Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown?

Published — May 6, 2009 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

About this project

A look behind the Center’s reporting on subprime lenders


The Center for Public Integrity began work on this project in fall 2008 as it became clear that subprime lending was at the heart of the financial crisis. While keeping track of other work in this investigative field, we believed that most news organizations were caught up in the rapidly changing day-to-day economic stories, and none were digging into precisely who was responsible for the subprime lending that contributed so heavily to the disaster.

In late September, the Center’s data editor David Donald began his computer analysis of some 350 million mortgage applications going back to 1994. We wanted to determine how America’s subprime lending unfolded and who the biggest lenders were. At the same time, reporter Kat Aaron began work on a widely overlooked history of attempts to reign in abusive loan practices, “Predatory Lending: A Decade of Warnings; Congress, Fed Fiddled As Subprime Crisis Spread.”

In January 2009, former Associated Press reporter John Dunbar, who had been covering the economic crisis in Washington, joined the Center and immediately began work designing a project around the top subprime lenders and their financial backers. Meanwhile, data expert Donald focused on the top loan originators from 2005 through 2007, a period that marks the peak and collapse of the subprime boom. These lenders we eventually dubbed “The Subprime 25.” With our data analysis in hand, Dunbar and a team of Center reporters put together profiles of all 25 top subprime lenders.

Through our reporting, we discovered that at least 21 of the top 25 subprime lenders were directly or indirectly financed by the mega banks that received bailout money — through direct ownership, credit agreements, or huge purchases of loans for securitization. Dunbar then completed two major reports with the help of his team, “The Roots of the Financial Crisis: Who Is To Blame; Banks that Financed Subprime Industry Collecting Billions in Bailouts,” as well as a thorough primer on what had happened, “Meltdown 101: Subprime Mortgages and the Road to Financial Ruin.”

The Center for Public Integrity also created a series of charts and graphs to help tell the story, including information on the hefty lobbying and political contributions to members of Congress by the companies involved. To illustrate the project, Multimedia Editor Ariel Olson Surowidjojo was instrumental in gathering the charts, graphs, photos, and company logos. The Center also shared its subprime mortgage data with the innovative, Palo Alto-based Palantir Technologies, which used its network analysis software to create more than a hundred “heat maps” showing where each of the Subprime 25 companies made their home loans.

The Team

Editorial Team

Bill Buzenberg, executive director
David E. Kaplan, editorial director
Gordon Witkin, managing editor
John Dunbar, project manager/lead author
David Donald, data editor

Reporting Team
John Dunbar, David Donald, Kat Aaron, Laura Cheek, Josh Israel, Matthew Lewis, Sarah Laskow

Fact Checking
Peter Newbatt Smith, research editor
Laura Cheek, Matthew Lewis, M.B. Pell

Web Team
Andrew Green, web editor
Ariel Olson Surowidjojo, multimedia editor
Cole Goins, assistant web editor
Tuan Le, information technology manager/web developer

Web Design
Top Dead Center Design, website design

Special Assistance
Palantir Technologies, data analysis/map design

Media Team
Bridget Gallagher, director of development and communications
Jeanne Brooks, outreach coordinator
Steve Carpinelli, media relations manager

Additional Thanks
Carolyn Jarboe
Ellen McPeake
Regina Russell
Eva Starrak


Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown? is generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and many other generous institutional and individual donors. The Center for Public Integrity also wishes to thank Palantir Technologies of Palo Alto, California, which provided generous in-kind support through its network analysis software, data analysis, and map design.

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