Out of Whack

Published: May 27, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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In one keystroke Countrywide Financial’s Chief Executive Angelo Mozilo lived up to the worst traits of a corporate executive.

It started when homeowner Daniel Bailey wrote a letter addressed to Mr. Mozilo and sixteen other Countrywide staff:

“I am writing this letter to explain my unfortunate set of circumstances that have caused me to become delinquent on my mortgage,” Bailey began.  “I have done everything in my power to make ends meet but unfortunately I have fallen short and would like you to consider working with me to modify my loan.”

According to Los Angeles Times writer Scott Reckard, “Bailey said he took out the adjustable-rate mortgage without realizing how it worked and had been told incorrectly that he could refinance after a year.  Instead, he wrote, ‘the bottom fell out’ of the home-loan industry and he was stuck with unaffordable payments.”

Bailey used a template from a group called LoanSafe.org to write his letter, then e-mailed it to a list of Countrywide employees including Mr. Mozilo.

After receiving the message, Mr. Mozilo drafted his own response, presumably addressed to others within the company.  However, instead of hitting the “Forward” key, he hit “Reply” instead:

“This is unbelievable.  Most of these letters now have the same wording.  Obviously they are being counseled by some other person or by the internet.  Disgusting.”

In fairness to Countrywide, Mr. Bailey as well as others in a similar predicament should realize that ignorance is no excuse.  Unless there is evidence of fraud, Mr. Bailey really has no defense.  At the very least, he should have consulted a knowledgeable real estate agent, or attorney before signing anycontract much less an adjustable-rate mortgage.

However, rather than being confrontational, Mr. Bailey’s message is both respectful and conciliatory.  “My number one goal is to keep my home that I have lived in for sixteen years, remodeled with my own sweat equity and I would really appreciate the opportunity to do that… this home means the world to me.”

By characterizing Bailey’s sincerely written letter as “unbelievable” and “disgusting,” Mr. Mozilo does much to support the general characterization that CEOs are merciless, greedy titans focused solely on their own interests.

In fact, Mr. Mozilo’s own behavior gives credence to this particular argument in light of a congressional committee hearing held just two months ago when Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland asked Mr. Mozilo “…why [Mozilo] urged Countrywide to pay taxes on his wife’s travel on the company’s private jet.  ‘I have some constituents who are losing houses; you are upset about your wife,’ Mr. Cummings said.

“Mr. Mozilo responded, ‘It sounds out of whack today because it is out of whack, but in 2006, the company was doing great.’  Mr. Mozilo said he would not have made such a request today and apologized for complaining about his compensation in an internal e-mail message.”

After the accidental reply to Mr. Bailey’s e-mail letter, Countrywide released a statement of regret over “any misunderstanding” caused by Mr. Mozilo’s “inadvertent response.”

All of us make mistakes.  All of us have said things in the heat of anger that we have regretted.  Here’s a CEO presented with an opportunity to turn it around with a personal apology as well as an offer to help, but chooses to pass it up.

Now that’s out of whack!


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