The congressional report on “The Financial Crisis” and what happened

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report. Final Report of the national Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States

2011. Phil Angelides Chairman, Brooksley Born Commissioner, Senator Bob Graham Commissioner, etc.

This is the best written, easy to understand explanation of how the financial crisis happened I’ve read. To explain how the crisis happened, you’ll also learn a lot about the history of our financial system, as well as very good explanations of what derivatives, subprime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations, and the other financial instruments of destruction.    


This financial crisis was avoidable

Despite the expressed view of many on Wall Street and in Washington that the crisis could not have been foreseen or avoided, there were warning signs. The tragedy was that they were ignored or discounted. There was an explosion in risky subprime lending and securitization, an unsustainable rise in housing prices, widespread reports of egregious and predatory lending practices, dramatic increases in household mortgage debt, and exponential growth in financial firms’ trading activities, unregulated derivatives, and short-term “repo” lending markets, among many other red flags.

The prime example is the Federal Reserve’s pivotal failure to stem the flow of toxic mortgages, which it could have done by setting prudent mortgage-lending standards. The Federal Reserve was the one entity empowered to do so and it did not. The record of our examination is replete with evidence of other failures: financial institutions made, bought, and sold mortgage securities they never examined, did not care to examine, or knew to be defective; firms depended on tens of billions of dollars of borrowing that had to be renewed each and every night, secured by subprime mortgage securities; and major firms and investors blindly relied on credit rating agencies as their arbiters of risk.

Widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision proved devastating to the stability of the nation’s financial markets

The sentries were not at their posts, in no small part due to the widely accepted faith in the self- correcting nature of the markets and the ability of financial institutions to effectively police themselves. 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 powerful financial industry at every turn, had stripped away key safeguards, which could have helped avoid catastrophe. This approach had opened up gaps in oversight of critical areas with trillions of dollars at risk, such as the shadow banking system and over-the-counter derivatives markets. In addition, the government permitted financial firms to pick their preferred regulators in what became a race to the weakest supervisor

We do not accept the view that regulators lacked the power to protect the financial system. They had ample power in many arenas and they chose not to use it. To give just three examples: the Securities and Exchange Commission could have required more capital and halted risky practices at the big investment banks. It did not. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other regulators could have clamped down on Citigroup’s excesses in the run-up to the crisis. They did not. Policy makers and regulators could have stopped the runaway mortgage securitization train. They did not. In case after case after case, regulators continued to rate the institutions they oversaw as safe and sound even in the face of mounting troubles.

As the report will show, the financial industry itself played a key role in weakening regulatory constraints on institutions, markets, and products. It did not surprise the Commission that an industry of such wealth and power would exert pressure on policy makers and regulators. From 1999 to 2008, the financial sector expended $2.7 billion in reported federal lobbying expenses; individuals and political action committees in the sector made more than $1 billion in campaign contributions. What troubled us was the extent to which the nation was deprived of the necessary strength and independence of the oversight necessary to safeguard financial stability.

Dramatic failures of corporate governance and risk management at many systemically important financial institutions were a key cause of this crisis

There was a view that instincts for self-preservation inside major financial firms would shield them from fatal risk-taking without the need for a steady regulatory hand, which, the firms argued, would stifle innovation. 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.

large investment banks and bank holding companies focused their activities increasingly on risky trading activities that produced hefty profits. They took on enormous exposures in acquiring and supporting subprime lenders and creating, packaging, repackaging, and selling trillions of dollars in mortgage-related securities, including synthetic financial products.

The CEO of Citigroup told the Commission that a $40 billion position in highly rated mortgage securities would “not in any way have excited my attention,” and the co- head of Citigroup’s investment bank said he spent “a small fraction of 1%” of his time on those securities. In this instance, too big to fail meant too big to manage.

Financial institutions and credit rating agencies embraced mathematical models as reliable predictors of risks, replacing judgment in too many instances. Too often, risk management became risk justification

Compensation systems—designed in an environment of cheap money, intense competition, and light regulation—too often rewarded the quick deal, the short-term gain—without proper consideration of long-term consequences. Often, those systems encouraged the big bet—where the payoff on the upside could be huge and the down- side limited. This was the case up and down the line—from the corporate boardroom to the mortgage broker on the street.

Our examination revealed stunning instances of governance breakdowns and irresponsibility. You will read, among other things, about AIG senior management’s ignorance of the terms and risks of the company’s $79 billion derivatives exposure to mortgage-related securities; Fannie Mae’s quest for bigger market share, profits, and bonuses, which led it to ramp up its exposure to risky loans and securities as the housing market was peaking; and the costly surprise when Merrill Lynch’s top management realized that the company held $55 billion in “super-senior” and supposedly “super-safe” mortgage-related securities that resulted in billions of dollars in losses.

a combination of excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency put the financial system on a collision course with crisis.

In the years leading up to the crisis, too many financial institutions, as well as too many households, borrowed to the hilt, leaving them vulnerable to financial distress or ruin if the value of their investments declined even modestly. For example the five major investment banks—Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley—were operating with extraordinarily thin capital. By one measure, their leverage ratios were as high as 40 to 1, meaning for every $40 in assets, there was only $1 in capital to cover losses. Less than a 3% drop in asset values could wipe out a firm. To make matters worse, much of their borrowing was short-term, in the overnight market—meaning the borrowing had to be renewed each and every day. For example, at the end of 2007, Bear Stearns had $12 billion in equity and $384 billion in liabilities and was borrowing as much as $70 billion in the overnight market.

The leverage was often hidden—in derivatives positions, in off-balance-sheet entities, and through “window dressing” of financial reports available to the investing public.

The kings of leverage were Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two behemoth government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). For example, by the end of 2007, Fannie’s and Freddie’s combined leverage ratio, including loans they owned and guaranteed, stood at 75 to 1.

Financial firms were not alone in the borrowing spree: from 2001 to 2007, national mortgage debt almost doubled, and the amount of mortgage debt per house- hold rose more than 63% from $149,500 while wages were stagnant. When the housing downturn hit, heavily indebted financial firms and families alike were walloped.

Within the financial system, the dangers of this debt were magnified because transparency was not required or desired. Massive, short-term borrowing, combined with obligations unseen by others in the market, heightened the chances the system could rapidly unravel. In the early part of the 20th century, we erected a series of protections—the Federal Reserve as a lender of last resort, federal deposit insurance, ample regulations—to provide a bulwark against the panics that had regularly plagued America’s banking system in the 19th century. Yet, over the past 30-plus years, we permitted the growth of a shadow banking system—opaque and laden with short-term debt—that rivaled the size of the traditional banking system. Key components of the market—for example, the multi-trillion-dollar repo lending market, off-balance-sheet entities, and the use of over-the-counter derivatives—were hidden from view, without the protections we had constructed to prevent financial meltdowns. We had a 21st-century financial system with 19th-century safeguards.

The government was ill prepared for the crisis, and its inconsistent response added to the uncertainty and panic in the financial markets.

Key policy makers—the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York—who were best positioned to watch over our markets were ill prepared for the events of 2007 and 2008. Other agencies were also behind the curve. They were hampered because they did not have a clear grasp of the financial system they were charged with overseeing, particularly as it had evolved in the years leading up to the crisis. This was in no small measure due to the lack of transparency in key markets. They thought risk had been diversified when, in fact, it had been concentrated. Time and again, from the spring of 2007 on, policy makers and regulators were caught off guard as the contagion spread, responding on an ad hoc basis with specific programs to put fingers in the dike. There was no comprehensive and strategic plan for containment, because they lacked a full understanding of the risks and interconnections in the financial markets.

There was a systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics

As has been the case in past speculative booms and busts—we witnessed an erosion of standards of responsibility and ethics that exacerbated the financial crisis. This was not universal, but these breaches stretched from the ground level to the corporate suites. They resulted not only in significant financial consequences but also in damage to the trust of investors, businesses, and the public in the financial system.

The percentage of borrowers who defaulted on their mortgages within just a matter of months after taking a loan nearly doubled from the summer of 2006 to late 2007. This data indicates they likely took out mortgages that they never had the capacity or intention to pay. You will read about mortgage brokers who were paid “yield spread premiums” by lenders to put borrowers into higher-cost loans so they would get bigger fees, of- ten never disclosed to borrowers. The report catalogs the rising incidence of mort- gage fraud, which flourished in an environment of collapsing lending standards and lax regulation. The number of suspicious activity reports—reports of possible financial crimes filed by depository banks and their affiliates—related to mortgage fraud grew 20-fold between 1996 and 2005 and then more than doubled again between 2005 and 2009. One study places the losses resulting from fraud on mortgage loans made between 2005 and 2007 at $112 billion.

collapsing mortgage-lending standards and the mortgage securitization pipeline lit and spread the flame of contagion and crisis.

When housing prices fell and mortgage borrowers defaulted, the lights began to dim on Wall Street. This report catalogs the corrosion of mortgage-lending standards and the securitization pipeline that transported toxic mortgages from neighborhoods across America to investors around the globe. These trends were not secret. As irresponsible lending, including predatory and fraudulent practices, became more prevalent, the Federal Reserve and other regulators and authorities heard warnings from many quarters. Yet the Federal Reserve neglected its mission “to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation’s banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers.” The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision, caught up in turf wars, preempted state regulators from reining in abuses.

over-the-counter derivatives contributed significantly to this crisis. The enactment of legislation in 2000 to ban the regulation by both the federal and state governments of over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives was a key turning point in the march toward the financial crisis. From financial firms to corporations, to farmers, and to investors, derivatives have been used to hedge against, or speculate on, changes in prices, rates, or indices or even on events such as the potential defaults on debts. Yet, without any oversight, OTC derivatives rapidly spiraled out of control and out of sight, growing to $673 trillion in notional amount. This report explains the uncontrolled leverage; lack of transparency, capital, and collateral requirements; speculation; interconnections among firms; and concentrations of risk in this market.

OTC derivatives contributed to the crisis in three significant ways. First, one type of derivative—credit default swaps (CDS)—fueled the mortgage securitization pipeline. CDS were sold to investors to protect against the default or decline in value of mortgage-related securities backed by risky loans. Companies sold protection—to the tune of $79 billion, in AIG’s case—to investors in these newfangled mortgage securities, helping to launch and expand the market and, in turn, to further fuel the housing bubble.

Second, CDS were essential to the creation of synthetic CDOs. These synthetic CDOs were merely bets on the performance of real mortgage-related securities. They amplified the losses from the collapse of the housing bubble by allowing multiple bets on the same securities and helped spread them throughout the financial system. Goldman Sachs alone packaged and sold $73 billion in synthetic CDOs from 2004 to 2007.

Finally, when the housing bubble popped and crisis followed, derivatives were in the center of the storm. AIG, which had not been required to put aside capital re- serves as a cushion for the protection it was selling, was bailed out when it could not meet its obligations. The government ultimately committed more than $180 billion because of concerns that AIG’s collapse would trigger cascading losses throughout the global financial system. In addition, the existence of millions of derivatives con- tracts of all types between systemically important financial institutions—unseen and unknown in this unregulated market—added to uncertainty and escalated panic, helping to precipitate government assistance to those institutions.

The failures of credit rating agencies were essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction

The three credit rating agencies were key enablers of the financial meltdown. The mortgage-related securities at the heart of the crisis could not have been marketed and sold without their seal of approval. Investors relied on them, often blindly. In some cases, they were obligated to use them, or regulatory capital standards were hinged on them. This crisis could not have happened without the rating agencies. Their ratings helped the market soar. From 2000 to 2007, Moody’s rated nearly 45,000 mortgage-related securities as triple-A. This compares with six private-sector companies in the United States that carried this coveted rating in early 2010. In 2006 alone, Moody’s put its triple-A stamp of approval on 30 mortgage-related securities every working day. The results were disastrous: 83% of the mortgage securities rated triple-A that year ultimately were downgraded. You will also read about the forces at work behind the breakdowns at Moody’s, including the flawed computer models, the pressure from financial firms that paid for the ratings, the relentless drive for market share, the lack of resources to do the job despite record profits, and the absence of meaningful public oversight. And you will see that without the active participation of the rating agencies, the market for mortgage-related securities could not have been what it became.

How the Shadow Banking system arose

For most of the 20th century, banks and thrifts accepted deposits and loaned that money to home buyers or businesses. Before the Depression, these institutions were vulnerable to runs, when reports or merely rumors that a bank was in trouble spurred depositors to demand their cash. If the run was widespread, the bank might not have enough cash on hand to meet depositors’ demands: runs were common be- fore the Civil War and then occurred in 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, 1896, and 1907. To stabilize financial markets, Congress created the Federal Reserve System in 1913, which acted as the lender of last resort to banks.

But the creation of the Fed was not enough to avert bank runs and sharp contractions in the financial markets in the 1920s and 1930s. So in 1933 Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act, which, among other changes, established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The FDIC insured bank deposits. Depositors no longer needed to worry about being first in line at a troubled bank’s door. And if banks were short of cash, they could now borrow from the Federal Reserve, even when they could borrow nowhere else. The Fed, acting as lender of last resort, would ensure that banks would not fail simply from a lack of liquidity.

With these backstops in place, Congress restricted banks’ activities to discourage them from taking excessive risks, another move intended to help prevent bank fail- ures, with taxpayer dollars now at risk. Furthermore, Congress let the Federal Reserve cap interest rates that banks and thrifts—also known as savings and loans, or S&Ls— could pay depositors. This rule, known as Regulation Q, was also intended to keep institutions safe by ensuring that competition for deposits did not get out of hand

The system was stable as long as interest rates remained relatively steady, which they did during the first two decades after World War II. Beginning in the late-1960s, however, inflation started to increase, pushing up interest rates.

In the 1970s, Merrill Lynch, Fidelity, Vanguard, and others persuaded consumers and businesses to abandon banks and thrifts for higher returns.

These funds differed from bank and thrift deposits in one important respect: they were not protected by FDIC deposit insurance. Nevertheless, consumers liked the higher interest rates, and the stature of the funds’ sponsors reassured them. The fund sponsors implicitly promised to maintain the full ?? net asset value of a share. The funds would not “break the buck,” in Wall Street terms. Even without FDIC insurance, then, depositors considered these funds almost as safe as deposits in a bank or thrift. Business boomed, and so was born a key player in the shadow banking industry, the less-regulated market for capital that was growing up beside the traditional banking system. Assets in money market mutual funds jumped from $3 billion in 1977 to $1.8 trillion in 2000.

To maintain their edge over the insured banks and thrifts, the money market funds needed safe, high-quality assets to invest in, especially “commercial paper”, i.e. loans to corporations, and repo (see page 60 for details).

The new parallel banking system—with commercial paper and repo providing cheaper financing, and money market funds providing better returns for consumers and institutional investors—had a crucial catch: its popularity came at the expense of the banks and thrifts. Some regulators viewed this development with growing alarm. According to Alan Blinder, the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve said, “We were concerned as bank regulators with the eroding competitive position of banks, which of course would threaten ultimately their safety and soundness, due to the competition they were getting from a variety of nonbanks—and these were mainly Wall Street firms, that were taking deposits from them, and getting into the loan business to some extent. So, yeah, it was a concern; you could see a downward trend in the share of banking assets to financial assets.

Banks argued that their problems stemmed from the Glass-Steagall Act. Glass-Steagall strictly limited commercial banks’ participation in the securities markets, in part to end the practices of the 1920s, when banks sold highly speculative securities to depositors.

Bank supervisors monitored banks’ leverage—their assets relative to equity— because excessive leverage endangered a bank. Leverage, used by nearly every financial institution, amplifies returns. For example, if an investor uses $100 of his own money to purchase a security that increases in value by 10%, he earns $10. However, if he borrows another $900 and invests 10 times as much ($1,000), the same 10% increase in value yields a profit of $100, double his out-of-pocket investment. If the investment sours, though, leverage magnifies the loss just as much.

If you’re interested in reading more about why and how the shadow banking system got into problems, see pages 62 through 66.  And then continue onwards into the giant mess of derivatives and all the other corruption referred to in the conclusions section above.

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