It may seem like ancient history now, but not long ago the mortgage industry was turning ordinary people into millionaires. One of them was Sharmen Lane, a high school dropout who, like many other young women during the boom, found her way into an obscure banking job with the clunky title "mortgage wholesaler." Her experience—and the experiences of other wholesalers like her—offers a glimpse into the recklessness and indulgence that drove the industry to ruin.
The rise of mortgage wholesalers from grunts to rainmakers is one of the more curious developments of the housing bubble. Wholesalers work for banks and other lenders. The wholesaler's job is to buy loan applications from independent mortgage brokers so that lenders can turn them into loans. Wholesalers are paid on commission: the more loans they generate, the more money they make. During the housing boom, lenders typically approved the loans and then packaged them into securities. That path—from mortgage brokers to wholesalers to lenders to securities—turned out to be a road to disaster.
But as the housing bubble inflated, wholesalers—though hidden from public view—became high-earning superstars. Lane, a manicurist before joining now-defunct subprime lender New Century Mortgage in 1997, says she brought home $1 million in 2002 and $1.2 million in 2003.
Eventually the deal-making turned frenetic. Multiple wholesalers began inundating mortgage brokers with offers for the same applications. Some brokers chose to exercise their power by asking for something extra in exchange for their business: sex.
Dozens of former brokers and wholesalers say the trading of sexual favors was so common that it came to be expected. Lane recalls one visit to a mortgage brokerage near San Jose (Calif.) in which the manager lewdly propositioned her in his office. She says she declined the advance, and he didn't sell her any applications. But other female wholesalers didn't have the same qualms about crossing the line. "Women who had sex for loans were known very quickly," says Lane, who left New Century before it failed in 2007 and now works as a $200-an-hour life coach and motivational speaker in New York. "I didn't want to be a mortgage slut."
Investment bubbles always spawn excesses, and housing was no exception. The abuses went far beyond sexual dalliances. Court documents and interviews with scores of industry players suggest that wholesalers also offered bribes to fellow employees, fabricated documents, and coached brokers on how to break the rules. And they weren't alone. Brokers, who work directly with borrowers, altered and shredded documents. Underwriters, the bank employees who actually approve mortgage loans, also skirted boundaries, demanding secret payments from wholesalers to green-light loans they knew to be fraudulent. Some employees who reported misdeeds were harassed or fired. Federal and state prosecutors are picking through the industry's wreckage in search of criminal activity.
Now wholesalers, who for a brief moment rose to prominence, are an endangered species. The failures of large subprime lenders like New Century, BNC (a unit of Lehman Brothers), and GreenPoint Mortgage, owned by Capital One, threw thousands out of work. Some lenders still in business have curtailed or shuttered their wholesale operations.
In the end, the wholesalers were undone by the same people who allowed for their rise: their Wall Street overlords. During the boom investment banks bought as many loans as they could to pool together and turn into securities. In 2006 the top 10 investment banks, which included Merrill Lynch (MER), Bear Stearns ( 2 3 Next Page