Michael Hudson of the WSJ reports that twelve years ago, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. sent a vice president to California to check out First Alliance Mortgage Co. Lehman was thinking about tapping into First Alliance's lucrative business of making "subprime" home loans to consumers with sketchy credit.
The vice president, Eric Hibbert, wrote a memo describing First Alliance as a financial "sweat shop" specializing in "high pressure sales for people who are in a weak state." At First Alliance, he said, employees leave their "ethics at the door."
The big Wall Street investment bank decided First Alliance wasn't breaking any laws. Lehman went on to lend the mortgage company roughly $500 million and helped sell more than $700 million in bonds backed by First Alliance customers' loans. But First Alliance later collapsed. Lehman landed in court, where a federal jury found the firm helped First Alliance defraud customers.
Today, Lehman is a prime example of how Wall Street's money and expertise have helped transform subprime lending into a major force in the U.S. financial markets. Lehman says it is proud of its role in helping provide credit to consumers who might otherwise have been unable to buy a home, and proud of the controls it has brought to a sometimes-unruly business.
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