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Originally published Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Shades of Seafirst: WaMu got too big for its britches

Lee Lannoye, the retired former chief credit officer of Washington Mutual Savings Bank, was not accepting CEO Kerry Killinger's statement...

Lee Lannoye, the retired former chief credit officer of Washington Mutual Savings Bank, was not accepting CEO Kerry Killinger's statement of responsibility for the substandard-mortgage disaster at WaMu. At the shareholders' meeting in Seattle Tuesday, Lannoye stood at the microphone and said Killinger and others at the top had "made conscious decisions to lower the credit underwriting standards of the bank."

"You have destroyed the bank," he said.

It is not destroyed — at least, not yet. Its stock has been hammered down 75 percent from a year ago, though — and that is what mattered to a lot of people there. That, and the dividend being almost evaporated. It was on my mind, for I own shares in the bank.

Killinger and Chief Operating Officer Steve Rotella outlined a strategy for rebuilding WaMu: De-emphasize home loans and focus hard on the basic business of checking accounts, credit cards and the other branch-banking services for which WaMu is known. It is the right strategy, and I support it. Killinger's message was: Look forward! But the shareholders were looking back over a year of asset bonfire and asking: What were you thinking?

Killinger's answer was, essentially, "stuff happened." It was a downturn. Nobody expected it to be so bad. WaMu was overwhelmed.

I am not a banker; I am a writer. The notable thing about Killinger's account is that it was in the passive voice. The disaster happened to the bank; it was not something he and the other leaders did. And that is not how a lot of the shareholders saw it.

I used to be a business reporter. The biggest story I covered was the collapse of Seattle-First National Bank. It was the state's largest. To get bigger, Seafirst went during the "energy crisis" to Oklahoma and made a lot of loans to gas drillers. It didn't look too closely at the borrowers; many of the loan applications were filled out only with the name and address. The energy crisis ended, the loans went bad and Seafirst imploded. Poom.

WaMu is in some ways a rerun of Seafirst. It is also a Washington bank that wanted to grow, and spread outside the state: Almost 60 percent of its home loans are in California or Florida. Like Seafirst, it lowered credit standards and dispensed with complicated loan applications.

The improvised explosive device that blew a hole in WaMu's balance sheet was the option adjustable-rate mortgage. This allows the borrower to roll over part of the house payment like a Visa balance. Don't want to pay it now? Pay it later. Who cares? The value of the house will go up and that will cover it. Except that the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that the median value of a house in Southern California dropped to $385,000, down 24 percent since February 2007.

How reliable are WaMu's borrowers? Who knows? Three-quarters of its $50-billion-plus option ARM portfolio, WaMu says in its annual report, was "underwritten with limited documentation of income, net worth or credit history."

Limited documentation. I know what that means, too. It means guesswork. This was corporate policy.

Yesterday's shareholders' meeting was in Benaroya Hall — the big one, with three levels of balconies on the side. The place was nearly full, and the spirit was one of airborne tomatoes and rotten cabbages. When employee and shareholder Tom Goldman challenged Rotella and several others to give up their multimillion-dollar bonuses — imagine an employee doing that! — a wave of cheers and applause swept the hall.

And when a representative of the Service Employees International Union, holding 13,800 shares, offered a resolution for the bank to have an outside chairman, effectively stripping that title from Killinger, there was strong applause, especially from the rear of the hall.

I cast my shares with the SEIU.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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