An honest assessment of the crisis’ causation (and timeline) would look something like the following:
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 TripleAAA.
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.
Politics and policy from inside Washington
The future of U.S. financial reform seems destined to track closely the path of that other major effort winding its way through Congress, healthcare. As a result, what came out of the House of Representatives with a narrow majority on Friday may be far more ambitious than what the Senate could possibly pass.
So the harshest critics of Wall Street – or the “fat cat bankers”, to use President Barack Obama’s label in a Sunday television interview – will be disappointed by the final result that will probably become law sometime in 2010.
As it stands, the House bill is hardly radical. It doesn’t embrace, for example, the preemptive dismantling of large, interconnected firms. It doesn’t reduce the Federal Reserve’s regulatory reach. It doesn’t restore the law separating commercial and investment banking. It doesn’t even give bankruptcy judges the power to alter mortgages.
But even bits that reformers favor face diminution or elimination. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd’s more radical proposal to strip the Fed of regulatory oversight and create a single super-regulator has been a total non-starter. Dodd quickly reversed field and instructed committee members to pair off into bipartisan working groups to focus on key issues.
A Consumer Financial Protection Agency for gadfly Elizabeth Warren to lead looks possible, but it will be severely weakened from the House version. A proposed $150 billion bailout fund financed by banks could easily disappear. So, too, could language that would force secured creditors to accept a 10 percent haircut if a financial firm needs a government rescue. As for the Fed, one possible compromise would be for the central bank to monitor systemic risk but leave it to existing agencies to take action.
Prioritizing financial over healthcare reform might have led to a tougher final bill worthy of Obama’s harsh rhetoric. By multi-tasking, however, the White House’s need to get something done before midterm elections will undoubtedly lead to compromise or downright dilution. This is just the sort of unfortunate scheduling Wall Street would understandably celebrate.
A few thoughts on the banker summit at the White House:
1) Some banks were already trying to boost small business lending, such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan.
2) Lending was likely to rise anyway as economic growth picks up, so it will be tough to determine if this WH meeting had any independent impact.
3) For the all the talk about loan supply, far less about loan demand and how uncertainty over Obamanomics is chilling small biz expansion plans.
4) The Obama reform plan is not nearly as tough as the Obama rhetoric. It doesn’t embrace, for example, the preemptive dismantling of large, interconnected firms. It doesn’t reduce the Federal Reserve’s regulatory reach. It doesn’t restore the law separating commercial and investment banking. It doesn’t even give bankruptcy judges the power to alter mortgages.
5) Banks have clearly lost control of the narrative. Someone needs to highlight the role of government in creating the financial crisis.
I don’t see this happening in the US. I mean, the effort to raise taxes on private equity carried interest, while passing the House, is going nowhere in the Senate. And that is far less controversial and a less stupid idea. And remember how the 90 percent tax on AIG bonuses fell flat back in March. The one caveat, as Dan Clifton notes in an earlier post, here is that 2010 is an election year and the combo of big bonuses and high unemployment could cause endangered Ds to play the populist card and try something
Already, the crazy ideas are returning, such as mortgage cramdowns. But more could be on the way in 2010, says the great Dan Clifton of Strategas (bank bonus tax, American version?):
We are entering a period where bank profits are increasing but lending is declining. Bonus season is on the horizon while job growth remains negative. And bank lobbying on financial regulation is increasing while politician’s approval ratings are declining. Adding even more fuel is that with government spending up and tax revenues lagging, sovereign fiscal issues are rising to the top of policy matrix.
The oversight panel led by television funnywoman Elizabeth Warren has concluded that TARP has been asset for the economy. Except for this part (in the panel’s own words):
1) It is apparent that after fourteen months the TARP’s programs have not been able to solve many of the ongoing problems Congress identified. Credit availability, the lifeblood of the economy, remains low.
2) In light of the weak economy, banks are reluctant to lend, while small businesses and consumers are reluctant to borrow.
3) In addition, questions remain about the capitalization of many banks, and whether they are focusing on repairing their balance sheets at the expense of lending.
4) The FDIC, facing red ink for the first time in 17 years, must step in to repay depositors at a growing number of failed banks. This problem may well worsen, as deep-seated problems in the commercial real estate sector are poised to inflict further damage on small and mid-sized banks.
5) Large banks have problems of their own. Some of them, waiting for a rebound in asset values that may still be years away, continue to hold the toxic mortgage-related securities that contributed to the crisis. Consequently, the United States continues to face the prospect of banks too big to fail and too weak to play their role adequately in keeping credit flowing throughout the economy.
6) The foreclosure crisis continues to grow.
7) Furthermore, the market stability that has emerged since last fall’s crisis has been in part the result of an extraordinary mix of government actions, some of which will likely be scaled back relatively soon, and few of which are likely to continue indefinitely. The removal of this support too quickly could undermine the economy’s nascent stability.
8) While strong government action helped prevent a worse crisis, it may have done so at a significant long run cost to the performance of our market economy. Implicit government guarantees pose the most difficult long-term problem to emerge from the crisis. Looking ahead, there is no consensus among experts or policymakers as to how to prevent financial institutions from taking risks that are so large as to threaten the functioning of the nation’s economy. Congress is currently grappling with this issue as it considers how to respond legislatively to the financial crisis. It is clear that a failure to address the moral hazard issue will only lead to more severe crises in the future.
Me: Oh, and then you have the devolution of TARP into a slush fund to bail out AIG, union auto workers and congressional Democrats worried about how the high unemployment rate will hurt their 2010 chances. Thus the new jobs bill. But it did stop the panic, unless you believe John Taylor that it really made the panic worse through uncertainty.
Here is what I know, or at least what I think I know after talking with slew of folks today (and an expanded take to come in a bit):
1) Geithner isn’t going anywhere before November 2010.
2) JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon doesn’t want the job.
3) If Geithner did go, Rahmbo, Yellen, and Summers are all more likely that JD.
4) The Geithner resignation talk is a sign of panic on the part of congressional Dems. Expect the AIG ruckus to get more of a push on the Hill.
5) Geithner’s uneven TV skills aren’t helping, though.
Don’t interpret passage of the watered-down Kanjorski amendment as the peak of the “break up the banks” movement. It may be about to get some new allies on the right, folks tired of Big Government, Big Money and crony capitalism.
For the moment, though, it was arguably the best that Representative Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat, could have gotten through the House Financial Services Committee. All the committee Republicans and even some of the Democrats voted against it. And even in its much-diminished state, the Kanjorksi amendment would likely be weakened further in the Senate. At the same time, the Obama administration seems little interested in such pre-emptive powers.
Wall Street, however, is hardly getting any more popular with Main Street. The Goldman Sachs Apology Tour is evidence of that. And there are mid-term elections in less than a year. Republican candidates will probably do well as high unemployment continues to drive voter anger at incumbents. As Gallup diplomatically puts it, “Republicans seem well-positioned to win back some of their congressional losses in 2006 and 2008.” More accurately, fear of losing the House is now running high among congressional Dems.
And all those new Republicans are likely to be infused with the ethos of the Tea Party movement: anti-TARP, anti-Fed (the House GOP is already there on this), anti-bailouts and anti-Wall Street. It could be a group of newcomers, as John McCain recently said, that is populist, protectionist when it comes to China and the yuan and pro-financial regulation.
Sarah Palin could be a harbinger. Although she diligently promotes the wonder-working power of Reaganomics in her autobiography, she also warns about “the return of corporatism – government collusion and co-option of big business.”
On the web, right-of-center bloggers wrote favorably of a recent proposal by Bernie Sanders, the socialist independent senator from Vermont, to break up the banks.
Even among conservative intellectuals, there is little love for an unrestrained Wall Street these days. University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales argues that “the finance sector’s increasing concentration and growing political muscle have undermined the traditional American understanding of the difference between free markets and big business.” Like a 21st century Teddy Roosevelt, Zingales would use anti-trust law to disperse financial power.
And one veteran Republican politico says he would be surprised if the 2012 GOP nominee wasn’t far tougher on Wall Street than President Barack Obama.
So it isn’t hard to imagine that the next incarnation of Congress — filled with “free-market populist” Republicans — might take another look at the state of Wall Street and conclude, as has Alan Greenspan, that any firm too big too fail really is too big to exist.
For the A.I.G. rescue was part of a pattern: Throughout the financial crisis key officials — most notably Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Fed in 2008 and is now Treasury secretary — have shied away from doing anything that might rattle Wall Street. And the bitter paradox is that this play-it-safe approach has ended up undermining prospects for economic recovery. For the job of fixing the broken economy is far from done — yet finishing the job has become nearly impossible now that the public has lost faith in the government’s efforts, viewing them as little more than handouts to the people who got us into this mess.
Now the WSJ:
In the fall of 2008 the New York Fed drove a baby-soft bargain with AIG’s credit-default-swap counterparties. The Fed’s taxpayer-funded vehicle, Maiden Lane III, bought out the counterparties’ mortgage-backed securities at 100 cents on the dollar, effectively canceling out the CDS contracts. This was miles above what those assets could have fetched in the market at that time, if they could have been sold at all.
The New York Fed president at the time was none other than Timothy Geithner, the current Treasury Secretary, and Mr. Geithner now tells Mr. Barofsky that in deciding to make the counterparties whole, “the financial condition of the counterparties was not a relevant factor.”
This is startling. In April we noted in these columns that Goldman Sachs, a major AIG counterparty, would certainly have suffered from an AIG failure. And in his latest report, Mr. Barofsky comes to the same conclusion. But if Mr. Geithner now says the AIG bailout wasn’t driven by a need to rescue CDS counterparties, then what was the point? Why pay Goldman and even foreign banks like Societe Generale billions of tax dollars to make them whole?
This means a more complete explanation from Mr. Geithner of what really drove his decisions last year, how he now defines systemic risk, and why he wants unlimited power to bail out creditors—before Congress grants the executive branch unlimited resolution authority that could lead to bailouts ad infinitum.
That is how one Congress watcher from the financial industry describes the current state of affairs, from the Fed audit bill to calls for a transaction tax. I think this William Greider piece gets at the heart of it:
The center is not holding. … It feels like carnival time, when up is down and down is up, when humble folks parade as kings and queens and the reigning royals are dressed as clowns. … The most startling evidence of reversal is Chris Dodd, chair of the Senate Banking Committee, who has been a loyal friend of Wall Street and especially Connecticut-based insurance companies. Dodd proposes to strip the Fed of its regulatory functions because of its “abysmal failure” to protect the public, and to replace it with an overarching regulatory administration. …
Taxing Wall Street is a more provocative departure, but some representatives are warming to the idea, drawn to Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio’s appealing Let Wall Street Pay for Wall Street’s Bailout Act. A very small excise tax on all financial transactions–trading stocks, bonds and derivatives–could yield hundreds of billions in revenue. House majority whip Jim Clyburn suggests the securities tax is “a painless way” to pay for highways. …
Senator Bernie Sanders asks another one. If some banks are “too big to fail,” why not just make them smaller? His bill would require Treasury to identify and break up too-big financial institutions within one year. Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are reacting with alarm. They do not normally worry over the senator’s progressive thinking, but what’s dizzying is that former Fed chair Alan Greenspan has embraced the same concept. When the socialist from Vermont achieves bipartisan consensus with the right-wing Maestro, can Barack Obama be far behind?