Casting Blame, Part I

There are so many players responsible for the housing boom and bust, the credit crisis, and the financial collapse that it is difficult to blame any one person–it is a broadly shared culpability.

There are many who were rooting for the blame to be assessed to a given political party, a particular player, or a specific act of malfeasance. In reality, the situation is far more complex. The responsibility is widespread, and there is plenty of shared blame. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize–winning professor of economics at Columbia University, called it a “system failure”—not merely one bad decision, but a cascade of many decisions that produced tragic results.

The recklessness and incompetence seemed to be a team effort. With no single villain and so much blame to go around, I fear missing some person or event that significantly contributed to the mess now enveloping the global economy.

That does not mean we cannot attempt to highlight those whose contributions have disproportionately led to the final catastrophe. After exhaustively reviewing this debacle, I assess responsibility in order of culpability as follows:

Many of the monetary and regulatory errors that directly led to the present crisis are attributable to the man they once called the Maestro. Under the guidance of Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve abused monetary policy, ignored critical lending issues, and failed to regulate new and irresponsible banking products.

Several of Greenspan’s policies proved to be wildly misguided: the regular interventions to protect asset prices and bail out investors, the irresponsibly low rates after the post-2000 crash, and his nonfeasance in supervising lending. Most of all, it was his deeply held philosophical conviction that all regulations are bad, and are to be avoided at all cost. We now know what that cost is, and it’s astronomical.

Alan Greenspan had spent his years at the Fed operating under an enormous philosophical misconception, as the former Fed chairman admitted in testimony before Congress on October 22, 2008: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such as that they were capable of protecting their own shareholders.”

Based on Greenspan’s worldview, the events of the present crisis and many others that occurred over the past decade were impossible, given that the so-called wisdom of the free markets would prevent them. Only they did occur. Greenspan’s faith was wildly misplaced, and the taxpayers are that much poorer for it. If we have to put our finger on the single intellectual flaw that underlies the housing collapse, the credit crisis, the economic recession, and the problems with toxic paper, it would be a misplaced belief that markets could self-regulate. One is reminded of the Benjamin Disraeli quote: “He was distinguished for ignorance; for he had only one idea, and that was wrong.”

Given how enamored Greenspan was of free markets, it is increasingly difficult to reconcile many of the actions he undertook. The very concept of the champion of free markets repeatedly intervening in their inner workings is a contradiction of enormous proportions. It is a catch-22 worthy of Joseph Heller.

It is beyond my capacity to decipher how Greenspan justified his internal conflicts, but at least he later admitted that his primary philosophy “had a flaw.” Unfortunately, his flawed economic belief system colored nearly every policy he enacted as Federal Reserve chairman. Most of today’s crises trace their roots in part to his policies.

In 1836, Mayer Rothschild wrote, “Give me control of a nation’s money, and I care not who makes the laws.” If only that prescient warning had been heeded by the Federal Reserve. It might also serve as an admonition for Ben Bernanke, the current Fed chief.

The Greenspan era lasted 20 years (1987 to 2006). The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) must take responsibility for following him so obsequiously, especially in the latter years of his reign. Exceptions include Edward Gramlich, whose timely warnings about subprime and early concern with predatory lending were on target and ignored. So, too, William Poole deserves credit for his many cautionary warnings about the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. To our chagrin, neither man was paid much heed by Greenspan or the FOMC.

The single biggest fault found within the Fed is its inability to fulfill its responsibilities as bank regulator. The Fed not only failed to supervise lending institutions, but it also ignored the most significant shift in lending standards in the history of human finance. The results were disastrous.

The Fed, as an institution, failed the nation. It directly encouraged mass speculation. It failed to supervise innovative new forms of lending. The inflationary spiral that sent oil soaring from $16 in 2001 to $147 per barrel seven years later, along with other commodity and food prices, is attributable to its radical rate-cutting regime.

The current chairman, Ben Bernanke, deserves partial blame for the Fed’s slumber during this inflationary spike. A renowned student of the Great Depression, it was then Fed Governor Bernanke who raised warning flags about deflation after the tech bubble burst. He provided the framework and intellectual cover for Greenspan’s ultra-easy money circa 2001 to 2003.

As Fed chair, Bernanke was terribly slow to realize the subprime mortgage crisis was anything but “contained.” By the time he did awaken to the crisis in August 2007, he responded with a series of programs that pushed the envelope of legality, dramatically expanded the Fed’s balance sheet, and put the central bank’s credibility at risk.

Of all the institutions that played a part in the current crisis, none had a more prominent role than the Federal Reserve.

The first telegraph message ever sent, “What hath God wrought,” reflected Samuel Morse’s deep concern for the repercussions of his own actions. If only Phil Gramm were so similarly introspective.

While Congress deserves much blame for the crisis, no one elected official looms larger in our drama than Gramm. He was the senator behind the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (CFMA), and spearheaded the repeal of Glass-Steagall. The legislation that overturned it bears his name (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act).Both legislative acts were WMDs—weapons of monetary destruction. These time bombs eventually led to mass financial destruction.
Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, said: “Since the financial meltdown, people have been asking, ‘Where was Congress? Why didn’t they see this coming? Why didn’t they provide better oversight?’” We now know the answer is that members of Congress were too busy pursuing a radical deregulatory agenda. Instead of protecting investors and defending the overall economic system, their misplaced concern was how to make life easier for Wall Street.

During the late-1990s era of deregulatory dogma, the GOP controlled the House and Senate, and Gramm was the point man on issues of deregulation. The Texas Republican was aided in his deregulatory quest in part by Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. Perhaps Schumer represented the interests of New York’s Wall Street too well.

To this day, Gramm still claims deregulation had no impact on the housing collapse or the credit crisis. The exempting of derivatives from all regulation—including state insurance supervision, reserve requirements, or clearing information—was not at all related to the eventual problems, according to Gramm. He remains unrepentant as to his impact. Placing any blame on deregulation was simply “an emerging myth,” the retired Texas senator has said. Deregulation “played virtually no role” in the economic turmoil engulfing the globe, Gramm claimed in November 2008.

What shameless nonsense. You will not come across a greater example of cognitive dissonance in your lifetime. Gramm’s inability to recognize the results of his legislative handiwork is a function of a flawed mind protecting itself from the harsh reality. The inconsistency of his deeply held philosophy and the results thereof are logically incomprehensible to Gramm’s conflicted brain. If he were ever to admit the truth, he would likely go stark, raving mad.

I’ll give Alan Greenspan this much credit: At least he has come clean about the “flaw” in his philosophy. Gramm, by contrast, remains committed to his tainted brand of unregulated, free-market absolutism. Of all the players in the tragic drama that has unfolded, he alone remains unrepentant. Gramm is Bailout Nation’s most intellectually bankrupt citizen. Like Greenspan, Gramm had only one idea; unlike Greenspan, he had no comprehension it was wrong.

Barry Ritholtz
for The Daily Reckoning