Blame Washington - Not Wall Street for the Current Financial Crisis

Who Do You Believe is Responsible for the Current Financial Crisis?

  • Wall Street
  • Washington
  • Neither
  • Both
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It Started With a Housing Bubble

The collapse of many financial institutions and the implications of this for the economy is the major economic concern in the United States and around the world as we head into the last quarter of 2008. The immediate cause of the crisis is the drastic reductions in the value of the assets of financial companies due to the large number of sub-prime (low credit quality) mortgages in their portfolios. However, the sub-prime mortgage problem is a sub-set of the collapsing of the housing market bubble. Basically, rising demand for housing and the profits to be made in meeting this demand led to increasing numbers of people moving into the housing market and seeing it as a means of getting rich. As prices continued to rise and thousands of people became wealthy as a result, more and more people jumped into the market. In times of frenzied activity in the market for a particular good, housing in this case, the mania takes on a life of its own as increasing numbers of people rush into the market hoping to get rich while knowing nothing about the mechanics of investing. At some point prices peak and those who entered last panic when they suddenly realize that rather than making large amounts of money they are about to lose everything. Their reaction is to cut their losses and sell, an act that begins to drive prices down causing others to begin frantically selling in their haste to exit.

Congress Ignored Looming Crisis

There Have Been Other Bubbles

Seemingly irrational economic behavior such as this is not uncommon as evidenced by the seventeenth century Tulip Mania in Holland when tulips became popular there and the large demand for tulip bulbs led to frenzied speculation that drove the prices of tulip bulbs to astronomical heights. The eighteenth century witnessed the South Sea Bubble when frenzied trading in the stock of the English South Sea Company drove the price of the stock way up before suddenly collapsing. Then there was the Dot Com bubble in the U.S. in the 1990s when people believed that the stock of the new Internet companies were the keys to never ending wealth and speculation led to the prices of many of these stocks being bid up to unbelievable heights before collapsing. The recently deflated housing bubble is just the most recent occurrence of this phenomena.

As with any new economic turbulence, the knee jerk reaction of liberals in government and the media has been to immediately call for more regulation while, at the same time seeking to exploit the situation for their own political gain. Portraying themselves as our saviors, they are now busy pointing accusing fingers Wall Street and promising to punish them for their greed which they claim caused the problem, while at the same time promising a fix which, as usual, will cost citizens big time in terms of both tax dollars and loss of freedom. However, in their zeal to point fingers and fix blame they forget my grandmother's admonition that when you accusingly point a finger at someone you should remember that your other three fingers are pointing back at you. In this case it is the three fingers pointing back at the liberals which are the ones pointing in the right direction as the major source of the problem is located in Washington, D.C. and not Wall Street. And it is government, not the free market which bears much of the blame for the origins of the problem and all of the blame for the financial crisis that has resulted from politicians' misguided attempts to fix the problem.

The causes of the rise and bursting of the housing bubble and the mortgage crisis that accompanied it were many. Greed did play a part but this was not so much the unrestrained pursuit of wealth at the expense of others, which is the definition of greed that earned it a place among the original Seven Deadly Sins as defined by the early Church, but rather a greed that becomes an obsession which clouds peoples' judgment causing them to make stupid mistakes. There were some shady dealings and outright fraud involved in the actions of some of the players in this crisis, including both small marginal players and large players whose ranks included many in top positions at Washington based Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A close look at the classic definition of greed makes it clear that it is difficult to accuse bankers, securities dealers and investors on both Wall Street and Main Street of greed in the classic sense in this case as the heart of the present problem is the large number of sub-prime loans (loans whose chances of default are high because they were made to borrowers with limited or no savings and jobs subject to layoff during an economic slowdown) made to people who would not be able to qualify for loans to purchase a home under normal lending rules. Looked at this way the actions of the banks and investors appear to be noble and in accordance with the conventional liberal notion of social justice in which those with money use it to help those less fortunate. But, unlike traditional liberals, whose idea of charity is to raise the funds for good deeds by taxing one's neighbors rather than using their own funds, these individuals and companies were using, nae risking, their own funds in this noble cause. Of course, as will be shown in more detail below, the real motivation here was to make more money by acting recklessly because they believed, with some good reason, that the government would bail them out if the high risk borrowers suddenly defaulted on their loans. The sin here was not so much the conscious act of gaining at someone else's expense, but the potential financial harm they exposed themselves and their companies to by focusing entirely on the potential profits thereby both ignoring the potential dangers and failing to expand the effort needed to make good financial decisions. Stupidity or hubris, rather than greed, better describes the actions of most on Wall Street in this case.

The accusation of Greed and even fraud can, however, be more appropriately applied to Washington and specifically to the actions of the Clinton Administration, Congress and the top management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. According to a 1999 article in the New York Times, Fannie Mae in response to "...increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people..." acquiesced and reduced its credit standard's to buy loans made high risk, or sub-prime, borrowers. As will be explained below, this action opened the door for banks to do the same thing as Fannie Mae would now buy these high risk loans as soon as the banks made them. But the greed did not stop here as both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have always enjoyed a special relationship with the government and, to keep Congress happy and on their side, donated freely to the campaigns of members of both parties with both individual contributions from the mega salaries of the top executives of the two companies as well as generous contributions from their employee financed Political Action Committees (PACs). A September 11, 2008 posting of data, released on September 2, 2008 by the Federal Election Commission, on the OpenSecrets.org website of the Center for Responsive Politics lists the total contributions by individuals employed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and contributions from the employee Political Action Committees (PACs) of these two companies to each member of Congress from 1989 to the present (Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is number on on the list as the recipient of a total of $165,400 of which $116,900 came from individuals, Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama came in second with a total of $126,349 of which $120,349 was from individuals, Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee is number 26 on the list with a total of $42,350 of which $11,850 came from individuals, and Republican Presidential Candidate Senator John McCain is number 62 with a total of $21,550 all of which came from individual contributions). Here we have the Democratic Administration of the liberal President Bill Clinton carrying out the policies of his hard left supporters by exploiting the poor in a financial experiment that is certain to harm many of them and putting the taxpayers at risk all for his own political gain. Liberals in Congress, of course, supported President Clinton's efforts to reduce underwriting standards for sub-prime borrowers while members of Congress as a whole either quietly looked the other way or openly defended Fannie Mae's risky underwriting practices while accepting millions of dollars in campaign contributions from Fannie and Freddie. As for Fannie Mae itself, management ignored their fiduciary duty to maintain prudent lending practices and embarked on a risky venture gambling that the economy would remain strong enough to handle their gamble but believing that if it didn't their ability to tap the U.S. Treasury would save them and cover their losses. This is classic greed whereby the perpetrators - in this case the elected officials in Washington and the top management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - all sought to increase their wealth and power at the expense of both the poor (who were essentially the lab rats in this social engineering experiment) and the taxpayers who, with the passage of the bailout bill yesterday (October 3, 2008) are now responsible for paying at least $700 BILLION of their hard earned money to get us out of the financial mess brought on by the unrestrained greed of those running our government.

Individual Freedom and Responsibility are Needed

As noted above, the present financial crisis began as a classic economic bubble. Such bubbles occur naturally and when they burst some innocent people, such as the workers in high tech companies who lost their jobs when the DotCom bubble burst, get hurt along with those who throw caution to the wind by getting caught up in the frenzy of of the get rich quick atmosphere of the mania. However, there are really only two ways to protect people from being harmed by these bubbles. The first is to give people the freedom, accompanied by an equal amount of responsibility to bear the consequences of their actions, to control their lives and the second is to strip them of all their freedom and place responsibility and decision making for their lives in a third party such as the government or a cult. In his book, The Cash Flow Quadrant, author Robert Kiyosaki (whose previous book was the very popular Rich Dad, Poor Dad) describes his exercise of this freedom and how it led him from a successful management job to being broke and homeless to becoming the millionaire he is today. People need the freedom to make their own choices, as well as accept the consequences of their mistakes in order to learn from their mistakes and find success. In addition to making and learning from mistakes, people have to accept the fact that success requires hard work and not the squandering of their time or money on get rich quick frenzies which end in disaster especially for those who jump into the jump in last. As for the second option, one only has to view the 1999 movie The Matrix which depicts a world in which the masses spend their lives in a comatose state in which they experience perfect safety and security via images designed by and fed into their brains by a group of controllers who run the world.

Freedom, of course, requires hard choices and sometimes none of one's options are good and the individual is forced to choose the one that is the least bad. Take the bursting of the DotCom bubble. While no one knew exactly when it would burst, only those actually living in a coma were unaware of warnings that it would eventually burst. This left workers making good money in the industry with the choice of hoping history and those warning of an eventual bursting of the bubble were wrong, or taking steps to either leave their good paying jobs for something more secure or building a financial cushion against an eventual crash and layoff (this also meant moving a good portion of their investments away from high flying tech stocks and into something with lower returns and more security). The Enron crash is another example liberals cite as an example of unrestrained greed requiring government protection. While there is no question that top executives in the company allowed their greed to blind them to the consequences of their stupid mistakes, led to the dereliction of their fiduciary duties to their stockholders and employees and lulled them into believing that their cozy relationships, which were well lubricated with campaign contributions, with politicians of both parities would bail them out if things crashed. However, it is also true that many of the employees also closed their eyes to the problems building for the company as evidenced by the fact that right up to the day before the stock crashed many were begging the company to allow them to buy more Enron stock for their 401(k)s. This despite the fact that there were an increasing number of people writing in The Wall Street Journal, Barron's and other publications warning that Enron was about to crash. That Enron was about to crash was relatively well known months before it happened the only unknown was the exact date the crash would occur. Like previous bursting bubbles, there were plenty of warnings about the possibility of the increasing amount of sub-prime lending would lead to an eventual crash which could threaten the nation's financial system. As I mentioned above, even the generally left wing New York Times in a September 30, 1999 article, nine years before the actual crash, warned "In moving, even tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980's. "

When did You First Become Aware of Problems with Sub-Prime Loans?

  • After Labor Day 2008 When the News Media Began Daily Coverage
  • Spring of 2008
  • In 2007
  • Prior to 2007
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Warnings about the Present Crisis Have Been Issued for the Last Decade

For at least a decade warnings that this risky venture would eventually collapse fell on mostly deaf ears. The recent sudden financial collapse of the sub-prime market was not an unexpected event, the only surprise was the government's, in its haste to appear to be on top of the problem, decision to force financial institutions to mark their sub-prime loans and securities to market. Marking to market is an accounting technique that involved having the banks determine what their loans and securities would bring if offered for sale on the open market the next day and then compare this value to the value of the money they held as deposits for their customers. Given the panic in the markets over the uncertainty as to how many of the borrowers responsible for making payments on these sub-prime loans would default, the resale value of the loans and securities was close to zero and banks whose asset portfolio contained a large portion of these loans and securities found themselves insolvent as their assets were not sufficient to cover their deposit liabilities. While marking financial assets to market is an accounting tool that can provide useful information for management and regulators, this meat ax approach to regulation made little sense. First of all, even today (October 4, 2008) as I write this, I am not aware of any reports of runs on banks (which is the situation where bank depositors rush to withdraw their funds in en mass - there is a scene in the 1946 movie classic It's a Wonderful Life staring Jimmy Stewart in which Stewart's character, George Baily, as the head of a savings and loan is faced with a classic run on the bank during a panic) and, while the resale value of these loans and securities is near zero, the default rate is still low and the banks are receiving their payments on time. It is easy to conclude that this was a panic driven publicity stunt on the part of government, designed more to shift blame away from them for their own previous laxity in allowing, let alone encouraging, the reckless sub-prime lending by lenders in the first place. The result of this mark to market fiasco, has been the destruction of billions of dollars worth of stockholder equity along with a world wide financial panic that threatens the world economy as a whole.

President Franklin Roosevelt

President Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Franklin D. Roosevelt | Source

The Roots of this Crisis Go Back to Roosevelt's New Deal

To fully understand the causes of the current crash we have to go back to the roots which, like the other big financial bubble that is about to burst - Social Security - have their origins in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

Among the many laws rushed through Congress by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his attempt to implement socialist style economic regulation of the U.S. economy following his election in 1932 was a major banking reform act known as the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. Among the numerous restrictions on bank's activities included in the 1933 act was a provision that prohibited interstate banking - the law forbid banks from doing business in more than one state. Many states further limited banks operating areas by dividing themselves into banking districts which forced each bank to operate within just a portion of the state (Illinois and some other states went even further and outlawed branch banking entirely, leaving each bank with just a single office). Since demographics tend to vary from area to area, some banks found themselves in markets with high loan demand but low savings deposits while others had an abundance of savers but little demand for loans. Since the business of banks is to make money on the difference between the interest they pay savers on their deposits and the interest they charge on their loans, it is important that they have both borrowers and savers in their customer base. By placing limits on the size of the area where a given bank could operate, the government's action with the Glass-Steagall Act made it difficult for many banks to remain in business. To get around the difficulty of lack of savers or lack of borrowers, banks with high loan demand and low savings deposit rates began making bilateral arrangements with banks in other areas which had high deposit rates and low loan demand whereby they would sell their loans to the banks which had a surplus of deposits. Thus, the secondary mortgage market came into being. However, there were transaction costs involved with forming and maintaining these relationships as well as the costs of performing due diligence on the loans and distant properties that secured them and these costs tended to limit the growth of the market. The Roosevelt Administration saw and understood the problem but, instead of taking the simple and practical step of repealing the restriction on interstate banking and letting the market work, they responded by enacting more legislation in 1938 that created an agency known as the Federal National Mortgage Association with the acronym FNMA which everyone pronounced Fannie Mae.

The mission of Fannie Mae was to use taxpayer money to buy and sell loans on a national scope which created a national secondary mortgage market. Had interstate banking been allowed we would have had the same result without the federal government being involved. Fannie Mae was very successful in creating an efficient secondary market for mortgage loans and, in the process became the dominant player in the market. in 1954 Fannie Mae was partially privatized by being given a corporate charter with non-voting preferred stock in the corporation being sold to the U.S. Treasury and non-voting common stock sold to thrift institutions doing business with Fannie Mae. However, management and control of Fannie Mae remained in the hands of federal bureaucrats. In 1968 Fannie Mae was fully privatized with common stock (that included voting rights) being listed on the New York Stock Exchange and made available to the public as a whole to purchase.

Successful as Fannie Mae and the secondary market were, there were still inefficiencies in the market due to the government's heavy handed regulation of the industry. To take over the job of taking mortgage loans purchased by Fannie Mae and putting them together in large packages and then selling shares in the package to big investors like insurance companies and pension funds as well as banks, the government created a new agency known as the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation whose acronym FHLMC was pronounced Freddie Mac. These packages or pools became known as Mortgage Backed Securities, the type of securities which are at the heart of the present financial crisis. Freddie Mac was originally operated by the government's Federal Home Loan Bank System which was the Federal Agency created to supervise and assist the old Savings and Loan industry (an industry which the regulators managed to destroy in the late 1980s with their mark to market rules while at the same time creating a financial crisis similar to the present one). Like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac was eventually privatized and its stock sold to the general public.

Fannie, Freddie and Moral Hazard

While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were private companies with all of their stock held by private investors, they were not truly private. In addition to having been created by the government they also retained some very special privileges unavailable to real private companies. Among these were exemption from state and local taxes (an exemption enjoyed only by Federal Government entities as a result of the 1819 McCulloch v. Maryland decision by the Supreme Court, exemption from regulation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (which meant that they did not have to publicly disclose information about their finances and activities as other companies whose stock is held by the public are required to do, and had a line of credit with the U.S. Treasury. Instead of going to a bank or other private lenders for operating or emergency funds, Fannie and Freddie could just dip into Uncle Sam's coffers.

This last special privilege, a line of credit with the U.S. Treasury, gave rise to the myth, a myth that Fannie, Freddie and their friends in Congress, did not appear to try to refute, that the U.S. Government would stand behind and guarantee the mortgage securities that Fannie and Freddie were creating. Adding credence was the fact that, in addition to their overly close ties to the U.S. government, Fannie and Freddie were very large in terms of assets and a late 20th century belief in bank regulatory circles was that very large financial institutions could not be allowed to fail for fear that the failure of such institutions would have a devastating effect on the economy. When Continental Bank of Illinois, the seventh largest bank in the U.S. at that time, was in deep financial trouble and on the verge of collapsing in 1984 the government concluded that they could not allow such a large institution to fail so they pumped $4.5 billion dollars worth of taxpayer monies into the bank to keep it afloat. This precedent reinforced the idea that the government would move in to cover losses in the event that the securities created by Fannie and Freddie proved unsound.

The term moral hazard is an insurance term describing the danger of overprotecting people from risk. Insurance is designed to protect people's property from risks that are beyond their control such as damage from an unexpected storm or the unexpected death of a breadwinner. However, insurance companies are very careful when writing policies so as not to encourage people to engage in reckless behavior simply because insurance protects them from losses. Thus, a fire insurance policy will pay to replace the loss of a home in the event of an accidental fire but will not pay when someone simply burns the place down themselves in order to collect the insurance. Similarly a life insurance company will pay when an insured dies of causes beyond his/her control but will not pay in the event of suicide or murder by the hand of the person named as beneficiary. Imagine the gambling frenzy that would take place if casinos in places like Las Vegas or Monte Carlo had a policy of refunding losses while allowing gamblers to keep their winnings. This is, in effect what happened, in the mortgage backed securities market when investors willingly brought risky mortgage backed securities knowing that they would get a large return because of the high rates borrowers were paying on the sub-prime mortgages in the package while at the same time believing that, in the event these high risk borrowers lost their jobs and stopped making their payments that the government would step in and cover the losses. After all, Fannie and Freddie had direct access to the U.S. Treasury for funds and their sheer size meant that their failure would have severe economic repercussions. There is nothing like the appearance of a safe bet to induce people to throw caution to the wind and bet the farm.

Investors were willing to buy the mortgage backed securities despite the risk posed by the sub-prime loans mixed in the pools of mortgages that formed the mortgage backed securities. Fannie and Freddie's stockholders liked the big profits the two were generating, so when the Clinton Administration began pressuring Fannie Mae to relax their underwriting standards and accept mortgage loans that had been made to even higher risk sub-prime borrowers, they soon gave in and began purchasing loans from very high risk individuals. According to a September 30, 1999 article by Steven Holmes in the New York Times "In a move that could help increase home ownership rates among minorities and low-income consumers, the Fannie Mae Corporation is easing the credit requirements on loans that it will purchase from banks and other lenders." The article went on to note that "Fannie Mae, the nation's biggest underwriter of home mortgages, does not lend money directly to consumers. Instead, it purchases loans that banks make on what is called the secondary market. By expanding the type of loans that it will buy, Fannie Mae is hoping to spur banks to make more loans to people with less-than-stellar credit ratings." And, by "hoping to spur banks to make more loans to people with less-than-stellar credit ratings", Fannie Mae was, according to the Times, bowing to "increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people and felt pressure from stock holders to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits." While politics and greed may have blinded the players in this move into sub-prime lending, even the New York Times felt compelled to add a word of caution saying "In moving, even tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980s."

In addition to the New York Times voicing a little concern, the Wall Street Journal periodically ran editorials during the past decade describing lax accounting practices, warning of the potential problems posed by the relaxing of credit standards and pointing to the apparent corruption in these two companies in which top management made generous contributions from their mega salaries to the campaign funds of their friends in Congress. While the Bush Administration made repeated attempts beginning in 2001 to try to reign in the activities of Fannie and Freddie, the organization's friends in Congress not only thwarted attempts at investigating the two companies but prominent members like Congressman Barney Frank (Democrat, Massachusetts) and Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat, New York) praised the actions of the two companies and said they should be increasing the number of high risk loans.

An Abundance of Financial Industry Regulation

While the abundance of greed, stupidity and corruption involved in the present crisis makes it easy to find targets to blame as well as providing ample fodder for 30 second sound bites in the heat of the current Presidential Campaign, it is critical that we understand that blaming and punishing Wall Street will do nothing to prevent similar financial crisis, like this one, in the future. While the few on Wall Street who committed outright criminal fraud should be tried and punished, we should not use the courts and legal system to punish what was, in effect, stupidity on the part of those involved in the sub-prime debacle. In addition to being unfair and unproductive, the current political and media obsession for witch hunts on Wall Street will not only deflect criminal blame from where it should be directed - which is the abuse of power by Washington policymakers - but will cause us to fix the problem with more of the same regulation which is at the root of the problem in the first place.

Contrary to the ravings of left wing politicians and their allies in the media, the fact is that banks and other financial institutions were not operating in a laissez-faire free market environment. While the current regulatory burden is considerably lighter than the heavy handed socialism of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, regulation is still a big factor in the financial industry. First of all, even in a zero regulation environment, financial institutions, especially banks, have always had a fiduciary responsibility to protect their client's money. Since ancient times courts have held them to this standard and when institutions ignore this duty their victims can sue to recover their losses. However, in addition to their fiduciary responsibility, banks with national charters are subject to regulatory oversight and regulation by the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, while state chartered are subject to the same examination and oversight by their respective state banking commissions. In addition all banks are required to be a member of the Federal Reserve System and are required to follow its rules as well as be a member of the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) which not only regulates and audits, when it feel its necessary, but also has its own fiduciary responsibility to the public to make sure their money in the banking system is safe. In the case of mortgage lenders, the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), FHA (Federal Housing Administration), HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) to name but a few, also issue regulations and have the authority to audit and fine banks for violations of their regulations. Of course there is also the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) which regulates all corporations, including banks, which sell stocks to the public - all corporations with the notable exception of government sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which Congress has specifically exempted from such regulation and which are more responsible than anyone for the current crisis. Numerous other state and federal agencies exist to regulate and supervise the activities of insurance companies, securities dealers and other financial institutions.

Keystone Cops in Action

Given the extensive regulation listed above, a thoughtful person is forced to ask not only how, in the face of such oversight (which American citizens are forced to pay for twice - first with their tax dollars to fund the operations of these agencies and, second, for the increased prices they have to pay for financial services as a result of costs of regulatory compliance being passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for the services of financial institutions) could we we end up with such a disaster as the current crisis, but also ask how will giving more power and more tax dollars to these regulatory Keystone Cops prevent future financial crisis's?

The answer is that more regulation will do nothing, other than choke economic growth and increase the financial burden on taxpayers, because what we have here is not regulatory failure but regulatory complacency. As the New York Times article cited above noted "[Fannie Mae was under]...increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people". In other words, in the face of political pressure from the Clinton White House, Fannie Mae not only choose to ignore its fiduciary responsibilities but to also encourage the banking system to do the same. And such reckless abandonment of its fiduciary responsibility was easy to rationalize since, not only was the additional risk they were taking extremely profitable, but what better way to maintain its special relationship with the politicians running the show than to accommodate rather than reject the Administration's request? Further, since they were helping the government in this project was it not reasonable to expect that the government would bail them out of the mess if the economy suddenly tanked and these sub-prime loans began defaulting?

And what about the regulators? Why didn't they see and stop the banks from making these obviously risky loans? The fact is, the regulators were a part of the same government as the politicians pushing sub-prime loans and one doesn't advance their career in a bureaucracy by going against the directives of their superiors in Congress who hold the purse strings for next year's appropriation to fund the agency. Besides, a law passed in 1977 known as the Community Reinvestment Act, required banks to make sub-prime loans in low income areas. While it is true that this law probably bears little responsibility for the present crisis as it only applies to banks and not to all lenders, it none the less makes it clear that Congress and the Federal Government place heavy emphasis on sub-prime lending to advance a political agenda leaving it up to banks and rank and file government auditors to figure out what is a proper balance between fiduciary responsibility to depositors and compliance with a law passed by Congress? Further, some agencies, such as HUD often made compliance with the Community Reinvestment Act an audit priority. Finally, while many of the sub-prime loans were originated by mortgage service companies and other unregulated mortgage originators, the loans themselves were ultimately purchased and pooled into mortgage securities by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and then sold to regulated banks and other financial institutions for their portfolios which were subject to examination and audit by regulators. It wasn't the failure of these small mortgage service companies which caused this crisis but rather the failure of the regulated banks that caused the present crisis. As for the small, unregulated mortgage service companies they, like the flowers in the desert that appear and bloom when it rains and disappear with the drought, tend to spring up when the the housing industry is expanding and demand for loans growing and then mostly disappear when the market cools down. While 50% or more of the sub-prime loans were originated by these generally unregulated companies (which were also not required to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act), they were willingly purchased by Fannie Mae and found their way into the portfolios of regulated banks as part of a Fannie Mae created mortgage backed security.

The lessons to be learned from this crisis are first that we cannot trust big government to look out for our interests. It should be remembered that the primary function of government is to protect us from foreign invasion, protect our lives and property from real criminals, and to administer justice and solve civil disputes through an independent judiciary. Once government is allowed to grow beyond this limited function we find it transferring resources and wealth from groups they don't favor to those who they do favor and using the power of government to try to forcefully re-design society to fit their and their supporters' vision of what society should be. Second, we must realize that government should not and in most cases cannot protect us against everything, especially our own stupidity. As I have pointed out in replies to comments on my article about lottery scams it is usually physically impossible to catch those behind these scams which is why individuals need to exercise common sense to avoid becoming victims of them. Third, government sponsored enterprises, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must sever all ties with the government and operate under the same rules as any other corporation. Fourth, individuals and business people alike should guard against greed since, whether or not one believes in sin, it is still a fact that greed clouds judgment and causes people to undertake actions which harm themselves and often others as well. Finally, we as a society should never forget the ancient Roman admonition of caveat emptor or buyer beware and exercise careful skepticism when confronted with a buying decision, an investment decision or when deciding who to vote for. And once the decision has been made and the transaction completed each of us should accept responsibility for our decision.

Now Who Do You Feel is Responsible for the Current Financial Crisis?

  • Wall Street
  • Washington
  • Neither
  • Both
  • Other (please explain in Comment Section Below)
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© 2008 Chuck Nugent

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Comments 25 comments

Chuck profile image

Chuck 18 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

wba108@yahoo.com - thanks for your comments..

I totally agree with you that the free market rather than big government is the answer to our economic problems. The real problem is big government which has the power to affect the economy in major ways. Not only is it impossible for the most enlightened and dedicated government planners to possess all the skills needed to effectively manage economy better than the free market, the actions of government officials are guided by politics rather than economic efficiency. Big government always in crony capitalism (actually crony fascism is a more apt description because fascism is all about economic management by government) in which the power of government is used to steer the economy in ways that are advantageous to politicians and their supporters than citizens. As I see it, the only way to prevent crony fascism is by strictly limiting the size and power of government.

Thanks again for you comments and I see that you are from upstate NY. I grew up in Rochester, but have spent most of my adult life in Tucson.


wba108@yahoo.com profile image

wba108@yahoo.com 18 months ago from upstate, NY

Nice to hear some well informed answers as to the cause of the 2007 melt down. I assumed it was caused by government intervention from the start.

It seems like incredible ignorance to say otherwise. Now I do hear some people even from the conservative camp claim that the repeal of Glass-Stegal was a major factor but I generally don't buy that argument.

I see the well known truth that heavy handed government intervention rarely helps and almost always does damage to be relevant here. The answer is to let the market take care of itself; this should be our guiding principle.


ib radmasters profile image

ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

Chuck

This was good but it needs an update for today.

JP Morgan Chase blunder 4.4 billion dollars.


QualityContent profile image

QualityContent 4 years ago

"The Matrix which depicts a world in which the masses spend their lives in a comatose state in which they experience perfect safety and security via images designed by and fed into their brains by a group of controllers who run the world."

I hate to say it but WE live in that world now.....


Dave 6 years ago

This is the biggest crock of unsupported opinion I have ever seen! Do you think God made you twice as smart as the rest of us???


Dave Sibole profile image

Dave Sibole 6 years ago from Leesburg, Oh

Good Hub. I blame the government. Why blame the banks if the loans are going to be guarnateed. They get their money either way and that is a purely business decision. Isn't that what businesses always do?


Barbara Yurkoski profile image

Barbara Yurkoski 7 years ago

Used to be that banks would not loan to people who couldn't afford to pay back. And let's not forget the role of marketing and its use of social pressure in encouraging people to live on debt. If marketers thought individual responsibility would protect people from foolish behaviour they wouldn't be spending billions on advertising. It's a fact of life that needs to be countered with more than a lecture about individual responsibility.


hglick profile image

hglick 7 years ago from Ronkonkoma, NY

Has anyone noticed that the government wrongdoing in the housing crisis does not ever get mentioned anymore in most of the media and in presidential news conferences?


issues veritas 7 years ago

Good article.

Government and the private sector are responsible for the 2009 economic crisis.

The two party system has been ineffective as a mechanizm of the people for at least the last 50 years. It is interesting to note, that up until the 2008 Presidential Campaign there was no acknowledgement of the middle class by the Democratic or Republica party candidates. The Democrats have always sponsered the poorer side of the people and the Republicans have done the same for the rich and corporations. The middle class paid for the benefactors of both parties because they had no representation in either party.

The government let us down way back in the 1970s when they gave support to the oil industries claim of why oil should cost more and why we had to wait in line for gasoline. The government didn't follow through with an energy plan and now 30 years later they are big on the idea. Where were they for the last 30 years.

The dot com scam was the next let down from the government and then to the housing an credit crunch. The artificial rise of oil last year by investors fueled the economic meltdown. Like the fall of Richard M. Nixon, the economy couldn't fight with all the events happening simultaneously.

Wall Street caused the dot com, the banks caused the housing and credit crisis and it was allowed to happen with the inaction of the government. The non government aspect of the crisis was the creation of non prudent business applications. These were based on pyramid or ponzi schemes attracting interest of the public through the greed factor. In essence, these boom mechanisms were all artificially created schemes that had no place in prudent business ventures. The ones who created the schemes made out like the bandits that they were and those that came later picked up the tab for the all venture.

Big government is as bad as obesity in humans. Most of the weight is jut plain fat and dangerous to your health. You can trm fat aggresively and make the body healthier. If Microsoft can layoff people, then why can't the government?


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA - thank you for your comments. While it is true that the government is not involved in each and every transaction on Wall Street, the government does regulate (and in my Hub I listed some of the numerous agencies regulating banking and Wall Street) both banks and other players on Wall Street and government bank examiners and auditors from these and other government agencies can, and do, audit a random sample of individual transactions and, despite periodic articles in the media (both the general media and, more frequently, the financial media) warning of the potential danger these mortgage backed securities posed as a result of the large number of risky mortgage loans that were backing many of these securities, the government bank examiners issued no warnings to the banks about this until it was too late. Granted, neither independent private sector auditors, banks' own internal auditors nor most bank management (there were exceptions with many banks, like JP Morgan Chase, refusing to invest in these securities) and boards of directors showed any concern about these securities either. A major reason neither the regulators nor the top management of most banks were concerned about the potential problem of these high risk mortgages in the mortgage backed securities was that it was widely believed in the market that since Fannie Mae, the company packaging the mortgages into securities which were then sold to banks, was a former government agency which still had a credit line with the U.S. Treasury, that the U.S. government was guarantying these securities and would reimburse holders of the securities in the event the loans in them began to default. This belief was not true but the government failed to both forcefully deny the belief as well as failed to have its examiners write up banks holding dangerously high numbers of these securities in their portfolios. A major reason for the government not being more strict with their examinations was that such an act would have been contrary to the government's policy of encouraging homeownership by encouraging Fannie Mae to purchase and securitize these low quality loans. If banks stopped buying the securities from Fannie Mae the unregulated mortgage operations would have had no place to sell the mortgages which would have limited their ability to replenish their capital and make more mortgage loans to their target market, most of whom were high risk in terms of their credit worthiness and the loans also high risk in that they were lending against 100% or more of the property meaning that the buyers had to put up nothing (and possibly even got money back) which gave them no financial investment in the property and no reason to try to make the payments when they lost their jobs as they had no investment to lose.

The justification for government regulation is that the government is not motivated by profit and because of this it is assumed that they will not be swayed by financial considerations when making decisions and will therefore be more likely to be concerned only with the public interest. However, this overlooks the fact that politicians need votes to keep their jobs and, with this as their bottom line, they, like a business, place votes ahead of the public good when the two clash. The fact is the government policy of trying to make housing affordable for all, including those without the financial wherewithal to afford a mortgage, was contrary to sound banking principles and the politicians elected to opt for a politically popular program while gambling with the banking system. Unfortunately, they lost the gamble and brought about the near collapse of the world financial system. The worst thing is that this was not unforseen as there were many warnings (in the Hub I included a quote from a 1999 issue of the New York Times warning of potential problems - this was 9 years prior to the crash - with these loans) of potential problems with these loans.

Now, after being warned and ignoring the warnings, the government is not only trying to deflect the blame but is asking us to pay for more regulation to prevent a problem like this in the future. I don't know about you, but if I purchase a car and it falls apart as I drive it off the lot, there is no way that I would allow the salesman to simply shrug his shoulders and try convince me that the solution is to purchase a second, more expensive, car if I want to drive. But this is exactly what the government is doing - after failing to deliver on their promise to protect our interests by regulating the banking system, they now want us to entrust them with more power to do the job that they have just failed at miserably.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

02SmithA - Thanks for visiting my Hub and for your comments.   

You are correct in stating that the government wanting to encourage homeownership is a big part of the problem.   

Home ownership itself is not a bad thing and can be good for both the individual and society.  From society's standpoint homeowners, especially those with equity in their homes, tend in general to both keep their properties in better condition than renters and, because the value of their property is tied to the conditionn of the community, tend to have a bigger stake in helping maintain their community.   This is a general statement and not intended to imply that all homeowners are responsible citizens and renters not.  However, by having a financial stake, the value of their homes, in the community, homeowners as a group tend to be more concerned about maintaining their property and maintaining their community.   

From an individual point of view, home ownership can also be beneficial as owning one's home can entitle them to a significant tax break in terms of being able to deduct the interest paid on their mortgage and local real estate taxes paid from income for computing their Federal (and state if there is one) Income Taxes.  Renters pay these expenses (mortgage interest and real estate taxes) as part of their rent but the landlord, not the renter, gets to take the tax deduction.  When mortgage rates are low, as they have been in recent years, we often find that the monthly mortgage payment is close to what the individual would be paying in rent for a similar amount of housing, in which case it makes economic sense to buy rather than rent.  Also, as the government keeps depreciating the value of money through its inflationary monetary and fiscal policies, there is an incentive to buy rather than rent as this will help keep the monthly cost of owning rather than renting (the cost of owning will go up as local real estate taxes go up but, so long as the interest rate on the mortgage is fixed, that part of the payment won't increase).  While I agree with author Robert Kiyosaki's view that owning one's home is a liability rather than an asset as the owner is having their cash flow reduced each month.  However, this does not necessarily mean that home ownership cannot be financially beneficial to individuals in many cases.


VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA profile image

VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA 7 years ago from India.

SORRY Mr. CHUCK! I am far away from US and the actual position in wall street may differ with what I have said. Here, in India, the public, govt. officials, are cautious and let nothing unaudited. The govt's failure to come to the aid of the failing companies may also be the cause. In my opinion, mistaking and gambling companies deserve no sympathy. How can they expect the Govt. to come to their aid?... before taking the erring end to task? Your Govt. is already entangled in overseas commitments (in Iraq) and can we expect it to get entangled in local commitments. It is the "Govt. of the people".


VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA profile image

VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA 7 years ago from India.

Wall Street is an independent business centre and the Government does not interfere in each and every transaction by the business community. So, any crisis in wall street should have been foreseen, preventive action taken and lastly Govt. should have been approached at the appropriate time. After it was too late, all are blaming the US Govt. Instead of assessing "how it came", wall street should think "how to come out of the crisis."


02SmithA profile image

02SmithA 7 years ago from Ohio

Chuck,

I watched the youtube video you posted in this hub and it is very interesting. I think that so many people were getting mortgages for houses that they could never afford because they were told that a house is the best investment one can ever make and that the value will just go up and up constantly. Washington is mostly to blame for this by wanting to prop up home ownership numbers.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Venugopal Sivagna - thank you for visiting my Hub and for your comments. However, I have to disagree when you say that Wall Street is an independent financial circle as they are subject to extensive regulation, which means that the government did have a hand in this. Further, we taxpayers are paying for this regulatory apparatus which the government told us was needed so they could monitor the financial sector and protect our money. As I pointed out in the Hub the government was not only pressuring the GSEs (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) with whom they had a special relationship, to buy and package more sub-prime loans which the government auditors then overlooked when they auditied the assets of the banks which purchased the securities containing the loans.

Finally, by its actions in bailing out the Continental Bank and other institutions in the 1970s (and Chrysler Corp. earlier) they set a precedent for government coming to the aid of large companies whose mistakes and gambles by management pushed the companies to the brink of bankrupcy. This plus the fact that the government did nothing to dispel the myth that they were guaranteeing the loans in these securities which caused many of the banks to feel safe in purchasing the seceurities.


VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA profile image

VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA 7 years ago from India.

It is easy to blame the Govt. for each and everything. Simply blaming Govt for the financial crisis is not good. Wall Street is an independent financial circle and Govt. do not interfere in each transaction. The financial companies themselves should own responsibilities for the crisis.


Mary Tinkler profile image

Mary Tinkler 7 years ago from Gresham

Very well thought post. Big picture: multi-national banks and investment corps, American companies who've shipped our jobs overseas.....all have been operating with nary a trace of social conscience. From NAFTA to usury credit scams, and every loophole in between they've killed their own golden-egg goose. The bailout won't help, eveyone is running scared now. They've sucked every last drop of blood our of our stones, then taken our national wealth and squandered it on war and pork. Ultimately if average Americans (or workers anywhere) don't have money to spend, corporations don't make money. Start making something of value, in American factories, with American workers making livable wages and you'll be amazed how fast the economy would turn around.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Chuck - you do me more than justice! My reply was less considered than I'd intended, largely because I was at work and I'd already spent longer than I 'should' have in reading your hub. I learned a lot, I assure you :)


Chef Jeff profile image

Chef Jeff 7 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

I find government much better at being reacting than being proactive.

Washington leaders have dirty hands, and greed amongst all of us has equally dirty hands.

Excellent, lengthy and informative hub!


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Paraglider - Thank you for your very comprehensive comment.

I hope I didn't imply that lenders should not have made loans to high risk individuals with low incomes. The interest rates on such loans will tend to offset the higher default rates that can be expected from these riskier loans. There was also nothing wrong with pooling them into securities and selling them. The problem was with the way this was done. First, as I understand it Fannie and Freddie mixed these in with pools of higher quality loans. This, in itself was not bad, but the problem was that they were passed off as safe securities and few purchasers of the securities bothered to investigate the loans making up the security. Worse still, was Fannie, Freddie and Congress allowing the purchasers of the securities to believe that the securities were guaranteed by the U.S. government who would absorb any losses if these loans failed.

Also, as I pointed out, while foreclosure rates are rising, especially among the sub-prime loans, the majority are still being paid as agreed by the borrowers. It was the fear that these would default, not their actual defaulting, which is caused the initial chaos in the market. Of course now (Oct 6, 2008) the fear in the market is mainly do to uncertainty as to how much more damage will be caused by government policies and mistakes.

Chuck


Misha profile image

Misha 7 years ago from DC Area

Wow Chuck! One more reason to be glad to be your fan :) Thanks, I just skimed it, and I will be back to devote more time to read it in full with full attention, it definitely deserves this. :)


Eric Graudins profile image

Eric Graudins 7 years ago from Australia

Chuck,

Thank you for writing this very informative hub.

I appreciated the clear explanation of the history and activities of the US financial system .

This is the first of your hubs I've seen. I'll be sure to check out more!

Regards, Eric G.


pgrundy 7 years ago

Excellent article, thank you.

Now I see this battle to assign blame is beginning, and what bothers me is that assigning blame to the Carter and Clinton administration will get boiled down in the public imagination to the soundbyte: "They let black people buy houses and this is what happened."

Clearly it is much more complex than that.

I personally think that there is blame aplenty to share, and that Phil Gramm's repeal of Glass-Steagall was not a great idea. As one direct example, after Glass-Steagall was repealed, the midwest regional bank I work for immediately expanded to states where the housing bubble burst the most horribly (before it burst) and bought up lots of subprime lending organizations so that by November of 2007 they were about an inch away from going under--this after being stable in the midwest for about 100 years. We are still on the short list for failure (Wachovia and WAMU were the two in front of us) even after a massive capital injection back in April. The only thing saving us right now is the temporary ban on short selling, otherwise we'd be toast already and I'd be unemployed.

I think FDR did a few things right and that we do everyone a disservice by reducing the whole issue to Capitalism And Unfettered Markets versus The Evils of Socialism. It's just not that simple, but I agree with you at least that now we will almost certainly see an extended period of overregulation and slow or nonexistent growth in the financial sector as a result.

Thank you for all the effort and care you put into this. Great hub.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Chuck - it's a substantial article and I commend your effort. While I know you were specifically discussing sub-prime loans, wouldn't you agree that the pursuit of expensive and unjustified wars overseas might just have something to do with the size of the budget deficit?

While I also agree with you that at the bottom of the food chain borrowers must be held responsible if they have borrowed irresponsibly, I must insist that packaging and leveraging these loans into various 'derivatives' that no-one fully understands, then gambling recklessly in this rarefied atmosphere of ungrounded 'products', is several orders of magnitude more irresponsible than that shown by the borrowers. Especially when you are first to cream off the profits but expect Government to 'socialise' the losses.

You may consider Washington more culpable but the Marketeers' behaviour was surely crass too?


bobmnu 7 years ago

Great Article. This should be required reading in High Schools so that students understand how government interference hurts them. The free market is the best way for the consumers to be protected

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