How Bad Is the Republican Financial Crisis Report?

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is in the midst of a crisis of its own. This will come as a total shock to anyone who follows U.S. politics, but Republicans and Democrats don't seem to be on the same page. They can't agree on what should be said in the final report. As a result, the Republican commissioners released their own mini-report (.pdf) that explains their point-of-view. Unfortunately, it's not great.

So what does the report say? It essentially says that flawed government housing policy created a housing bubble. It then explains how banks and other financial firms became very exposed to the mortgage market. When it collapsed, so did they. Investors panicked, and the crisis hit.

In very, very broad strokes, this is mostly right. But the report lacks the sort of detail you would hope for from a multi-million dollar research effort with subpoena power. And that's the undeniable criticism of the Republican report: its lack of substance. Weighing in at a puny nine pages, it reads more like an economic theory paper abstract than an exhaustive account of how and why the financial markets collapsed, which should include pretty charts and lots of data. To be sure, there are also big holes in the report, like the lack of a broad explanation of how the rise non-bank lenders and other unregulated financial entities helped to create imbalances.

In fact, several economic commentators have expressed their dismay that the Republican report aims too low and casts far too narrow a net mostly blaming poor government policy. In general, they're right. But it's probably wise to save a little condemnation for when we get to see the final report created by the Democratic members. It's certainly possible that their version suffers from an equal but opposite problem. It may go on and on about Wall Street's involvement, but fail entirely to hold poor government policy accountable. Evidence of the likelihood of this possibility is clear enough through the summer's financial regulation bill. Crafted by Democrats, it sought to fix the causes of the financial crisis, but did nothing to reform housing policy, its catalyst.

What the Republican report really shows is a problem with a government-initiated effort like this one -- it can't help but get political. When you put Republicans and Democrats in a room and ask them to debate a controversial subject like macroeconomic theory, you're bound to get some conflict. Ultimately, there's some truth to the conclusions of both sides. Democrats will likely blame things like deregulation and leverage at big banks. Certainly, those factors contributed to the crisis, but so did the flawed public-private corporation model at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the main cause Republicans blame.

None of the causes named by the commissioners with either political leaning will surprise those who have followed the event and its aftermath closely. There have already been books and research papers written on the subject, and there will continue to be for decades. Many of those reports will contain analysis less tainted by politics. And they'll also provide a broad spectrum of views, which is needed to understand a complex event like the financial crisis. Rather than look to a government commission to identify the problems, it would have been wiser to just rely on academics and market observers to write books and papers explaining what went wrong.

So is the Republican report completely useless? No, but it isn't nearly as useful as we might have wished it would be. Let's hope that the Democratic commissioners do better.