From the April 01, 2011 issue of Futures Magazine • Subscribe!

Alan did it

image"The greatest tragedy would be to accept the refrain that no one could have seen this coming and thus nothing could have been done. If we accept this notion, it will happen again…. It falls to us to make different choices if we want different results."

These are the words of the task force that wrote the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report released in January. These 10 commissioners were tasked by Congress to determine what caused the 2008 financial meltdown. After hearing about possible exemptions of certain firms from the Dodd-Frank Act by those in Congress, I read this report. It irks me that some of those responsible are the loudest naysayers of reform. Even the task force notes: "Some on Wall Street and in Washington with a stake in the status quo may be tempted to wipe from memory the events of this crisis…." So let’s have at it…what were the group’s main conclusions?

1) The financial crisis was avoidable. "The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire. The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand, and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public." The main instigator? The Federal Reserve Bank and "its pivotal failure to stem the flow of toxic mortgages, which it could have done by setting prudent mortgage-lending standards."

2) Widespread failure in financial regulation and supervision. "The sentries were not at their posts...more than 30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation by financial institutions, championed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and others, supported by successive administrations and Congresses, and actively pushed by the financial industry at every turn, had stripped away key safeguards, which could have helped avoid the catastrophe." Regulators highlighted for sleeping on the job: Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Reserve Bank of New York and those keeping an eye on the mortgage industry. One suggestion on how it was weakened: The financial industry spent about $4 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions from 1999 to 2008.

3) Failure of corporate governance and risk management at key financial institutions. "Too many of these institutions acted recklessly, taking on too much risk, with too little capital, and with too much dependence on short-term funding." Further, compensation focusing on short-term gain added to the long-term problems.

4) A combination of excessive borrowing, risky investments and lack of transparency led to the crisis. Everyone was overleveraged, especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Both Wall Street and Main Street incurred debt levels unseen before.

5) The government was ill-prepared and its inconsistent response added to the uncertainty and panic. They rescued Bear Stearns, then put Fannie and Freddie into conservatorship, then let Lehman fail and then bailed out AIG.

6) There was a systematic breakdown in accountability and ethics. You think?

7) Contributing to the meltdown was a collapse of mortgage-lending standards, unchecked OTC derivatives and credit rating agencies that didn’t do their jobs.

My synopsis just skims the report; this group dug in and even got philosophical. "These conclusions must be viewed in the context of human nature and individual and societal responsibility…. It was a failure to account for human weakness that is relevant to this crisis." It does hold accountable public officials, specifically in the Clinton and W. Bush administrations, and sort of blames us for allowing these officials to do what they did to the system. So what’s the takeaway? Learn from the past, heal thyself, and blame Alan Greenspan.

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