Saturday, December 18, 2010

Two NYT Articles-Opinion Pieces on the Joint Commission

Krugman and Nocera.

Paul Krugman

How naïve we were. We should have realized that the modern Republican Party is utterly dedicated to the Reaganite slogan that government is always the problem, never the solution. And, therefore, we should have realized that party loyalists, confronted with facts that don’t fit the slogan, would adjust the facts.

Which brings me to the case of the collapsing crisis commission.

The bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was established by law to “examine the causes, domestic and global, of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States.” The hope was that it would be a modern version of the Pecora investigation of the 1930s, which documented Wall Street abuses and helped pave the way for financial reform.

Instead, however, the commission has broken down along partisan lines, unable to agree on even the most basic points.

It’s not as if the story of the crisis is particularly obscure. First, there was a widely spread housing bubble, not just in the United States, but in Ireland, Spain, and other countries as well. This bubble was inflated by irresponsible lending, made possible both by bank deregulation and the failure to extend regulation to “shadow banks,” which weren’t covered by traditional regulation but nonetheless engaged in banking activities and created bank-type risks.

Then the bubble burst, with hugely disruptive consequences. It turned out that Wall Street had created a web of interconnection nobody understood, so that the failure of Lehman Brothers, a medium-size investment bank, could threaten to take down the whole world financial system.

It’s a straightforward story, but a story that the Republican members of the commission don’t want told. Literally.

Last week, reports Shahien Nasiripour of The Huffington Post, all four Republicans on the commission voted to exclude the following terms from the report: “deregulation,” “shadow banking,” “interconnection,” and, yes, “Wall Street.”

When Democratic members refused to go along with this insistence that the story of Hamlet be told without the prince, the Republicans went ahead and issued their own report, which did, indeed, avoid using any of the banned terms.

That report is all of nine pages long, with few facts and hardly any numbers. Beyond that, it tells a story that has been widely and repeatedly debunked — without responding at all to the debunkers.

In the world according to the G.O.P. commissioners, it’s all the fault of government do-gooders, who used various levers — especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored loan-guarantee agencies — to promote loans to low-income borrowers. Wall Street — I mean, the private sector — erred only to the extent that it got suckered into going along with this government-created bubble.

It’s hard to overstate how wrongheaded all of this is. For one thing, as I’ve already noted, the housing bubble was international — and Fannie and Freddie weren’t guaranteeing mortgages in Latvia. Nor were they guaranteeing loans in commercial real estate, which also experienced a huge bubble.

Beyond that, the timing shows that private players weren’t suckered into a government-created bubble. It was the other way around. During the peak years of housing inflation, Fannie and Freddie were pushed to the sidelines; they only got into dubious lending late in the game, as they tried to regain market share.

But the G.O.P. commissioners are just doing their job, which is to sustain the conservative narrative. And a narrative that absolves the banks of any wrongdoing, that places all the blame on meddling politicians, is especially important now that Republicans are about to take over the House.

Last week, Spencer Bachus, the incoming G.O.P. chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told The Birmingham News that “in Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”

He later tried to walk the remark back, but there’s no question that he and his colleagues will do everything they can to block effective regulation of the people and institutions responsible for the economic nightmare of recent years. So they need a cover story saying that it was all the government’s fault.

In the end, those of us who expected the crisis to provide a teachable moment were right, but not in the way we expected. Never mind relearning the case for bank regulation; what we learned, instead, is what happens when an ideology backed by vast wealth and immense power confronts inconvenient facts. And the answer is, the facts lose.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on December 17, 2010, on page A39 of the New York edition.

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Explaining the Crisis With Dogma


Published: December 17, 2010

I’m talking about that odd 13-page “report” issued on Wednesday by the four Republican members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. The F.C.I.C., of course, is the 10-member, supposedly bipartisan panel that was created by Congress last year and charged with examining the root causes of the financial crisis.

After a year and a half of hearings, including questioning over 800 witnesses, reviewing millions of pages of documents, and spending some $6 million in taxpayers’ money, its final report is due to be delivered in a month.

Except that in Washington these days, there is no such thing as bipartisan. On every major issue facing the country, Democrats and Republicans have competing narratives. Why should anyone expect anything different when it comes to the origins of the financial crisis?

Although commission members had long made a show of trying to work collaboratively, there was always a fair amount of underlying tension. Some of that tension had to do with the internal dynamics of the commission — the general sense of chaos, for instance, and the supposedly autocratic style of its Democratic chairman, Phil Angelides.

But more recently, it has had to do with the growing tug of war between the commissioners over which financial crisis narrative would win out. The Republican minority, fearing their view would get short shrift, pre-emptively put forward a CliffsNotes version of their theory of the case. In other words, they responded to a report that hasn’t even yet been written, much less read and voted on by the members.

Is there such a word as “presponse?” Perhaps we should coin it to describe what took place this week at the F.C.I.C.

It would all be pretty laughable if it didn’t have serious consequences. But it does. First, with the commission’s Republican members having now issued this public, partisan smoke signal, the final product, no matter how rigorous, will be inevitably dismissed as a Democratic document. As a result, it will have little impact and, once Bill O’Reilly has finished mocking it, will be consigned to the dustbin of history. By creating this partisan rift, the Republicans have succeeded in tarring the entire enterprise.

That is a genuine shame. When the commission was formed last year, there were high hopes that it could act as a modern-day Pecora investigation — which rooted out Wall Street corruption in the wake of the crash of 1929, and helped create the political groundswell for such key reforms as the Glass-Steagall Act. That investigation was led by Ferdinand Pecora, who held the country spellbound through some two years of nonstop investigations. Clearly, this effort isn’t going to come close to that one.

“I think we can officially stop comparing these guys to the Pecora Committee,” said Michael Perino, author of an engaging recent book about Pecora, “The Hellhound of Wall Street.” Mr. Perino added, “It is disparaging to Pecora.”

The second consequence is even more important. Next year, the House of Representatives will be in Republican hands. High on the agenda for the new majority is its own version of financial reform. The Republicans hope to minimize the impact of the Dodd-Frank bill while at the same attacking — and fixing — what they see as the “true” culprit of the financial crisis.

To fix a problem, though, it helps to know what the problem is. The F.C.I.C., with all those witnesses and documents, could have really helped here. But the paper released by the commission’s Republicans this week reads as if they couldn’t be bothered. It simply reiterates longstanding Republican dogma that could have been written without a $6 million investigation. None of which bodes particularly well for the next two years of “financial reform.”

The problem the Republicans want to fix is the two government-sponsored entities, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Without question, Fannie and Freddie need fixing. A week before Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, both entities were so troubled that they had to be taken over by the federal government. Since then, the G.S.E.’s, as they’re called in Washington, have cost the taxpayer around $150 billion in losses, far more than, say, the American International Group.

They have also, though, served a critical purpose. With the private mortgage market essentially broken, virtually every mortgage made in America, postcrisis, has required a guarantee from Fannie, Freddie or the Federal Housing Administration. With the banks unwilling to make mortgage loans on their own, you simply cannot buy a house in America today without Fannie and Freddie’s help.

The F.C.I.C. commissioner who has complained loudest about Fannie and Freddie is Peter Wallison, a former Reagan-era Treasury official who for the last two decades or so has been a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Long before it was popular to criticize Fannie and Freddie, they were Mr. Wallison’s bugaboo. Back then, he was a lonely — indeed a brave — voice arguing that the enormous portfolios of mortgages of the G.S.E.’s — combined with their quasi-governmental status — created systemic risk.

He was right about this, though it’s worth nothing that his precrisis prognosis of Fannie and Freddie’s ills was wrong in a number of key ways. Like most Fannie and Freddie critics at the time, he believed the risk they posed was interest-rate risk, rather than credit risk, which is what actually brought the two companies low. He also argued that Fannie and Freddie were consistently ignoring their mission to help make affordable housing available to Americans.