08 May 2010

4 ways Congress caused the financial crisis | Analysis & Opinion |

4 ways Congress caused the financial crisis | Analysis & Opinion |

4 ways Congress caused the financial crisis

May 5, 2010 11:08 EDT

That bankers disdain their new Washington overlords is no surprise. To many of them, Congress is plagued by “unnerving ignorance” and a refusal to admit its own role in the financial crisis. At least that is how a controversial JPMorgan report puts it. Impolitic perhaps, but not inaccurate.

It’s one thing to discuss such grumbles in the executive suite. It’s another to explicitly lay them out in a widely disseminated research report, accompanied by data and a full-color chart for emphasis — in the midst of the delicate financial reform debate in the U.S. Senate, to boot. But that’s what JPMorgan’s James Glassman did in a May 3 economic note.

In last week’s Senate committee interrogation of Goldman Sachs executives, senators displayed “confusion about our market economy,” according to Glassman, along with plenty of unearned self-righteousness. He snarkily noted that the economic implosion of rust-belt Michigan, home of Carl Levin, the committee chairman, had nothing to do with esoteric derivatives.

It’s not news that many senators appear to have only a tenuous grasp of the financial industry. But Glassman’s larger point is more relevant. It’s not just that Congress doesn’t understand what Goldman, as a market-maker, does — it’s also that elected officials may not recognize that the financial crisis was rooted in Washington as well as Wall Street.

A similar point is made in new study by Ross Levine of Brown University, “An Autopsy of the U.S. Financial System.” Bankers may have rushed to create fancy new securities, but it was legislators who enabled risky behavior by housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — and failed to instill watchdogs like the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission with the backbone needed to rein in risky activities. In detail, Levine makes these points that illustrate the role of Congress:

1) Credit Ratings Agencies. While the crisis does not have a single cause, the behavior of the credit rating agencies is a defining characteristic. It is impossible to imagine the current crisis without the activities of the NRSROs. And, it is difficult to imagine the behavior of the NRSROs without the regulations that permitted, protected, and encouraged their activities. … Rather the evidence is most consistent with the view that regulatory policies and Congressional laws protected and encouraged the behavior of NRSROs.

2) Credit Default Swaps. I am suggesting that the evolution of the CDS market, the fragility of the banks, and the Fed’s capital rules illustrate a key feature of the financial crisis that is frequently ignored. The problems with CDSs and bank capital were not a surprise in 2008; there was ample warning that things were going awry. Senior government policymakers created policies that encouraged excessive risk taking by bankers and adhered to those policies over many years even as they learned about the ramifications of their policies.

3) The SEC and Investment Banks. Consider three interrelated SEC decisions regarding the regulation of investment banks. First, the SEC in 2004 exempted the five largest investment banks from the net capital rule, which was a 1975 rule for computing minimum capital standards at broker- dealers. Second, in a related, coordinated 2004 policy change, the SEC enacted a rule that induced the five investment banks to become “consolidated supervised entities” (CSEs): The SEC would oversee the entire financial firm. Specifically, the SEC now had responsibility for supervising the holding company, broker-dealer affiliates, and all other affiliates on a consolidated basis. Third, the SEC neutered its ability to conduct consolidated supervision of major investment banks. … The combination of these three policies contributed to the onset, magnitude, and breadth of the financial crisis. The SEC’s decisions created enormous latitude and incentives for investment banks to increase risk, and they did.

4) Fannie and Freddie. Deterioration in the financial condition of the GSEs was not a surprise. … But, Congress did not respond and allowed increasingly fragile GSEs to endanger the entire financial system. It is difficult to discern why. Some did not want to jeopardize the increased provision of affordable housing. Many received generous financial support from the GSEs in return for their protection. For the purposes of this paper, the critical issue is that policymakers did not respond as the GSEs became systemically fragile. Again, I am not arguing that the timing, extent, and full nature of the housing bubble were perfectly known. I am arguing that policymakers created incentives for massive risk-taking by the GSEs and then did not respond to information that this risk-taking threatened the financial system.

Of course, even senators who do understand finance may choose to indulge in ignorant-seeming grandstanding for political and electoral reasons. JPMorgan, in turn, has distanced itself from Glassman’s views, presumably to smooth any ruffled political feathers. Even if the bank’s management secretly agrees with its economist, it’s about as likely to say so as members of Congress are to admit their enormous shortcomings.

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