Behind Wamu's Stock Plunge

Normally when an unpopular ceo gets the boot, the company’s share price climbs in a massive sigh of relief. Kerry Killinger, ceo of troubled thrift Washington Mutual, officially got fired today. But Wamu stock is down 18% to $3.50.

Wamu’s drop is even more surprisingly coming amidst what should be good news for the mortgage industry. The federal government is taking over industry giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. While that means potentially huge losses for the shareholders of those firms, it is intended to be a signal that the administration is taking serious steps to minimize the fallout of the mortgage crisis. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson says the goal of the bailout is to prevent an escalation in foreclosures and to keep mortgage rates from soaring. Stocks in general are up on the news.

Killinger’s departure wasn’t exactly unexpected. What’s amazing is that he hung on as long as he did. That’s likely to due to his 18-year tenure at Wamu and the fact that he built the firm up from a small Seattle thrift to a national player in banking and mortgages. Wamu’s growing pains—and questions about Killinger’s leadership—began even before the mortgage meltdown, however. In 2006 the company’s overtaxed computer systems suffered high profile problems.

During the mortgage boom, Killinger plunged headlong into subprime loans and exotic adjustable rate mortgage products. His team tried to throttle back more than a year ago, but it wasn’t enough. In the second quarter Wamu lost $3.3 billion. Private equity firms—led by Texas-based TPG— pumped $7.2 billion into the company in April. They must have been seething as the stock dropped from $8.75 to $4 per share. Shareholders were angrily calling for Killinger to step down at the company’s annual meeting.

On top of all this, Wamu announced on Monday that it had reached a memorandum of understanding with the Office of Thrift Supervision wherein it agreed to provide the federal regulators with more details about his operations.

Killinger’s successor, Alan Fishman, has a long history in financial services, including the job of president of Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Bancorp. Wamu’s stock drop means investors think he’s a got a long, tough road ahead of him.

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