May 14, 2010

Congress Should Lambaste Itself at a Hearing

Justin Katz

It takes more than one entity to blow up an economy, but Congress is auspiciously positioned to deflect the blame that it ought to shoulder. Writes James Pethokoukis:

It's not news that many senators appear to have only a tenuous grasp of the financial industry. But Glassman's larger point is more relevant. It's not just that Congress doesn't understand what Goldman, as a market-maker, does — it's also that elected officials may not recognize that the financial crisis was rooted in Washington as well as Wall Street.

I'd suggest that it would be more accurate to say that they don't care to know. Pethokoukis goes on to cite a study by Brown Professor Ros Levine:

1) Credit Ratings Agencies. While the crisis does not have a single cause, the behavior of the credit rating agencies is a defining characteristic. It is impossible to imagine the current crisis without the activities of the NRSROs. And, it is difficult to imagine the behavior of the NRSROs without the regulations that permitted, protected, and encouraged their activities. … Rather the evidence is most consistent with the view that regulatory policies and Congressional laws protected and encouraged the behavior of NRSROs.

2) Credit Default Swaps. I am suggesting that the evolution of the CDS market, the fragility of the banks, and the Fed's capital rules illustrate a key feature of the financial crisis that is frequently ignored. The problems with CDSs and bank capital were not a surprise in 2008; there was ample warning that things were going awry. Senior government policymakers created policies that encouraged excessive risk taking by bankers and adhered to those policies over many years even as they learned about the ramifications of their policies.

3) The SEC and Investment Banks. Consider three interrelated SEC decisions regarding the regulation of investment banks. First, the SEC in 2004 exempted the five largest investment banks from the net capital rule, which was a 1975 rule for computing minimum capital standards at broker- dealers. Second, in a related, coordinated 2004 policy change, the SEC enacted a rule that induced the five investment banks to become "consolidated supervised entities" (CSEs): The SEC would oversee the entire financial firm. Specifically, the SEC now had responsibility for supervising the holding company, broker-dealer affiliates, and all other affiliates on a consolidated basis. Third, the SEC neutered its ability to conduct consolidated supervision of major investment banks. … The combination of these three policies contributed to the onset, magnitude, and breadth of the financial crisis. The SEC's decisions created enormous latitude and incentives for investment banks to increase risk, and they did.

4) Fannie and Freddie. Deterioration in the financial condition of the GSEs was not a surprise. … But, Congress did not respond and allowed increasingly fragile GSEs to endanger the entire financial system. It is difficult to discern why. Some did not want to jeopardize the increased provision of affordable housing. Many received generous financial support from the GSEs in return for their protection. For the purposes of this paper, the critical issue is that policymakers did not respond as the GSEs became systemically fragile. Again, I am not arguing that the timing, extent, and full nature of the housing bubble were perfectly known. I am arguing that policymakers created incentives for massive risk-taking by the GSEs and then did not respond to information that this risk-taking threatened the financial system.

Although the mildest thing that one can say is that misregulation by the federal government was a key component of the collapse of the financial industry, the solution being proffered by Congress and the President is more regulation. I suppose that, under some circumstances, that might be a rational response, but when Congress clearly has not learned its lesson — by, for example, allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to dissolve — it's a bit like trying to kill the illness with more poison.