An Indictment of the Financial Sector

January 27th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

The purpose of the traditional blue-ribbon government panel has to been to study a serious problem and issue a report with vague explanations of causes and mushy policy prescriptions. The new report from the federal government’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is a refreshing exception to the rule.

In the place of such nebulous prose, the 600-page-plus document is filled with pointed analyses of who did what wrong when. In other words, it names names. The FCIC acknowledges that it needed to delve into arcane subjects such as securitization and derivatives, but the report’s preface states:

To bring these subjects out of the realm of the abstract, we conducted case study investigations of specific financial firms—and in many cases specific facets of these institutions—that played pivotal roles. Those institutions included American International Group (AIG), Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Countrywide Financial, Fannie Mae, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Moody’s, and Wachovia. We looked more generally at the roles and actions of scores of other companies.

To get a sense of the scope of the rogues’ gallery of financial players, take a look at the report’s index, which, interestingly, is not in the official PDF but can be found on the website of the publisher that is issuing the commercial version.  There are dozens of entries for specific firms and even more for specific individuals. Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, for instance, each have listings for about 40 different pages.

The FCIC does not just mention names; it assigns responsibility and soundly rejects the notion—expressed at commission hearings by major financial industry executives—that the crisis came as a complete surprise:

The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire. 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.

It is satisfying that the report acknowledges the culpability of figures in both the private and the public spheres. Along with Wall Street villains, it fingers government institutions and officials, especially those with regulatory responsibilities:

The sentries were not at their posts, in no small part due to the widely accepted faith in the self-correcting nature of the markets and the ability of financial institutions to effectively police themselves. More than 30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation by financial institutions, championed by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and others, supported by successive administrations and Congresses, and actively pushed by the powerful financial industry at every turn, had stripped away key safeguards, which could have helped avoid catastrophe.

Figures such as current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and former SEC chair Christopher Cox are singled out for making misleading statements in 2008 about the gravity of the situation just before the crisis erupted. The report goes on to state:

Our examination revealed stunning instances of governance breakdowns and irresponsibility. You will read, among other things, about AIG senior management’s ignorance of the terms and risks of the company’s $79 billion derivatives exposure to mortgage-related securities; Fannie Mae’s quest for bigger market share, profits, and bonuses, which led it to ramp up its exposure to risky loans and securities as the housing market was peaking; and the costly surprise when Merrill Lynch’s top management realized that the company held $55 billion in “super-senior” and supposedly “super-safe” mortgage-related securities that resulted in billions of dollars in losses.

Finding that “a combination of excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency put the financial system on a collision course with crisis,” the FCIC cites the high leverage ratios at the leading investment banks and the fact that “the leverage was often hidden—in derivatives positions, in off-balance-sheet entities, and through ‘window dressing’ of financial reports available to the investing public.”

The report continues: “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. What resulted was panic. We had reaped what we had sown.” One chapter, covering the explosion of risky financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations is entitled “The Madness.”

Perhaps most damning is the FCIC’s finding of a “systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics” that “stretched from the ground level to the corporate suites.” For example, the report cites the case of the subprime lender Countrywide (later taken over by Bank of America):

As early as September 2004, Countrywide executives recognized that many of the loans they were originating could result in “catastrophic consequences.”  Less than a year later, they noted that certain high-risk loans they were making could result not only in foreclosures but also in “financial and reputational catastrophe” for the firm. But they did not stop.

All in all, the FCIC report paints an incriminating picture of the U.S. financial industry as well as the government regulators and private entities such as credit rating agencies that are supposed to put some checks on the unbridled pursuit of profit. In fact, the document in many ways reads like a criminal indictment. We would all be better off if some actual prosecutors pursued these leads.

Note: The report, dominated by a section of more than 400 pages endorsed by a majority of commissioners, also contains a 125-page dissent from the minority as well as 80 pages of endnotes. But that’s not all. The document indicates that it is not the sole repository of what the FCIC found:

A website—www.fcic.gov—will host a wealth of information beyond what could be presented here. It will contain a stockpile of materials—including documents and emails, video of the Commission’s public hearings, testimony, and supporting research—that can be studied for years to come. Much of what is footnoted in this report can be found on the website.

A critical researcher’s dream.

One Response to “An Indictment of the Financial Sector”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Gooljar and Phil Mattera, Activism101. Activism101 said: DD? An Indictment of the Financial Sector: The purpose of the traditional blue-ribbon government panel has to be… http://bit.ly/fDgNig […]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.