WASHINGTON — As banks gambled on the risky mortgages that helped create the worst financial crisis in generations, the U.S. government handed out millions of dollars in bonuses to regulators at agencies that missed or ignored warning signs that the system was on the verge of a meltdown.
The bonuses, detailed in payroll data released to the Associated Press, are the latest evidence of the government's false sense of security during the go-go days of the financial boom. Just as bank executives got bonuses despite taking on dangerous amounts of risk, regulators got taxpayer-funded bonuses despite missing or ignoring signs that the system was on the verge of a meltdown.
The bonuses were part of a reward program little known outside the government. Some government regulators got tens of thousands of dollars in perks, boosting their salaries by almost 25 percent. Often, though, rewards amounted to just a few hundred dollars for employees who came up with good ideas.
During the 2003-06 boom, the three agencies that supervise most U.S. banks — the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — gave out at least $19 million in bonuses, records show.
Nearly all that money was spent recognizing "superior" performance. The largest share, more than $8.4 million, went to financial examiners, those employees and managers who scrutinize internal bank documents and sound the first alarms.
After the meltdown, the government's internal investigators surveyed the wreckage of nearly 200 failed banks and repeatedly found that those regulators had not done enough:
• "OTS did not react in a timely and forceful manner to certain repeated indications of problems," the Treasury Department's inspector general said of the thrift supervision office following the $2.5 billion collapse of NetBank, the first major bank failure of the economic crisis.
• "OCC did not issue a formal enforcement action in a timely manner and was not aggressive enough in the supervision of ANB in light of the bank's rapid growth," the inspector general said of the currency comptroller after the $2.1 billion failure of ANB Financial National Association
• "In retrospect, a stronger supervisory response at earlier examinations may have been prudent," the FDIC's inspector general concluded after the $1.8 billion collapse of New Frontier Bank.
Because most bank inspection records are not public and the government blacked out many of the employee names before releasing the bonus data, it's impossible to determine how many auditors got bonuses despite working on major banks that failed.
Regulators says it's unfair to use those missteps, seen with the benefit of hindsight, to suggest any of the bonuses was improper.
"These are meant to motivate employees, have them work hard," thrift office spokesman William Ruberry said.
David Barr, a spokesman for the FDIC, which handed out two-thirds of the bonuses during the boom, had no comment.
The bonus data released to the AP does not say specifically why each person received a bonus. For instance, one person in the OCC's financial examining division got a $41,000 recruitment bonus on top of a $179,000 salary in 2005. In 2006, the last boom year for banks buying risky mortgages, the FDIC gave out more than 2,000 bonuses to financial examiners.
To be sure, Washington policymakers eased regulations and encouraged banks to write risky loans. Families bought homes they couldn't afford. Brokers found them mortgages. Bankers quickly snatched them up, never asking whether they could be repaid. And rating agencies certified it all as safe.
But regulators were part of the problem, and the bonuses were a symptom, said Ellen Seidman, a research fellow at the New America Foundation think tank and head of the Office of Thrift Supervision from 1997 to 2001.
But the bigger question, she said, is why government regulators thought they were doing so well: "Why did the system fool itself?"