A Good Old-Fashioned Bank Run
LOS ANGELES — Anxious customers jammed the phone lines and Web site of Countrywide Bank and crowded its branch offices to pull out their savings because of concerns about the financial problems of the mortgage lender that owns the bank.
Countrywide Financial Corp., the biggest home-loan company in the United States, sought Thursday to assure depositors and the financial industry that both it and its bank were fiscally stable. And federal regulators said they weren’t alarmed by the volume of withdrawals from the bank.
At Countrywide Bank offices, in a scene rare since the U.S. savings-and-loan crisis ended in the early ’90s, so many people showed up to take out some or all of their money that in some cases they had to leave their names.
In west Los Angeles, a Countrywide supervisor brought in from another office served coffee to more than 25 people waiting calmly for their turn with the one clerk who could help them.
Bill Ashmore drove his Porsche Cayenne to Countrywide’s Laguna Niguel office and waited half an hour to cash out $500,000, which he then wired to an account at Bank of America.
“It’s because of the fear of the bankruptcy,” said Ashmore, president of Irvine’s Impac Mortgage Holdings, which escaped bankruptcy itself recently by shutting down virtually all its lending and laying off hundreds of employees.
“It’s got my wife totally freaked out,” he said. “I just don’t want to deal with it. I don’t care about losing 90 days’ interest, I don’t care if it’s FDIC-insured — I just want it out.”
In a statement, the bank said: “It is very important to remember that Countrywide Bank is well capitalized, with FDIC-insured deposits, and is one of the largest banks in the United States, with assets over $107 billion.” The bank added that it had significant access to outside capital and was still highly rated by debt-rating firms.
In the end, the bank is right. Countrywide Bank and Countrywide Financial are two separate entities and the bank is fundamentally a different entity from the mortgage lender. But banking has always been part-business and part-psychology, if people don’t have confidence in the bank that’s holding their money, no amount of FDIC insurance is going to stop them from taking it out. And, if enough people do that, then Countrywide Bank could find itself in the same position as it’s parent.