Wall Street Whitewash
December 16, 2010
When the financial crisis struck, many people — myself included — considered it a teachable moment. Above all, we expected the crisis to remind everyone why banks need to be effectively regulated.
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.