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Financial Meltdown Was ‘Avoidable,’ Inquiry Concludes

The 2008 financial crisis was an “avoidable” disaster caused by widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street, according to the conclusions of a Congressional inquiry.

The government commission that investigated the financial crisis casts a wide net of blame, faulting two administrations, the Federal Reserve and other regulators for permitting a calamitous concoction: shoddy mortgage lending, the excessive packaging and sale of loans to investors, and risky bets on securities backed by the loans.

“The greatest tragedy would be to accept the refrain that no one could have seen this coming and thus nothing could have been done,” the panel wrote in the report’s conclusions. “If we accept this notion, it will happen again.”

Alan Greenspan with Ben Bernanke
Source:Tim Sloan | AFP | Getty Images
Alan Greenspan with Ben Bernanke

While the panel, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, accuses several financial institutions of greed, ineptitude, or both, some of its most grave conclusions concern government failings, with embarrassing implications for both political parties.

Many of the findings have been widely described, but its synthesis of interviews, documents and testimony, along with its government imprimatur, give it a sweep and authority that the commission hopes will shape the public consciousness. The full report is expected to be released as a 576-page book on Thursday. When the bipartisan commission was set up in May of 2009, the intent of Congress and the president was to produce a comprehensive examination of the causes of the crisis.

The report, aimed at a broad audience, was based on 19 days of hearings as well as interviews with more than 700 witnesses; the commission has pledged to release a trove of transcripts and other raw material online. The document is intended to be the definitive account of the crisis’s causes, but its authors may already have failed in achieving that aim.

Of the 10 commission members, only the 6 appointed by Democrats endorsed the final report. Three Republican members have prepared a dissent; a fourth Republican, Peter J. Wallison, a former Treasury official and White House counsel to President Ronald Reagan, has written a dissent, calling government policies to promote homeownership the primary culprit for the crisis.

The report itself finds fault with two Fed chairmen: Alan Greenspan, a skeptic of regulation who led the central bank as the housing bubble expanded, and his successor, Ben S. Bernanke, who did not foresee the crisis but then played a crucial role in the response. It criticizes Mr. Greenspan for advocating financial deregulation and cites a “pivotal failure to stem the flow of toxic mortgages” under his leadership as “the prime example” of government negligence.

It also criticizes the Bush administration’s “inconsistent response” to the crisis — allowing Lehman Brothers to go bankrupt in September 2008, for example, after earlier bailing out another bank, Bear Stearns, with help from the Fed — “added to the uncertainty and panic in the financial markets.”

Like Mr. Bernanke, Mr. Bush’s Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., predicted in 2007 — wrongly it turned out — that the subprime meltdown would be contained, as the report notes.

Democrats also come under fire. The 2000 decision to shield over-the-counter derivatives from regulation, made during the last year of President Bill Clinton’s term is called “a key turning point in the march toward the financial crisis.”

Timothy F. Geithner, who was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during the crisis and is now President Obama’s Treasury secretary, also comes under criticism; the report finds that the New York Fed “could have clamped down” on excesses by Citigroup in the lead-up to the crisis and, just a month before Lehman’s collapse, was “still seeking information” on the vulnerabilities from Lehman’s exposure to more than 900,000 derivatives contracts.

Former and current officials named in the report, as well as financial institutions, declined on Tuesday to comment on the report before it was released , or did not respond to requests for comment.

The report will probably reignite debate over the outsize influence of Wall Street; it says that regulators “lacked the political will” to scrutinize and hold accountable the institutions they were supposed to oversee. 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 report does knock down — at least partly — several early theories for the financial crisis. It says the low interest rates brought about by the Fed after the 2001 recession “created increased risks” but were not chiefly to blame. It says that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac , the mortgage finance giants, “contributed to the crisis but were not a primary cause.” And in a finding likely to upset conservatives, it says that “aggressive homeownership goals” set by the government as part of a “philosophy of opportunity” were not major culprits.

On the other hand, the report is unsparing in its treatment of regulators. It finds that the Securities and Exchange Commission failed to require big banks to hold more capital to cushion losses and halt risky practices, and that the Fed “neglected its mission” to protect the public.

It says that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates national banks, and the Office of Thrift Supervision, which oversees savings-and-loans, blocked state regulators from reining in lending abuses because they were “caught up in turf wars.”

“The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone awry,” the report states. “The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble.”

"Reaped what we had sown."

“The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone awry,” the report states. “The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble.”

Portions of the dissents are also included in the report, which is being published as a paperback book (with a cover price of $14.99) by PublicAffairs, along with an official version by the Government Printing Office.

The commission’s chairman, Phil Angelides, a Democrat and former California state treasurer, has tried to keep the book under wraps, even directing the publisher to prevent bookstores from getting it before the eve of the Thursday release. He declined to comment.

The report’s immediate implications may be felt more in the political realm than in public policy. The Dodd-Frank law overhauling the regulation of Wall Street, signed in July, takes as its premise the same regulatory deficiencies cited by the commission. But the report is sure to factor in the debate over the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which have been government-run since 2008.

Though the report documents questionable practices by mortgage lenders and careless betting by banks, one striking finding is its portrayal of bumbling incompetence, among corporate chieftains.

It quotes Citigroup executives admitting that they paid little attention to the risks associated with mortgage securities. Executives at the American International Group , another bailout recipient, were found to be blind to its $79 billion exposure to credit default swaps, a kind of insurance that was sold to investors seeking protection against a drop in the value of securities backed by risky home loans. At Merrill Lynch, top managers were caught unaware when seemingly secure mortgage investments suddenly resulted in billions of dollars in losses.

By one measure, the nation’s five largest investment banks had only $1 in capital to cover losses for about every $40 in assets, meaning that a 3 percent drop in asset values could wipe out the firm. The banks hid their excessive leverage using derivatives, off-balance-sheet entities and other devices, the report found. The speculative binge was abetted by a giant “shadow banking system” in which the banks relied heavily on short-term debt.

“When the housing and mortgage markets cratered, the lack of transparency, the extraordinary debt loads, the short-term loans and the risky assets all came home to roost,” the report found. “What resulted was panic. We had reaped what we had sown.”

The report is dotted with literary flourishes. It calls credit-rating agencies “cogs in the wheel of financial destruction.” Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it states, “The fault lies not in the stars, but in us.” Of the banks that bought created, packaged and sold trillions of dollars in mortgage-related securities, it says: “Like Icarus, they never feared flying ever closer to the sun.”

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