By Kirsten Valle Pittman, McClatchy Newspapers –
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As Bank of America Corp. finalized plans to buy the ailing Countrywide Financial Corp., government officials traded emails about the mortgage lender’s troubles, rumors that regulators had a hand in the deal, and the housing market’s role in the looming recession.
The newly released messages between U.S. Treasury Department officials span the turbulent months between August 2007, when Bank of America first invested in Countrywide, and January 2008, when the Charlotte bank announced plans to buy the nation’s biggest mortgage lender.
Bank stakeholders still lament the acquisition, which led to losses and legal troubles that have continued to pummel the company.
The nearly 40 pages of emails, obtained by the Charlotte Observer after a public-records request, provide a real-time look at the crisis unfolding a year before the financial meltdown. Subject lines warn of Countrywide bankruptcy rumors. Analysts discuss an imminent mortgage-market collapse. And the Treasury’s communications staffers scramble to deflect questions on whether government officials pressured the bank into the deal — questions that linger today among some Bank of America shareholders and analysts.
Treasury officials contacted last week declined to comment, and a bank spokesman did not return messages.
California-based Countrywide had seen its earnings soar during the housing boom. But by August 2007, the company was sagging under the weight of its subprime mortgages. Borrowers couldn’t pay their bills, and faltering confidence in the mortgage industry made it hard for lenders to borrow the money they needed to keep making loans.
In an early morning email Aug. 16, 2007, Treasury official Robert Steel — who would later become chief executive of Charlotte’s Wachovia Corp. — told a colleague that then-Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Tim Geithner had just given him a dismal report about Countrywide’s future as an independent company.
“There was a Countrywide commercial paper issue last night which was solved, but days as indep. Inc. are numbered,” Steel wrote.
The same day, the deepening credit mess forced Countrywide to borrow $11.5 billion from a group of banks, and its stock tumbled.
Later that month, Bank of America invested $2 billion in the company, calling the stake a potentially lucrative vote of confidence, though bank officials reiterated that they had no interest in buying Countrywide outright.
“When we’re able to go and look at their books and see value, I think the market should take that as a sign that things are not as bad as people believe,” a bank spokesman said at the time.
But the lender’s woes continued. In early January 2008, an analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York forwarded an email to a Treasury staffer with the subject line, “Countrywide bankruptcy rumor — stock down 14 percent to $6.56.”
The Treasury worker then asked colleagues whether the FDIC would provide insurance to any of Countrywide’s units.
“I couldn’t get the juicy details out of them, but Countrywide does fall under FDIC’s insured umbrella,” a colleague responded.
A few days later, news outlets started to leak reports that Bank of America planned to acquire Countrywide. Questions arose about whether regulators pushed the deal, which would protect the massive mortgage lender from collapse and eliminate a major risk to the economy.
The acquisition was viewed at the time as risky — Bank of America would absorb Countrywide’s bad loans and possible lawsuits, and some analysts argued it had problems of its own to deal with — but the bank had a reputation of buying distressed companies with profitable results.
None of the emails provide any indication that Treasury officials were pushing the Countrywide deal. In the emails, Treasury officials speak of squelching such speculation.
“FYI,” then-public affairs director Jennifer Zuccarelli wrote in an email to fellow Treasury officials Jan. 10, “(The Wall Street Journal) is getting ready to write that BofA is going to acquire Countrywide and that there are reports that Fed and Treasury encouraged them to do so.”
She added, “I am going to kill the idea that we were out there encouraging it. Of course we were aware, but that doesn’t mean we’re picking up the phone asking for bids.” That evening, Zuccarelli emailed the group to say she had received another inquiry about the reports.
“Someone is ginning this story up,” she wrote. “I’m trying to kill it while staying off the record and saying I’m not aware of any final deal being made.”
Bank of America’s then-CEO, Ken Lewis, had long said he wasn’t eager to buy mortgage companies. But the agreement Jan. 11 to buy Countrywide in an all-stock transaction worth about $4 billion made the bank the nation’s largest mortgage lender and loan servicer, allowing a company that had grown by gobbling up rivals to reach even more customers.
“Countrywide presents a rare opportunity for Bank of America to add what we believe is the best domestic mortgage platform at an attractive price,” Lewis said in a statement then. “… Home ownership is a fundamental pillar of the U.S. economy, and over time it will be a key area of growth for Bank of America.”
Today, troubles related to the purchase still plague CEO Brian Moynihan, who took over at the start of 2010 after Lewis retired. Bank of America’s stock price fell nearly 60 percent in 2011 as potential losses and litigation continued to rattle investors. This month, Bank of America lost a ruling in a court fight against MBIA Inc. that will help the bond insurer as it tries to recover losses on home loans made by Countrywide.
And in December, the bank agreed to pay $335 million to settle civil allegations that Countrywide discriminated against minority homebuyers before Bank of America acquired it, the largest residential fair-lending settlement in history.
The Treasury emails don’t hint at the potential problems stemming from the acquisition. But they show that in the months before the recession began, Treasury officials had an idea of how bad things could get.
“The entire mortgage market is now contracting and fighting for its very existence,” a top investment researcher wrote to a Treasury official in November 2007. “Credit will get even tighter still and the credit crunch — which of course is already spreading beyond housing — will get that much worse.
“I think the odds of a recession next year are now well over 50/50.”
The Treasury staffer forwarded the prediction to a colleague, who wrote back dryly: “So you’re saying he’s not optimistic.”