FCIC: What Caused the Financial Crisis

So far, only the New York Times has the story — nothing from the WSJ or Bloomberg yet:

The FCIC found that the crisis was caused by “widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street” — but I expect this to be explosive in advance of the actual FCIC release on Thursday.

The many causal factors highlighted in the FCIC report:

• Alan Greenspan’s malfeasance — his refusal to perform his regulatory duties because he did not believe in them — allowed the credit bubble to expand, driving housing prices to dangerously unsustainable levels; Greenspan’s advocacy for financial deregulation was a “pivotal failure to stem the flow of toxic mortgages” and “the prime example” of government negligence;

• Ben S. Bernanke failed to foresee the crisis;

• The Bush administration’s “inconsistent response” — saving Bear, but allowing Lehman to crater — “added to the uncertainty and panic in the financial markets.”

• Bush Treasury secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. wrongly predicted in 2007 that subprime meltdown would be contained.

• The Clinton White House, including then Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, made a crucial error in “shielding over-the-counter derivatives from regulation [CFMA]. This was “a key turning point in the march toward the financial crisis.”

• Then NY Fed President, now Treasury secretary Timothy F. Geithner failed to “clamp down on excesses by Citigroup in the lead-up to the crisis;” Further, a month before Lehman’s collapse, Geithner was still in the dark about Lehman’s derivative exposure;

• Low interest rates brought about by the Fed after the 2001 recession “created increased risks” but were not chiefly to blame, according to the FCIC (I place some more weight on Ultra-low rates than they do);

• The financial sector spent $2.7 billion on lobbying from 1999 to 2008, while individuals and committees affiliated with the industry made more than $1 billion in campaign contributions. The impact of which an incestuous relationship between bankers and regulators, Congress and bankers, and classic regulatory capture by the industry.

• The credit-rating agencies “cogs in the wheel of financial destruction.”

• The Securities and Exchange Commission allowed the 5 biggest banks to ramp up their leverage, hold insufficient capital, and engage in risky practices.

• Leverage at the nation’s five largest investment banks was wildly excessive: They kept only $1 in capital to cover losses for about every $40 in assets;

• The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency along with the Office of Thrift Supervision, “federally pre-empted” (blocked) state regulators from reining in lending abuses;

• The report documents “questionable practices by mortgage lenders and careless betting by banks;”

• The report portrays the “bumbling incompetence among corporate chieftains” as to the risk and operations of their own firms:
-Citigroup executives admitting that they paid little attention to the risks associated with mortgage securities.
-AIG executives were blind to its $79 billion exposure to credit default swaps;
-Merrill Lynch top managers were surprised when mortgage investments suddenly resulted in billions of dollars in losses;
• Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “contributed to the crisis but were not a primary cause.” (Or as I called them, they were just two more crappy banks) The various home ownership goals set by the government were not culprits either.

I feel terrifically vindicated by what I have seen so far. About 90% of Bailout Nation is in accordance with the commission’s findings. The 10% difference being the impact of Ultra low rates as the spark that lit the fire, sending managers scrambling to buy all of this junk paper.

Source:
Financial Crisis Was ‘Avoidable,’ Inquiry Concludes
SEWELL CHAN
NYT January 25, 2011
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/26/business/economy/26inquiry.html

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