James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

FCIC report: 10 causes of the financial crisis

Jan 27, 2011 18:40 UTC

The other dissent (written by Keith Hennessey, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Bill Thomas) to the main Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report identifies 10 causes for the meltdown. They run through them in a WSJ op-ed:

Starting in the late 1990s, there was a broad credit bubble in the U.S. and Europe and a sustained housing bubble in the U.S. (factors 1 and 2). Excess liquidity, combined with rising house prices and an ineffectively regulated primary mortgage market, led to an increase in nontraditional mortgages (factor 3) that were in some cases deceptive, in many cases confusing, and often beyond borrowers’ ability to pay.

However, the credit bubble, housing bubble, and the explosion of nontraditional mortgage products are not by themselves responsible for the crisis. Our country has experienced larger bubbles—the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, for example—that were not nearly as devastating as the housing bubble. Losses from the housing downturn were concentrated in highly leveraged financial institutions. Which raises the essential question: Why were these firms so exposed?

Failures in credit-rating and securitization transformed bad mortgages into toxic financial assets (factor 4). Securitizers lowered the credit quality of the mortgages they securitized, credit-rating agencies erroneously rated these securities as safe investments, and buyers failed to look behind the ratings and do their own due diligence. Managers of many large and midsize financial institutions amassed enormous concentrations of highly correlated housing risk (factor 5), and they amplified this risk by holding too little capital relative to the risks and funded these exposures with short-term debt (factor 6). They assumed such funds would always be available. Both turned out to be bad bets.

These risks within highly leveraged, short-funded financial firms with concentrated exposure to a collapsing asset class led to a cascade of firm failures. The losses spread in two ways. Some firms had large counterparty credit risk exposures, and the sudden and disorderly failure of one firm risked triggering losses elsewhere. We call this the risk of contagion (factor 7). In other cases, the problem was a common shock (factor 8). A number of firms had made similar bad bets on housing, and thus unconnected firms failed for the same reason and at roughly the same time.

A rapid succession of 10 firm failures, mergers and restructurings in September 2008 caused a financial shock and panic (factor 9). Confidence and trust in the financial system evaporated, as the health of almost every large and midsize financial institution in the U.S. and Europe was questioned. The financial shock and panic caused a severe contraction in the real economy (factor 10).

Me: I really like that they looked globally to try to find the common elements between the crises here and there. It is pretty hard to ignore this graphic:

housing

COMMENT

The list of “causes” should have included comparisons to previous great financial manias. This would have observed that since the 1825 example the final phase ran some 12 to 16 months against an inverted yield curve.

The problem during such a boom is not rising interest rates. This confirms that the boom is on. The problem arrives when the curves reverses to steepening, with T-bill rates declining.

This fateful reversal started in May 2007, which was the 15th month of inversion.

The rest, as the saying goes, became history. There are two “rules” that worked. Short rates plunge during the initial bear market and economic contraction. The notion that “cuts” in the Fed rate will reignite a boom is not supported by history.

The other “rule” is that the post-bubble recession starts virtually with the bear market. Using NBER determinations, the 1873 bubble ended in September and the recession started that October. The 1929 bubble ended in that September and the recession started that August. The 2007 bubble ended in October and the recession began in that December.

There are other “rules” but that would take a lot of space.

Posted by Subtle | Report as abusive

FCIC report: So why did U.S. have a financial crisis?

Jan 27, 2011 16:40 UTC

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report is out, and it also includes two separate dissents. There’s a metaphor contained in the dissent by Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute which does a pretty good jobof  describing the majority take and his critique of it:

In a private interview with a few of the members of the Commission
(I was not informed of the interview), Summers was asked whether the mortgage
meltdown was the cause of the i nancial crisis. His response was that the i nancial
crisis was like a forest i re and the mortgage meltdown like a “cigarette butt” thrown
into a very dry forest. Was the cigarette butt, he asked, the cause of the forest
i re, or was it the tinder dry condition of the forest?
44
h e Commission majority
adopted the idea that it was the tinder-dry forest. h eir central argument is that the
mortgage meltdown as the bubble del ated triggered the i nancial crisis because of
the “vulnerabilities” inherent in the U.S. i nancial system at the time—the absence
44
FCIC, Summers interview, p.77.470 Dissenting Statement
of regulation, lax regulation, predatory lending, greed on Wall Street and among
participants in the securitization system, inef ective risk management, and excessive
leverage, among other factors. One of the majority’s singular notions is that “30
years of deregulation” had “stripped away key safeguards” against a crisis; this
ignores completely that in 1991, in the wake of the S&L crisis, Congress adopted the
FDIC Improvement Act, which was by far the toughest bank regulatory law since
the advent of deposit insurance and was celebrated at the time of its enactment as
i nally giving the regulators the power to put an end to bank crises.
h e forest metaphor turns out to be an excellent way to communicate the
dif erence between the Commission’s report and this dissenting statement. What
Summers characterized as a “cigarette butt” was 27 million high risk NTMs with
a total value over $4.5 trillion. Let’s use a little common sense here: $4.5 trillion in
high risk loans was not a “cigarette butt;” they were more like an exploding gasoline
truck in that forest. h e Commission’s report blames the conditions in the i nancial
system; I blame 27 million subprime and Alt-A mortgages—half of all mortgages
outstanding in the U.S. in 2008—and a number that appears to have been unknown
to most if not all market participants at the time. No i nancial system, in my view,
could have survived the failure of large numbers of high risk mortgages once the
bubble began to del ate, and no market could have avoided a panic when it became
clear that the number of defaults and delinquencies among these mortgages far
exceeded anything that even the most sophisticated market participants expected.
h is conclusion has signii cant policy implications. If in fact the i nancial
crisis was caused by government housing policies, then the Dodd-Frank Act was
legislative overreach and unnecessary. h e appropriate policy choice was to reduce
or eliminate the government’s involvement in the residential mortgage markets, not
to impose signii cant new regulation on the i nancial system

In a private interview with a few of the members of the Commission (I was not informed of the interview), [Obama economic adviser Larry] Summers was asked whether the mortgage meltdown was the cause of the financial crisis. His response was that the financial crisis was like a forest i re and the mortgage meltdown like a “cigarette butt” thrown into a very dry forest. Was the cigarette butt, he asked, the cause of the forest fire, or was it the tinder dry condition of the forest?

The Commission majority adopted the idea that it was the tinder-dry forest. Their central argument is that the mortgage meltdown as the bubble deflated triggered the financial crisis because of the “vulnerabilities” inherent in the U.S. financial system at the time—the absence of regulation, lax regulation, predatory lending, greed on Wall Street and among participants in the securitization system, inef ective risk management, and excessive leverage, among other factors. One of the majority’s singular notions is that “years of deregulation” had “stripped away key safeguards” against a crisis; this ignores completely that in 1991, in the wake of the S&L crisis, Congress adopted the FDIC Improvement Act, which was by far the toughest bank regulatory law since the advent of deposit insurance and was celebrated at the time of its enactment as finally giving the regulators the power to put an end to bank crises.

The forest metaphor turns out to be an excellent way to communicate the difference between the Commission’s report and this dissenting statement. What Summers characterized as a “cigarette butt” was 27 million high risk [non-traditional mortgages] with a total value over $4.5 trillion. Let’s use a little common sense here: $4.5 trillion in high risk loans was not a “cigarette butt;” they were more like an exploding gasoline truck in that forest. The Commission’s report blames the conditions in the financial system; I blame 27 million subprime and Alt-A mortgages—half of all mortgages outstanding in the U.S. in 2008—and a number that appears to have been unknown to most if not all market participants at the time. No financial system, in my view, could have survived the failure of large numbers of high risk mortgages once the bubble began to del ate, and no market could have avoided a panic when it became clear that the number of defaults and delinquencies among these mortgages far exceeded anything that even the most sophisticated market participants expected.

This conclusion has significant policy implications. If in fact the financial crisis was caused by government housing policies, then the Dodd-Frank Act was legislative overreach and unnecessary. The appropriate policy choice was to reduce or eliminate the government’s involvement in the residential mortgage markets, not to impose significant new regulation on the financial system

COMMENT

Regarding the FCIC’s report, there is another looming issue that contributed to economic crisis & as yet goes unexplored.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) activism was a major contributing factor to the home foreclosure meltdown and subsequently our economic crisis. More here:

http://cleanairquality.blogspot.com/2009  /03/worldwide-economic-meltdown-and.htm l

Posted by mwernimont | Report as abusive

Six ways government helped cause the financial crisis

Dec 22, 2010 19:53 UTC

Market failure or government failure? The BigGov party is promoting the former narrative, but the latter is more accurate in explaining how government created incentives for disaster. Mark Perry and Robert Dell lay it all out. Here is a sampling, but I urge you to read the whole thing:

1. Bank misregulation, in particular the international Basel capital rules, including a U.S. adaptation to them—the 2001 Recourse Rule—and the outsourcing of risk assessment by regulators to government-sanctioned rating agencies incentivized (not merely “allowed”) the creation and highly-leveraged systemic accumulation of the highest yielding AAA- and AA-rated securities among banks globally.

2. Continually increasing leverage—driven largely by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac credit policies and the political obsession with taking credit for increased homeownership—into the U.S. mortgage system.

3.  The enlargement of the riskier subprime and Alt-A mortgage markets by Fannie and Freddie through the abandonment of proven credit standards (e.g., dropping proof of income requirements) during the 2004-2007 period, and their combined accumulation of a $1.6 trillion portfolio of these loans to meet the affordable housing goals Congress mandated. As of mid-2008, government entities had purchased, guaranteed, or compelled the origination of 19 million of the 27 million total U.S. subprime and Alt-A mortgages outstanding.6

4. The FDIC, Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, and Congress undertook explicit or implicit creditor bailouts for large financial institutions starting in the 1980s (First Pennsylvania, Continental Illinois, the thrift industry, the Farm Credit System, etc.) and continuing to 2008 (Bear Stearns). These regulatory decisions led to an absence of creditor discipline of financial institution leverage and risk-taking (especially at Fannie and Freddie) and the “too big to fail” expectation of a government bailout.

5. The increase in FDIC deposit insurance from $40,000 to $100,000 per account in 1980 combined with the unchecked expansion of coverage up to $50 million under the Certificate of Deposit Account Registry Service beginning in 2003. These regulatory errors of commission and omission reduced the incentives of business, institutional, and high net-worth depositors to monitor and discipline excessive bank leverage and risk-taking.

6. Artificially low and sometimes negative real federal funds rates from 2001 to 2005—a result of expansionary Fed monetary policy—fueled the subprime and Alt-A mortgage boom and widened the asset-liability maturity gap for banks (see chart below).

COMMENT

I would not blame fannie/freddie for the subprime mess. the banks and mortgage companies got into it first and drove the market. This sounds like another pin head argument that the subprime mess was caused by the community reinvestment act – a little more analysis and common sense reveals this is not true. It’s so easy to blame the weakest victims….. not a hint of classism here is there ?

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