Monday, October 6, 2008

Outsourcing Mallaby On Financial Deregulation

Sebastian Mallaby:

The key financiers in this game were not the mortgage lenders, the ratings agencies or the investment banks that created those now infamous mortgage securities. In different ways, these players were all peddling financial snake oil, but as Columbia University's Charles Calomiris observes, there will always be snake-oil salesmen. Rather, the key financiers were the ones who bought the toxic mortgage products. If they hadn't been willing to buy snake oil, nobody would have been peddling it.

Who were the purchasers? They were by no means unregulated. U.S. investment banks, regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, bought piles of toxic waste. U.S. commercial banks, regulated by several agencies, including the Fed, also devoured large quantities. European banks, which faced a different and supposedly more up-to-date supervisory scheme, turn out to have been just as rash. By contrast, lightly regulated hedge funds resisted buying toxic waste for the most part — though they are now vulnerable to the broader credit crunch because they operate with borrowed money.

Kevin Drum says pretty much what I would have:
First, Phil Gramm's 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act (supported, unfortunately, by the Clinton administration) was specifically designed to "protect financial institutions from overregulation" — primarily by leaving the market for credit default swaps completely unregulated. There may be several underlying causes for the credit crisis, but this is surely one of the very big ones.

Second, after the LTCM debacle of 1998, Alan Greenspan (and, sigh, Robert Rubin) produced a report suggesting that we should "encourage," "promote," and "consider" guidelines that might prod financial institutions into reducing their drunken sailor approach to leverage. But they declined to produce actual regulations to that effect. In fact, as I noted the other day, in 2004 the SEC issued a rule allowing big investment banks to increase their allowable leverage ratios. That turned out not to be such a good idea.

Third, there was a bipartisan failure to regulate the mortgage market into a semblance of rationality. Just the opposite, in fact, as lawmakers pressed Fannie Mae to insure ever dodgier loans and Alan Greenspan encouraged Americans to take advantage of ever cheaper mortgage rates.
Plus there was the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 (also Gramm's idea, and also, unfortunately, supported by the Clinton team).

While the Clinton team's fingerprints are definitely present here, there's a big difference between being too spineless or pro-business to stop bad stuff like this, and being the ones pushing it in the first place. Equating the two is like equating Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler.

1 comment:

MR Bill said...

And, under Clinton, there was in fact SEC regulation: one cannot imagine a Democratic Comptroller of the Currency spiking Eliot Spitzer's investigation (as well as other state AGs) of Mortgage Lending Fraud on the scale necessary to produce this meltdown.
Bush's people just looked the other way, and chanted the mantra "Free Market" in lieu of regulation.