Great Moments In Marketing Research: WaMu`s Focus Groups Found “No One Understood The Option Thing.”

 

From the 2011 book Lost Bank by Kirsten Grind about Washington Mutual, which collapsed spectacularly in 2008: In mid-2003, a market researcher named Kevin Jenne is sent to Orange County and Illinois to conduct focus groups on WaMu customers who had recently acquired Option Adjustable Rate Mortgages.
These allowed borrowers to choose anything from 15 year fixed repayment to letting them pay only 1% interest for five years while the principle “negatively amortized” (and then the hammer would come down around 2008 when the interest rate reset to the current index and the principle left to be paid off was larger than when they started). Jenne`s assignment was to study these Option ARM borrowers to learn how to persuade more people to get Option ARM mortgages.

The 31 people who attended the dual sessions had two things in common: all of them held Option ARM loans, and few, if any understood what that meant.  

Jenne listened patiently, as, over and over again, the borrowers described what they believed to be their loan terms. They had gleaned startlingly few details about their loans from the mortgage broker or the WaMu loan consultant who had helped them through the process. Most of them knew they held adjustable-rate loans. They also thought the loan was cheaper than a regular mortgage, because they didn`t have to pay as much each month. Approval hadn`t been a hassle, the customers said — WaMu had required little paperwork or income documentation. That`s where their knowledge stopped. “From their perspective, it was a low payment loan, and that`s all it was,” Jenne said. “No one understood the option thing.” 

Some of the borrowers in the focus groups were first-time homebuyers, still awed by their new ability to capture the American Dream. Recently, President George W. Bush had announced plans to increase minority homeownership by 5.5 million people, piggybacking on the goals of his predecessor, President Bill Clinton. “We want people owning something in America,” Bush declared at an expo in New Mexico. “That`s what we want. The great dream about America is, I can own my own home, people say.”

In reading Bush`s minority mortgage speeches denouncing redlining, downpayment requirements, and onerous paperwork requirements such as pay stubs, a recurrent phenomenon is Bush`s Yoda-like reverse syntax. Did Bush always sound like this, or just on the topic of minority mortgages?

The focus group borrowers, some of them members of minorities, were effusive about their buying power. “They had been told by so many people that they couldn`t afford one,” Jenne said. Now they could.

According to the federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act database that exists to make sure minorities get enough loans, over half of the dollars lent in Orange County in 2003 by Washington Mutual`s subsidiary Long Beach Mortgage went to Hispanics.

Few of them understood what negative amortization meant, or that it could make their debt grow in the long run. …  

Half an hour into the first session with borrowers in Orange County, Jenne could tell that quizzing these people on their loan terms was futile — they didn`t know their loan terms. He got up, excused himself, and left the room. … Jenne walked into another room at the sterile interrogation facility, behind a two-way mirror, where two mortgage production employees from the Home Loans Group had been observing the discussion. … “I don`t think we`re asking the right questions,” Jenne told them. The questions he had put together seemed useless. But the mortgage employees disagreed. They wanted him to ask about indexing, even though the customers barely understood interest rates. “Find out what the index means to them,” they instructed Jenne. 

… He asked the group of borrowers: “How does your interest rate change?” 

No one responded. 

“It changes, right?” Jenne probed. 

The borrowers looked around the table at one another. Finally one said, “Yeah, it changes.” 

“I think it`s indexed,” offered one woman. 

“Yeah, yeah, indexed!” agreed another. They had answered a question correctly! 

“Well, what`s it indexed to?” Jenne asked. 

Another long awkward pause ensued. 

“My loan is indexed to the Nikkei,” proclaimed one borrower. 

Another long, awkward pause ensued. 

“Your mortgage is based on the Japanese stock market?!” Jenne thought to himself. “Of course I didn`t say that, he said later. “But I`m going, `Oh, my heavens.`” Strangely, in another focus group, in Illinois, another borrower also believed his loan was indexed to the Nikkei. Jenned never discovered where borrowers had received that information. “I don`t think they were being told this by someone,” said Jenne. “I think that the only index they had heard of, like on TV or something, was the Nikkei. It was just bizarre.

The borrowers did seem worried about the loan terms. One of them said, “It`s really scary to me what`s going to happen in five years.” Another echoed the same sense of foreboding with a slightly more compressed time frame. “Something terrible happens in three years.” Said a third borrower: “I`m a little nervous about it. I have this feeling of impending doom. It`s almost too good to be true.”

On the other hand, the borrowers seemed comfortable in their ignorance. “Despite their lack of understanding, participants were almost universally happy with their loan choice,” the report noted. …

The Home Loans Group wanted Jenne to recommend ways to market the Option ARM. So, Jenne and his team noted in their follow-up report that the best way to off-load the product onto customers was to tell them little about it. That avoided the problem of complicated loan terms and words that no one understood. “Focusing on the right `need to know` information is critical to developing more Option ARM sales. Participants seemed easily overwhelmed by the product details,” the report concluded.

… Jenne came to believe that the Option ARM wasn`t just a bad idea — it might be evil. “After awhile, I lost that feeling,” Jenne said. “Then I came back to it later on. And then I thought, `No, no, this product is definitely evil.`” 

Whether or not [CEO] Kerry Killinger saw Jenne`s research on America`s hot new mortgage product — and it`s likely that he didn`t se it — WaMu doubled its annual Option ARM production to $68 billion in one year. By early 2005, WaMu promoted its loan as its “signature mortgage.” It made up more than 25% of all the mortgages WaMu made or purchased.

A few observations:

The vast Mexican surge into places like Orange County over the last few generations represented basically Fresh Meat to exploit for Newport Beach MBAs with spreadsheets. When you hear the Donor Class of the GOP talking about the need for “immigration reform,” that`s what they mean: more Fresh Meat.

These dialogues capture quite well the happy-go-lucky agreeableness combined with an aversion to hard mental effort that are a trademark of Mexican-Americans in Southern California (and perhaps elsewhere). When Michael Barone talks about Mexicans as the New Italians, he misses a key distinction: Italian-Americans tend to be suspicious and pessimistic. They put a lot of cognitive effort into trying to understand why this too good to be true offer is too good to be true. They save a lot because they expect the worst.

Mexican-Americans tend to spend a lot because they expect the worst, but it would also be too much work to figure out what might happen, so why not have a good time now?