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A 9-11 Commission For The Federal Reserve

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January 7, 2010

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress passed Public Law 107-306, establishing The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9-11 Commission).  The Commission was chartered to create a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks.  The Commission was also mandated to provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks.  The Commission eventually published a report with those recommendations.  The failure to implement and adhere to those recommendations is now being discussed as a crucial factor in the nearly-successful attempt by The Undiebomber to crash a jetliner headed to Detroit on Christmas Day.

On January 3, 2010, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech at the Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association in Atlanta, entitled: “Monetary Policy and the Housing Bubble”.  The speech was a transparent attempt to absolve the Federal Reserve from culpability for causing the financial crisis, due to its policy of maintaining low interest rates during Bernanke’s tenure as Fed chair as well as during the regime of his predecessor, Alan Greenspan.  Bernanke chose instead, to focus on a lack of regulation of the mortgage industry as being the primary reason for the crisis.

Critical reaction to Bernanke’s speech was swift and widespread.  Scott Lanman of Bloomberg News discussed the reaction of an economist who was unimpressed:

“It sounds a little bit like a mea culpa,” said Randall Wray, an economics professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, who was in Atlanta and didn’t attend Bernanke’s speech. “The Fed played a role by promoting the most dangerous financial innovations used by institutions to fuel the housing bubble.”

Nomi Prins attended the speech and had this to say about it for The Daily Beast:

But having watched his entire 10-slide presentation (think: Economics 101 with a political twist), I had a different reaction: fear.

My concern is straightforward:  Bernanke doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of the very recent past.  The flip side of Bernanke’s conclusion — we need stronger regulation to avoid future crises — is that the Fed’s monetary, or interest-rate, policy was just fine.  That the crisis that brewed for most of the decade was merely a mistake of refereeing, versus the systemic issue of mega-bank holding companies engaged in reckless practices, many under the Fed’s jurisdiction.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, justifying past monetary policy rather than acknowledging the real-world link between Wall Street practices and general economic troubles suggests that Bernanke will power the Fed down the path of the same old mistakes.  Focusing on lending problems is important, but leaving goliath, complex banks to their worst practices (albeit with some regulatory tweaks) is to miss the world as it is.

As the Senate takes on the task of further neutering the badly compromised financial reform bill passed by the House (HR 4173) — supposedly drafted to prevent another financial crisis — the need for a better remedy is becoming obvious.  Instead of authorizing nearly $4 trillion for the next round of bailouts which will be necessitated as a result of the continued risky speculation by those “too big to fail” financial institutions, Congress should take a different approach.  What we really need is another 9/11-type of commission, to clarify the causes of the financial catastrophe of September 2008 (which manifested itself as a credit crisis) and to make recommendations for preventing another such event.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times explained that Greenspan and Bernanke failed to realize that they were inflating a housing bubble because they had become “trapped in an echo chamber of conventional wisdom” that home prices would never drop.  Leonhardt expressed concern that allowing the Fed chair to remain in such an echo chamber for the next bubble could result in another crisis:

What’s missing from the debate over financial re-regulation is a serious discussion of how to reduce the odds that the Fed — however much authority it has — will listen to the echo chamber when the next bubble comes along.  A simple first step would be for Mr. Bernanke to discuss the Fed’s recent failures, in detail.  If he doesn’t volunteer such an accounting, Congress could request one.

In the future, a review process like this could become a standard response to a financial crisis.  Andrew Lo, an M.I.T. economist, has proposed a financial version of the National Transportation Safety Board — an independent body to issue a fact-finding report after a crash or a bust.  If such a board had existed after the savings and loan crisis, notes Paul Romer, the Stanford economist and expert on economic growth, it might have done some good.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation, argued that Bernanke’s failure to understand what really caused the credit crisis is just another reason for a proper investigation addressing the genesis of that event:

Unfortunately, it appears to me that the Fed Chief is defending his institution and the judgment of his immediate predecessor, rather than making an honest appraisal of what went wrong.

As I have argued in this space for nearly 2 years, one cannot fix what’s broken until there is a full understanding of what went wrong and how.  In the case of systemic failure, a proper diagnosis requires a full understanding of more than what a healthy system should look like.  It also requires recognition of all of the causative factors — what is significant, what is incidental, the elements that enabled other factors, the “but fors” that the crisis could not have occurred without.

Ritholtz contended that an honest assessment of the events leading up to the credit crisis would likely reveal a sequence resembling the following time line:

1.  Ultra low interest rates led to a scramble for yield by fund managers;

2.  Not coincidentally, there was a massive push into subprime lending by unregulated NONBANKS who existed solely to sell these mortgages to securitizers;

3.  Since they were writing mortgages for resale (and held them only briefly) these non-bank lenders collapsed their lending standards; this allowed them to write many more mortgages;

4.  These poorly underwritten loans — essentially junk paper — was sold to Wall Street for securitization in huge numbers.

5.  Massive ratings fraud of these securities by Fitch, Moody’s and S&P led to a rating of this junk as Triple AAA.

6.  That investment grade rating of junk paper allowed those scrambling bond managers (see #1) to purchase higher yield paper that they would not otherwise have been able to.

7.  Increased leverage of investment houses allowed a huge securitization manufacturing process; Some iBanks also purchased this paper in enormous numbers;

8.  More leverage took place in the shadow derivatives market.  That allowed firms like AIG to write $3 trillion in derivative exposure, much of it in mortgage and credit related areas.

9.  Compensation packages in the financial sector were asymmetrical, where employees had huge upside but shareholders (and eventually taxpayers) had huge downside.  This (logically) led to increasingly aggressive and risky activity.

10.  Once home prices began to fall, all of the above fell apart.

As long as the Federal Reserve chairman keeps his head buried in the sand, in a state of denial or delusion about the true cause of the financial crisis, while Congress continues to facilitate a system of socialized risk for privatized gain, we face the dreadful possibility that history will repeat itself.



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Lacking Reform

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January 4, 2010

David Reilly of Bloomberg News did us all a favor by reading through the entire, 1,270-page financial reform bill that was recently passed by the House of Representatives.  The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (HR 4173) was described by Reilly this way:

The baby of Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, the House bill is meant to address everything from too-big-to-fail banks to asleep-at-the-switch credit-ratings companies to the protection of consumers from greedy lenders.

After reading the bill, David Reilly wrote a commentary piece for Bloomberg entitled:  “Bankers Get $4 Trillion Gift from Barney Frank”.  Reilly seemed surprised that banks opposed this legislation, emphasizing that “they should cheer for its passage by the full Congress in the New Year” because of the bill’s huge giveaways to the banking industry and Wall Street.  Here are some of Reilly’s observations on what this bill provides:

—  For all its heft, the bill doesn’t once mention the words “too-big-to-fail,” the main issue confronting the financial system.  Admitting you have a problem, as any 12-stepper knows, is the crucial first step toward recovery.

— Instead, it supports the biggest banks.  It authorizes Federal Reserve banks to provide as much as $4 trillion in emergency funding the next time Wall Street crashes.  So much for “no-more-bailouts” talk.  That is more than twice what the Fed pumped into markets this time around.  The size of the fund makes the bribes in the Senate’s health-care bill look minuscule.

— Oh, hold on, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Secretary can’t authorize these funds unless “there is at least a 99 percent likelihood that all funds and interest will be paid back.”   Too bad the same models used to foresee the housing meltdown probably will be used to predict this likelihood as well.

More Bailouts

— The bill also allows the government, in a crisis, to back financial firms’ debts.  Bondholders can sleep easy  — there are more bailouts to come.

— The legislation does create a council of regulators to spot risks to the financial system and big financial firms. Unfortunately this group is made up of folks who missed the problems that led to the current crisis.

— Don’t worry, this time regulators will have better tools.  Six months after being created, the council will report to Congress on “whether setting up an electronic database” would be a help. Maybe they’ll even get to use that Internet thingy.

— This group, among its many powers, can restrict the ability of a financial firm to trade for its own account.  Perhaps this section should be entitled, “Yes, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., we’re looking at you.”

My favorite passage from Reilly’s essay concerned the proposal for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency:

— The bill isn’t all bad, though.  It creates a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, currently head of a panel overseeing TARP.  And the first director gets the cool job of designing a seal for the new agency.  My suggestion:  Warren riding a fiery chariot while hurling lightning bolts at Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

The cover story for the December 30 edition of Business Week explained how this bill became so badly compromised.  Alison Vekshin and Dawn Kopecki wrote the piece, explaining how the New Democrat Coalition, which “has 68 fiscally conservative, pro-business members who fill 15 of the party’s 42 seats on the House Financial Services Committee” reshaped this bill.  The New Democrats fought off proposed changes to derivatives trading and included an amendment to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency legislation giving federal regulators more discretion to override state consumer protection laws than what was initially proposed.  Beyond that, “non-financial” companies such as real estate agencies and automobile dealerships will not be subject to the authority of the new agency.  The proposed requirement for banks to offer “plain-vanilla” credit-card and mortgage contracts was also abandoned.

One of my pet peeves involves Democrats’ claiming to be “centrists” or “moderates” simply because they enjoy taking money from lobbyists.  Too many people are left with the impression that a centrist is someone who lacks a moral compass.  The Business Week story provided some insight about how the New Democrat Coalition gets … uh … “moderated”:

Since the start of the 2008 election cycle, the financial industry has donated $24.9 million to members of the New Democrats, some 14% of the total funds the lawmakers have collected, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  Representative Melissa Bean of Illinois, who has led the Coalition’s efforts on regulatory reform, was the top beneficiary, with donations of $1.4 million.

As the financial reform bill is being considered by the Senate, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has stepped up its battle against the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  The Business Week article concluded with one lawmaker’s perspective:

“My greatest fear for the last year has been an economic collapse,” says Representative Brad Miller (D-N.C), who sits on Frank’s House Financial Services Committee.  “My second greatest fear was that the economy would stabilize and the financial industry would have the clout to defeat the fundamental reforms that our nation desperately needs.  My greatest fear seems less likely … but my second greatest fear seems more likely every day.”

The dysfunction that preserves this unhealthy status quo was best summed up by Chris Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics:

The big banks pay the big money in Washington, the members of Congress pass new laws to enable the theft from the public purse, and the servile Fed prints money to keep the game going for another day.

As long as Congress is going through the motions of passing “reform” legislation, they should do us all a favor and take on the subject of lobbying reform.  Of course, the chances of that ever happening are slim to none.



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