For some reason, the rise and fall of the mortgage industry has been in more of my conversations than usual lately. So even though this doesn’t have the humor I usually go for, I thought I’d share my story. You see, I was there when it happened.
Right after I graduated from college, my big plan was to move to New York and become an editor at a publishing company. Except I graduated in 2007, and there were 0 jobs to be had, let alone for people who were trying to relocate. So plan B was that I would get an “in the meantime” job, save up as much as I could, move to New York blind, and find a job when I got there.
As it turns out, I liked my “in the meantime” job. I was a Training Coordinator for Indymac Bank.
Yeah, I know. Those of you who know how this story ends are already cringing, but don’t get ahead of me.
The first couple of months were ok. They had a hiring freeze on all non-income-generating personnel. So I was a temp-to-hire. My boss asked me about my career goals and even offered to mentor me in the ways of writing training material. Two months after that, there were some rumblings that the hiring freeze may not be enough, and that if anyone wanted to volunteer for a layoff, they would be compensated well. A couple of people in my department took them up on the offer, and we didn’t hear anything else for a while.
That October (2007), when 3rd quarter financials were released, it wasn’t good news. When the financials were made public, they usually sent one representative from HR to work out of each bank branch in case customers come in with questions. Basically, they need someone who can keep cool and speak in calming tones to upset customers. Strangely, they sent me to one of the branches that day, even though I hadn’t been with the company for very long, nor did I really know enough to answer anyone’s questions. Luckily for me, no one came in that branch looking for information on the financials.
As the months went by, more news stories were coming out about the housing market and the mortgage lending industry that made people nervous. Then, on June 27, 2008, Senator Chuck Schumer sent an open letter addressing concerns about Indymac’s stability. The letter went viral, and that’s when it all came crashing down.
How could you not expect a panic when you tell the general public “Look over there! That business isn’t doing well”? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. After the letter was published in the Wall Street Journal, the panic began to rise. Customers came in wanting to close their accounts for fear we would go under. Except, part of the reason we went under was precisely because large amount of people were rushing to close their accounts. Not that there weren’t plenty of other reasons Indymac was struggling, but uncontrolled fear and panic drove us straight into the ground.
One day, all HR employees were asked to report to the corporate office in Pasadena for bank teller training. They gave us 4 hours of training on how to look up accounts, close accounts, and issue cashiers checks. Then they assigned one or two of us per branch to handle the influx of customers. We just didn’t have enough man power to handle the lines.
I split my time between the Tustin branch and the Newport/Mesa branch. Those few weeks were tense, but not overwhelming. People were scared, and rightly so. The idea that your money might not be safe in a bank is frightening.
I have a couple of vivid memories from this period of time. First, a woman came in and asked me to look at her account. She was concerned that her money might not all be covered by FDIC insurance. She was right. Her account showed $4 million in a single account with no beneficiaries, which, at the time, meant she was insured for $100,000 of that. (they have since changed the FDIC rules) She and I spent the next 10 minutes or so mapping out all the different account types and beneficiaries she would need to make sure most or all of her money was covered. I mapped it out on a piece of paper for her, and she asked if she could take it home with her and ask her husband about it, then come back to make the changes official. Sure, why not?
That Friday, at 3:00pm, two well-dressed men toting rolling laptop bags came in to the branch and asked us to close and lock the doors. They were representatives from the FDIC and we were no longer in business.
Pardon my french, but that scared the shit out of me.
What do we do? Why didn’t corporate tell us this was happening? Are we supposed to call someone? What if customers still need to get in the bank? We normally close at 6:00pm on Fridays.
Apparently, two FDIC representatives were at every branch doing the exact same thing, complete with synchronized watches. Our phone began ringing off the hook. A small crowd of customers was outside banging on the door, demanding to know what was happening.
We started our closing procedures as if the work day were over, and stood around somewhat aimlessly wondering if we were supposed to come to work on Monday. Did we still have jobs?
Yes, they told us, we still have jobs. Monday morning, this bank will reopen as Indymac Federal Bank, and those FDIC insurance rules no one remembered? Those kick in as of right now. Anyone who has funds at the bank will be guaranteed their insured amount and half of their uninsured amount as a gesture of good faith. Customers may or may not get the remainder of their uninsured amount, depending on how much the bank sells for.
That Monday, there was a line of people 6-8 hours long waiting to see if they could take their money out of the bank. We had to take a sign up list for those people who didn’t get in that day so they could come back tomorrow and be first in line.
Every day I went to work I was sick to my stomach. I’m not a bank teller. I make copies of training material, for Pete’s sake!
The following week, I remembered the name of the woman with $4 million. I looked up her account…it now said just over $2 million was in her account. She never came back in to make the changes we discussed, and lost $2 million when the bank went under. I felt guilty for not encouraging her more urgently to make those changes. How does someone just lose $2 million??
The next memory that stuck with me was the time I spent at the Newport Mesa branch, where the clientele was…of a different caliber. They’re not used to people telling them no, or not getting what they want. That was the most stressful period in my career thus far. One woman leaned over the desk to get within inches of my face and scream “I hope you all lose your jobs for this!” I felt my face getting hot, and I very badly wanted to yell back at her or cry. I’d never had anyone treat me like that. In order to fix the hold that the FDIC place don her account, all she had to do was sign a single piece of paper and fax it in. She hadn’t lost any of her money. But she was incredibly upset, and needed to take it out on someone, I suppose.
A few days later, she came back. I saw her approaching the branch on the security cameras and quickly went on my break. I did NOT want to deal with her again. When I came back out, she was still being helped. She leaned over to my customer and pointed at me “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Everything she told me the other day was a lie.” Geez, lady, leave me alone. I’m doing the best I can.
Then, we had an earthquake. As if we weren’t stressed out enough! We evacuated the building, and the poor teller who had Ms. Crankypants for a customer had a new set of problems. “When can we go back inside? I have things to do. I can’t just be standing in the parking lot all day.” Oh, brother.
But that was the worst of it. Mostly, people just wanted to make sure their money was still there or take the money out of the bank altogether. I don’t blame them.
During all this, there were multiple rounds of layoffs. We went from having about 9,000 employees to about 3,000 employees over the course of that year. The atmosphere in the office was odd. We all openly talked about finding another job. We waited for someone to buy the bank from the FDIC.
I had 4 bosses in two years, and by the 4th one, no one remembered what I did there. It was very Office Space.
So I, too, looked for another job. One of my coworkers decided his plan B was to move to Nicaragua where he owns land, and has turned it into a bed and breakfast. Pretty cool, actually.
These days, Indymac goes by OneWest Bank. They were bought out by group of investors, and seem to be doing pretty well.
While I don’t miss that time in my life, it was certainly a memorable experience. One I hope we’ve all learned from.