mong my favorite anecdotes of the mortgage-industry decadence that preceded the global financial crisis is the one about Ameriquest’s wind machine. A motivational tool for managers, it made its appearance in the late ’90s at an executive conference at Las Vegas’s MGM Grand Hotel, where the future subprime leader hooked up a powerful fan to a plastic tent. Inside, exuberant branch managers jumped around amid a cascade of cash, allowed to keep as many swirling bills as they could grab.
That was how it went at mortgage-firm retreats: Here, a money-grabbing contest; there, a round of ritual chanting—“The power of yes! The power of yes!”—at a 2004 Washington Mutual gathering that was like the high ceremony of some bizarre money cult. Before long such incentivizing was part of the daily culture, if not official policy. Countrywide, for example, had a marketing program called the “High-Speed Swim Lane” that linked the bonuses of sales reps working in football-field-sized call centers to the volume of loans they originated. Compressing the programs initials—and cutting to the chase—employees nicknamed it “The Hustle.”
Mere excess was never enough for these companies. Though we’re all aware, by now, of the crookedness that infected the mortgage business last decade, the particulars are still striking. Did you know, for instance, that WMC Mortgage Corporation, owned by General Electric, hired former strippers and an ex-porn actress to entice brokers into selling their mortgages, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity? Or that Wells Fargo gave its mortgage stars all-expense-paid vacations to Cancun and the Bahamas and treated them to private performances by Aerosmith, the Eagles, and Elton John? Or that New Century sent top loan sales reps to Porsche driving school?
The upshot is clear enough: With Wall Street’s demand for mortgages unending and some loan producers managing to book up to 70 loans per day, the system didn’t just crash. It was brought down.
But we’ve also been made to understand that subprime lenders and their Wall Street funders didn’t act alone. Instead, they were aided by the avarice of the American people, who were not victims of the crash so much as accomplices in it. Respondents to a Rasmussen poll done during the throes of the crisis overwhelmingly blamed “individuals who borrowed more than they could afford” (54 percent) over Wall Street (25 percent). To this day, the view is widespread and bipartisan: Main Street was an essential cause of the meltdown. The enemy was us.