Banks Still Stand in the Way of Full Recovery

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James K. Galbraith is author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. He teaches at The University of Texas at Austin.



The financial crisis in America isn't over. It's ongoing, it remains unresolved, and it stands in the way of full economic recovery. The cause, at the deepest level, was a breakdown in the rule of law. And it follows that the first step toward prosperity is to restore the rule of law in the financial sector.

First, there was a stand-down of the financial police. The legal framework for this was laid with the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 and the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000. Meanwhile the Basel II process relaxed international bank supervision, especially permitting the use of proprietary models to value complex assets-an open invitation to biased valuations and accounting frauds.

Key acts of de-supervision came under Bush. After 9/11 500 FBI agents assigned to financial fraud were reassigned to counter-terrorism and (what is not understandable) they were never replaced. The Director of the Office of Thrift Supervision appeared at a press conference with a stack of copies of the Code of Federal Regulations and a chainsaw-the message was not subtle. The SEC relaxed limits on leverage for investment banks and abolished the uptick rule limiting short sales to moments following a rise in price. The new order was clear: anything goes.

Second, the response to desupervision was a criminal takeover of the home mortgage industry. Millions of subprime mortgages were made to borrowers with undocumented incomes and bad or non-existent credit records. Appraisers were selected who were willing to inflate the value of the home being sold. This last element was not incidental: surveys showed that practically all appraisers came under pressure to inflate valuations in order to make deals happen. There is no honest reason why a lender would deliberately seek to make an inflated loan.

Mortgages were made with a two-or three-year grace period, with a low, fixed interest rate called a "teaser." These were not real mortgages; they were counterfeits, whose value would collapse when exposed. As with any counterfeit, the profits came early, when the bad paper was first sold.

After the grace period, rates would reset, and the lenders knew that the borrowers, who were already stretched by their initial payments, would either refinance or default. If they refinanced, that would mean another mortgage origination fee. And if they defaulted, well ... on to step three.

Third, the counterfeit mortgages were laundered so they would look to investors like the real thing. This was the role of the ratings agencies. The core competence of the raters lay in corporate debt, where they evaluate the record and prospects of large business firms. The value of mortgage bonds depended on the behavior of tens of thousands of individual borrowers, whose individual quality the ratings agencies could never check. So the agencies substituted statistical models for actual inquiry, and turned a blind eye to the fact that the loans were destined to go bad.

Fourth, the laundered goods were taken to market. The investment and commercial banks transformed the bad mortgages into bonds, obtained the AAA ratings, and sold the stinking mess to American pension funds, European banks and anyone else who took the phrase "investment grade" at face value. (Later chumps would include the Federal Reserve.) The European crisis now underway is a direct result, as their banks and investors, stung by losses on American mortgage bonds, are dumping their risky Greek public debt and seeking the safety of U.S. Treasury bills.

When the crisis went public in August 2007, Henry Paulson's Treasury took every step to prevent the final collapse from happening before the 2008 elections, extracting billions from the Federal Housing Authority and from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to relieve the pressure on bank balance sheets. It worked until it didn't. In September 2008 the collapse of Lehman triggered the collapse of American International Group (AIG) and the steps that led to the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) and to the effective nationalization of the commercial paper market, meaning that the Federal Reserve has become the primary short-term funder of major American corporations.

Upon taking office, President Obama had a chance to change course and didn't take it. By seizing the largest problem banks, the government could have achieved clean audits, replaced top management, cured destructive compensation practices, shrunk a bloated industry, and cut the banks' lobbying power and therefore their capacity to obstruct financial reform. The way to write-downs of bad mortgage debt and therefore to financial recovery would have been opened.

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