12 July 2008

IndyMac - US Bank Failures begin in ernest

IndyMac Bank, a prolific mortgage specialist that helped fuel the housing boom, was seized Friday by federal regulators in one of the largest bank failures in U.S. history.

The Pasadena, Calif., thrift was one of the largest savings and loans in the country with about $32 billion in assets. It now joins an infamous list of collapsed banks, topped by Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Co., which failed in 1984 with $40 billion of assets.

IndyMac specialized in Alt-A loans, a type of mortgage that can often be offered to borrowers who don't fully document their incomes or assets. The company sold most of the loans it originated but continued to hold some on its books. As defaults piled up, IndyMac's finances deteriorated.

The bank will be run by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., a federal regulator, and will reopen Monday.

In a written statement, the Office of Thrift Supervision, which regulated IndyMac, said "the immediate cause" of the failure was statements made by Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat. Mr. Schumer in late June publicly raised concerns about the bank's solvency.

"Although this institution was already in distress, I am troubled by any interference in the regulatory process," said OTS Director John Reich.

Mr. Schumer couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

Earlier this week, in a last-ditch effort to fend off collapse after it failed to raise fresh capital, the company said it was firing more than half its work force and closing most of its lending operations. While its shares had been tumbling since early 2007, the move was nonetheless jarring for a company that ranked as the ninth-largest U.S. mortgage lender last year in terms of loan volume, according to trade publication Inside Mortgage Finance.

IndyMac's arc -- rapid growth, followed by an even more rapid descent -- is a microcosm of the mortgage industry. It boomed in the first part of this decade, as investors were willing to fund loans on ever-looser terms, then hit hard times when the housing market began to turn down in late 2006.

While dozens of lenders have gone out of business during that time, IndyMac is one of the few federally insured banks to fail. Banking regulators are bracing for a slew of failures over the next year, bulking up their staff of bank examiners and taking a tough approach toward banks that are seen as risky.

IndyMac was set up by Countrywide Financial Corp. in 1985, but the two companies severed ties in 1997 and became direct competitors. The company's name stands for Independent National Mortgage. It was created to specialize in jumbo mortgages -- those that are too big to be sold to government-backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In 1997, under the direction of Chief Executive Michael Perry, a protege of Countrywide chief Angelo Mozilo, IndyMac set off on its own.

The company grew quickly, pioneering the issuance of so-called Alt-A mortgages to people with blemished credit histories. The loans have gained notoriety as an example of the type of lax lending that came to characterize much of the mortgage industry.

Early last year, as the industry started encountering serious challenges and some small mortgage lenders folded, Mr. Perry remained optimistic about IndyMac's future, insisting that the company had the resources to remain independent. At the time, IndyMac's stock was trading for about $45 a share.

But the combination of the frozen credit markets and mounting defaults on IndyMac loans steadily sapped investor confidence in the company. In February, IndyMac reported the first annual loss in its 23-year history. By this week, its shares, which ended last year at less than $7 each, were trading for 28 cents apiece.

The company was desperate for more capital but couldn't find investors willing to put fresh funds into what looked like a crippled institution.

A growing number of banks are facing a similar, if less dire, challenge, as investors who pumped billions of dollars into capital-hungry banks are now starting to balk at throwing good money after bad.

An exodus of depositors added to IndyMac's woes. Deposits are the lifeblood of banks, providing them with a stable, low-cost source of cash to fund their daily operations and lending activities. After Mr. Schumer raised questions about the bank, depositors withdrew $1.3 billion in 11 days.

The FDIC estimates that the failure will cost its deposit insurance fund between $4 billion and $8 billion.

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