Last October, few executives would have envied Michael W. Perry. Then chief operating officer of IndyMac Mortgage Holdings, he watched his company's stock price fall as much as 46% in one day.
Meanwhile, Wall Street was suddenly pulling the plug on other real estate investment trusts and nonconforming mortgage lenders. Margin calls forced Criimi Mae Inc. into bankruptcy; Southern Pacific Funding Corp. filed when its lenders yanked their uncommitted credit lines.
The fallout from the liquidity crisis has continued this year, with FirstPlus Financial Group, United Companies Financial Corp., and Wilshire Financial Services Group joining the roster of bankrupt specialty lenders. Yet IndyMac has survived. And last month, in a dramatic turnaround, the Pasadena, Calif., REIT said its first-quarter earnings would be 28 to 32 cents per share - 20% to 40% higher than analysts' expectations.
Analysts give much of the credit to Mr. Perry, who was promoted to chief executive officer in February. At age 36, he is seen as a visionary future leader of the mortgage industry.
Angelo R. Mozilo, IndyMac's president and vice chairman, praises Mr. Perry - despite the stock's lackluster performance over the last six months. It was trading at $10.9375 recently, off almost 50% from its Sept. 28 level.
"Mike is an extraordinary executive," said Mr. Mozilo, who is better known as the founder, chairman and chief executive of Countrywide Credit Industries, the largest independent mortgage bank. "I've been doing this for 46 years, I've hired thousands of people, and I put him at the top of any executive list I've seen."
Rare among mortgage executives, Mr. Perry combines financial acumen with a salesman's charm. "He's a CPA with a personality," Mr. Mozilo said.
Mr. Perry has been with IndyMac since 1993, when it was still very much under Countrywide's wing; at the time it was known as Countrywide Mortgage Investments.
The REIT gradually carved out its own identity, changing its name to CWM Mortgage Holdings, then to INMC Mortgage Holdings, then IndyMac. In 1997, it purchased the Countrywide unit that managed it.
If anyone has a stake in Mr. Perry's success, it is Mr. Mozilo, who had a large shareholding in IndyMac last fall. "I lost $13 million," he said recently, perhaps with some hyperbole.
Mr. Mozilo doesn't blame Mr. Perry for the stock's decline. Undoubtedly, IndyMac fell victim to the same merciless market forces that battered the subprime sector.
Fortunately for IndyMac, subprime loans account for only 15% of its volume. The vast majority, Mr. Perry noted, is in jumbo and alternative-A loans, which are more liquid than subprime loans.
The company certainly took its share of lumps from the unexpected, unprecedented liquidity drought. It lost $73 million in the fourth quarter, and had to shed 280 employees. The stock price has recovered only slightly.
During the tumultuous fourth quarter, the company shrunk its balance sheet to $5.5 billion from $7.5 billion and greatly reduced its leverage.
"The fourth quarter taught us that if we had a weakness, we had a weaker liability side of the balance sheet than despositories or highly rated entities that had been around for 10 or 20 years," Mr. Perry said.
"The key to getting our earnings power fully up is to strengthen the liability side of our balance sheet."
Having observed how fickle Wall Street lenders can be, Mr. Perry is working to decrease IndyMac's reliance on "repo" financing, which accounts for 60% of IndyMac's liabilities; Mr. Perry projects that figure will shrink to 30%.
Some 95% of IndyMac's borrowings are committed, and if one excludes financing of loans that have already been sold forward, committed lines represent 130% of the company's total borrowings, he said.
Most significantly, IndyMac plans to either buy or start a depository institution, most likely a federally chartered thrift. Deposits are "a more stable funding source," Mr. Perry said. "You can leverage to a greater extent than you can in a REIT."
The company is leaning toward buying an existing thrift, and hopes to find one to its liking with $500 million to $1 billion of deposits.
At the same time, IndyMac is filing applications with regulators to start a thrift. "It's hard to find one under $1 billion that has good assets and good management," Mr. Perry said.
Mr. Perry said IndyMac was looking at a handful of thrifts, mostly in California. He says he would prefer to acquire a "wholesale" depository - meaning one that primarily takes certificates of deposit, advertises in the newspaper, and doesn't have an extensive branch network.
A depository with a large branch infrastructure has fixed costs, and runs the risk "that a more well-branded financial institution steals your deposits over time," Mr. Perry said.
This preference dovetails with IndyMac's overall strategy, which Mr. Perry describes as "anti-branch." The company eschews bricks-and-mortar offices in favor of brokers, telemarketing, and the Internet.
IndyMac will most likely rename its depository LoanWorks Bank, after its unit that sells mortgages through telemarketing and the Internet, and use those high-tech channels to grow the deposit base.
IndyMac would have an advantage over other "e-depositories" because it already has a lending franchise and generates a lot of high-yielding assets, said Arthur K. Bender, an analyst at Sutro & Co. "It's harder for (the other on-line banks) to offer 10 basis points more on CD's."
Mr. Perry's vision of a branchless distribution network demonstrates that he is "a strategic thinker," said Kenneth A. Posner, analyst at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. "He thinks about changes in the industry and that guides his investment decisions. There are very few strategic thinkers in the mortgage business."
As part of his blueprint, Mr. Perry is taking steps to position IndyMac ahead of its competitors in such cutting-edge areas as risk-based pricing and Internet originations.
Last year, IndyMac started using a risk-based pricing model that can give each loan a customized price based on the borrower's credit score, the size of the loan, the loan-to-value ratio, and other factors.
"Not all loans, even single-family home loans, are equal from a credit perspective," Mr. Perry said. Yet most other private-label securitizers use a simple grid that gives price estimates for various loan products.
For example, if 10 borrowers come to a lender, the standard grid would give one price to five of them, another price to the rest. IndyMac's engine would give 10 different prices.
And while the government-sponsored enterprises have begun to implement risk-based pricing through their automated underwriting engines, these systems primarily sort risk on loans that have already been closed. IndyMac's can give a risk-based price right at the point of sale.
IndyMac first began using this sophisticated pricing model in its wholesale lending business through its Electronic Mortgage Information Transaction System, or e-MITS.
A mortgage broker anywhere in the country can link into e-MITS through the web using a proprietary password, enter data on a loan in about 55 data fields, and send it to the e-MITS "brain" in Pasadena, which then accesses the borrower's credit report and credit score. In less than three minutes, the broker can get a "live" risk-based price.
Beginning April 1, use of e-MITS will be mandatory for all new brokers that sign up with IndyMac. And in mid-April the same model will be operational on IndyMac's consumer Web site, Loanworks.com. Consumers shopping around for mortgages from their homes will be able to type in the same data themselves and get live pricing.
This will differentiate Indymac's site from sites like E-Loan, Mr. Perry said, because IndyMac's will give an exact price that won't change. E-Loan and others can give real-time price estimates, but that price is only final if the loan is sold to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac; if it is not, the price changes.
Instant on-line answers will appeal particularly to subprime borrowers, Mr. Perry said. "A lot of them are nervous about, 'Do I qualify? What rate?' They'll be able to do this themselves in the safety of their home, as opposed to having to go in and wonder, they're going to get an answer in three minutes."
Not to mention that the Web site will eliminate much of the the costs of maintaining branch infrastructure and commissioned loan officers that are passed on to subprime borrowers - costs which can average $2,500 per loan, Mr. Perry said.
Mr. Perry hopes to eventually incorporate prepayment risk into IndyMac's risk-based pricing model. "For mortgage bankers and portfolio lenders, that's in many cases a bigger risk than credit risk," he said.
For example, a borrower with pristine credit, a $650,000 loan and 50% equity in his home "is probably the worst borrower you can have. It's a big loan and a quarter-percent is a big number for them."
Because of the prepayment risk, such a borrower "probably shouldn't get the best rate," Mr. Perry said.
One way to gauge such risk would be the rate spread at which a borrower refinances, he suggested. "If they have a 7.25% loan and they refinance for a 7% loan, you have a pretty good indication that that borrower is a very efficient refinance person."
Mr. Perry's hard-line management style is apparently too much for some workers. The Yahoo! Internet message board is filled with anonymous postings from people claiming to be disgruntled employees, describing IndyMac as a sweatshop where they were overworked and mistreated.
Mr. Perry acknowledges that "from time to time, in our desire to really push our company forward and to make the kind of money we want to make for our shareholders, we could have done a better job looking after employees." Only in the last year has the company even had a human resources department, he noted.
But he makes no apologies for working his employees hard, and says he wants to foster an entrepreneurial, Microsoft-like corporate culture.
"We don't want people at this company who are just here punching for a paycheck. I am focused on raising the barriers to get into this company."