Angelo Mozilo has a lot to apologize for. But the rising number of housing foreclosures isn't one of them.
The CEO of Countrywide Financial (NYSE: CFC ) , as well as the other executives grilled by Congress on Friday, didn't tell the legislators to "stuff it" as I had recommended (not that I really thought they would). Yet neither did he turn beggar and prostrate himself at their feet. And rightly so.
Mozilo, former Citigroup (NYSE: C ) CEO Charles Prince, and former Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER ) executive Stan O'Neal were hauled down to Capitol Hill on Friday to answer for the ills of housing. It was a dog-and-pony show for politicians to prove their toughness and engage in a little public blood-letting for their folks back home.
Yet it is Congress as much as anyone -- save, perhaps, the Fed chairman -- that holds culpability for the current state of affairs. And while we're dispersing blame, let's also not forget the large responsibility that individual homeowners themselves need to shoulder in this mess.
It wasn't Mozilo who created the easy money policies that fueled the housing boom. It wasn't O'Neal who signed homeowners' names on the mortgage document. And it wasn't Prince who encouraged homeowners to live beyond their means or buy more house than they could afford (and probably more than they needed). That's all on Congress, the Fed, and the homeowners.
No, the apology Mozilo needs to issue is to the shareholders of Countrywide for trying to squeeze every last nickel out of the company. Between 1998 and 2006, Mozilo took home almost $250 million in pay and more than $400 million from sales of company stock. Yet there he was in an email to a pay consultant whining that his board was dithering over picking up the tab for "gross ups," the insidious company practice of paying the taxes due for an executive on the benefits he's given.
He also needs to say he's sorry for mortgage products that weakened the financial condition of the lender to such a point that it now needs to be saved from ruin by getting bought up by Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) . Just because you can make a creative mortgage product that allows just about anyone to buy a house doesn't mean you should. That's a charge that needs to be answered -- but to the shareholders of Countrywide, not Congress.
As the founder of the country's largest mortgage lender and the captain who steered it through decades of tremendous growth, he deserves to be compensated (and thanked) for the immense shareholder wealth he created. However, when he chose to take Countrywide public, he lost the right to treat the company's coffers as his own personal piggy bank, and the directors had a responsibility to say no. They also had a responsibility to ensure their practices would keep Countrywide financially sound. Mozilo and the board of risk and rot failed miserably on both accounts, and, for that, an apology (and remuneration) is needed -- but nothing more.
Countrywide will soon fold into the hands of another, and an institution that did help millions of people reap the rewards of sound financial homeownership will pass away. That's something we should all be sorry for.
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