Opinion

Bethany McLean

The top five unlearned lessons of the financial crisis

Bethany McLean
Sep 24, 2013 15:20 UTC

In capital we trust. Capital is our savior, our holy grail, our fountain of youth, or at least health, for banks. Seriously, how many times have you read that more capital will save the banks from another Armageddon? Even the banks point to capital as a reason to have faith. “Financial institutions have also been working alongside regulators to make themselves and the financial system stronger, more transparent, more resilient and more accountable,” wrote Rob Nichols of the Financial Services Forum, which is made up of the chief executive officers of 19 big U.S. financial institutions. “Specifically, capital, which protects banks from unexpected losses, has doubled since 2009.” If you were a cynic — who, me? — you might say that the mere fact that the banks are pointing to capital is proof that capital is not all that.

Everyone seems to be ignoring the basic fact that capital isn’t a pile of cash. It’s an accounting construct. On his Interfluidity blog (which I found courtesy of Naked Capitalism), Steve Waldman writes, “Capital does not exist in the world. It is not accessible to the senses. When we claim a bank or any other firm has so much ‘capital,’ we are modeling its assets and liabilities and contingent positions and coming up with a number. Unfortunately, there is not one uniquely ‘true’ model of bank capital. Even hewing to GAAP and all regulatory requirements, thousands of estimates and arbitrary choices must be made to compute the capital position of a modern bank.” In other words, even if you give bankers credit for good intentions, the accounting that would truly capture “capital” may not exist. Or as Waldman writes, “Bank capital cannot be measured.” Layer in some real world realities. The next time things get tough, will regulators once again practice forbearance and allow firms to overstate their capital, which has the perverse effect of making no one trust reported capital? Let’s not forget Lehman, which according to Lehman had a very healthy Tier 1 ratio of 10.7 percent on May 31, 2008 and a total capital ratio of 16.1 percent. This didn’t matter, because no one believed Lehman’s capital was real.

On the list of cures for the sick financial system, the concept of “risk retention” ranks right behind capital — but there are a couple of neat little twists here. The narrative of the crisis is that because mortgages could be sold off to banks, who would turn them into securities and sell those on to investors, who thought they were buying triple-A paper courtesy of the rating agencies — well, no one had any incentive to care about credit quality. In a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Create Another Housing Crisis,” MFS Investment Management’s former chairman Robert Pozen writes, “With ‘no skin in the game,’ the originators had little incentive to determine whether the borrower was likely to default.” As a result, one provision of Dodd-Frank requires securitizers of any asset, not just mortgages, to retain 5 percent of the risk of loss. Barney Frank has said that the risk retention rules are the “most important aspect” of the legislation that bears his name.

The first twist is how risk retention became risk liberation. The housing-industrial complex went to work. Into Dodd-Frank went a provision that certain “safe” mortgages, called qualified residential mortgages, or QRMs, would be exempt from the risk retention requirement. “Safe” was left to the regulators to define. Cue more lobbying. The rules finally proposed in late August would exempt, according to a Wall Street Journal piece by Alan Blinder, some 95 percent of mortgages from the risk retention requirement. In other words, the very asset that most people believed led to the credit crisis is also the asset that is pretty much exempt from the new rules! Classic. In the joint announcement on August 28, the regulators wrote, “The Commission acknowledges that QM does not fully address the loan underwriting features that are most likely to result in a lower risk of default. However, the agencies have considered the entire regulatory environment, including regulatory consistency and the possible effects on the housing finance market.” (That last bit is super scary.)

That said, the real twist here is that risk retention is no silver bullet. After all, firms like Countrywide, Washington Mutual, Merrill Lynch, AIG and Citigroup went under or almost went under precisely because they retained so much risk on their own balance sheets. Malevolence is only part of the problem with our financial system. The other problem is sheer stupidity.

The weird, unsatisfying case against S&P

Bethany McLean
Feb 13, 2013 17:15 UTC

The government’s 119-page civil lawsuit against credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s for allegedly inflating the ratings it gave to residential mortgage-related securities, or RMBS, in the run-up to the crash has removed whatever lingering doubts (there weren’t many!) might have remained about just how problematic the ratings game is. But it also raises a question: Why, in cases of white-collar wrongdoing, is it often the cogs in the wheel that seem to pay the highest price?

Let’s stipulate that there are weird things about this case. To lower its burden of proof, the government is using a 1989 law that is supposed to protect taxpayers from frauds against federally insured financial institutions. The result, as Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Weil has pointed out, is that the government is claiming that some of the very banks — mainly Citigroup — that packaged the securities were also defrauded by the rating agencies.

Plausible? Well, yes, particularly for Citi, where the right hand often doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. And just because the banks fell for their own scam doesn’t mean it wasn’t a scam. But it’s still weird. It’s also weird that the government names some S&P executives but leaves others anonymous. And  it’s weird that the government has sued S&P but not Moody’s Investors Service, which at least in outward appearance was equally culpable. (S&P, for its part, has stated that it is “simply false” that it compromised its analytical integrity, and that it has a “record of successfully defending these types of cases, with 41 cases dismissed outright or voluntarily withdrawn.”)

The meltdown explanation that melts away

Bethany McLean
Mar 19, 2012 17:50 UTC

Although our understanding of what instigated the 2008 global financial crisis remains at best incomplete, there are a few widely agreed upon contributing factors. One of them is a 2004 rule change by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that allowed investment banks to load up on leverage.

This disastrous decision has been cited by a host of prominent economists, including Princeton professor and former Federal Reserve Vice- Chairman Alan Blinder and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. It has even been immortalized in Hollywood, figuring into the dark financial narrative that propelled the Academy Award-winning film Inside Job.

As Blinder explained in a Jan. 24, 2009 New York Times op-ed piece, one of what he listed as six fundamental errors that led to the crisis came “when the SEC let securities firms increase their leverage sharply.” He continued: “Before then, leverage of 12 to 1 was typical; afterward, it shot up to more like 33 to 1. What were the SEC and the heads of the firms thinking?”

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