Risk and Poor Regulation Caused Financial Crisis, Says Panel

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Explaining something as tangled, technical, and multi-dimensional as the 2008 financial crisis is fraught with difficulty. Some have tried comparing toxic assets to supermodels, while others have given musical theater a shot.

This morning we have another answer--in the form of a 576-page book--from the congressionally appointed panel charged with investigating the roots of the meltdown. Were it not for corporate incompetence, inadequate government regulation, and excessive risk-taking by Wall Street banks in the housing market, the commission concludes, the country could have avoided financial calamity.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission blames former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for failing to contain the spread of toxic mortgages and the Bush administration for its inconsistent bailout policy, while labeling the Democrats' decision in 2000 to not regulate over-the-counter derivatives "a key turning point." Just as notably, the report doesn't accuse the low interest rates instituted by the Fed after the 2001 recession, government-backed mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or the government's aggressive push for homeownership of playing major roles in the crisis.

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The commission splintered along party lines, with only the Democratic majority endorsing the final report. The Republican members issued two separate dissents, and others are weighing in as well:

  • Blame Government Housing Policies, argues Republican panel member Peter J. Wallison. He accuses Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of fueling the risky subprime loans that crippled financial institutions when they turned sour.
  • Blame Global Economic Forces and Government Failure, claim dissenting Republican panel members Bill Thomas, Keith Hennessey, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin in The Wall Street Journal. Noting that housing bubbles existed in other countries, they dismiss the panel's contention that "the crisis was the product of a small coterie of Wall Street bankers and their Washington bedfellows" and Wallison's thesis that "the housing bubble was a phenomenon driven solely by the U.S. government." They continue:

It is dangerous to conclude that the crisis would have been avoided if only we had regulated everything a lot more, had fewer housing subsidies, and had more responsible bankers. Simple narratives like these ignore the global nature of this crisis, and promote a simplistic explanation of a complex problem. Though tempting politically, they will ultimately lead to mistaken policies.

  • You Can't Ignore Regulation, counters Mark Thoma at Economist's View, in scrutinizing the factors Thomas, Hennessey, and Holtz-Eakin say led to the financial crisis: "These factors are, for the most part, a chain of events. If the chain had been broken by more effective regulation anywhere along the way, the chain of events is interrupted."
  • Will Report Have Any Impact? wonder Nathaniel Popper and Jim Puzzanghera at the Los Angeles Times. The commission has produced three conflicting reports instead of one bipartisan report, and "all three narratives deal with events already picked apart by a long list of books as well as congressional hearings," the reporters note. "The panel's work may help inform government agencies that are writing rules to implement the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul enacted last summer," they add, "but for many in the financial world, any relevance the commission might have had evaporated with the passage of that legislation and the recovery of the stock market."
  • It Will Refocus Scrutiny on Wall Street, states Richard Eskow at The Huffington Post: The panel "documents the opportunism, bad judgment, and criminality that crashed the world's economy once--and could again at any time ... At a time when the nation's capital is convinced that CEOs need appeasing rather than policing, the FCIC report is a badly needed return to reality."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.