMC had “self-inflicted some of its wounds by  pushing too hard and fast” to sell loans. An assistant state attorney general told the paper that the company simply didn't do "some of that due diligence” needed to ensure loan deals made sense.

“I have never seen a company that has been this aggressive,” one mortgage broker  told the  Star Tribune. “They were doing all kinds of crazy loans. They were doing anything they could do to push these deals through.”

Questions about WMC’s lending tactics were also raised by an  academic study that looked at a pool of 5,610 loans the company had made around the country in 1998. By December 1999 almost 25 percent of the loans were facing foreclosure or were seriously delinquent — more than five times the rate for loans originated by other major subprime lenders, the study found. 

GE, meet WMC

Despite these problems, WMC’s aggressive sales culture helped it survive and grow.

One of the forces behind its resurgence was Amy Brandt, who had gone from practicing law to peddling mortgages for WMC, quickly rising to become WMC’s No. 1 salesperson and then executive vice president of production. When she joined the executive team in 2000, she later  told a business magazine, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and she helped lead what was, in her words, an “unbelievable turnaround story.”

By the end of 2003, Brandt was WMC’s president and chief operating officer, and the lender was producing $8 billion a year in subprime home loans and boasting profits of $140 million a year. It had also attracted the interest of General Electric, which was looking to grow in what, since 2001, had been a slow-moving economy.

“We’re going to have to turn up the engines to drive growth,” GE’s chairman, Jeffrey Immelt, told a  TV interviewer in late 2003, explaining his company’s overall growth strategy. “The economy is not going to give you much, so what do you do?”

One of the things General Electric did was to seek profits in a home loan market that was rapidly heating up.

 
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