Last week, Planet Money aired an interview by Adam Davidson with Barney Frank, the blunt and colorful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Davidson and Frank had a pitched disagreement over the question of whether it made sense to appoint a bipartisan, expert panel to take some time – figures between one and three years were thrown around – to study the causes of the financial crisis and, on that basis, recommend regulatory changes. Davidson thought it was a good idea; Frank thought it was nonsense.
I’m with Frank on this one, and the argument applies to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, also known hopefully as the “New Pecora Commission,” appointed by Congress to study the causes of the crisis.
A parallel is commonly drawn to the 9/11 Commission, which I believe is widely considered to have been both genuinely bipartisan and worthwhile. However, I think the differences are more important here. On September 12, 2001, most people – certainly including most people in government and policy, and almost certainly including even the most highly-placed people in the country – had only the vaguest idea of how nineteen terrorists had infiltrated the country and managed to hijack four plans, using three of them successfully as bombs. The Commission’s mandate was to understand how that happened, and in particular how our intelligence and security agencies had failed to prevent this attack. That is, there was a shortage of information, and most of the information was classified anyway, so a thorough investigation was called for.
By September 16, 2008, most people in the business already knew the causes of the financial crisis: cheap money, new and predatory mortgage products, lax underwriting practices, the transfer of risk through securitization. dependence on ratings by overwhelmed rating agencies, failure of regulatory agencies to regulate, greediness on the part of banks and bankers who ate up their own AAA-rated dog food, unhealthy dependence on short-term funding, etc. There has been argument about the relative importance of these factors, but the basic story is so well known that it has spawned multiple cartoon caricatures. There is little fact-finding necessary to determine the causes of the crisis; we should already be at the phase of analyzing empirical data, and I can predict with confidence that seventy years from now there will be economic historians arguing both sides of this question; after all, that’s what happened with the Great Depression.
I expect, and hope, that the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will uncover some especially sordid details of bankers laughing about screwing their customers, or regulators on the take from the banking industry. And if that happened, then those people should be sued or put in jail. But we already know that bankers were screwing their customers, and we know that regulatory agencies were friendly toward the banking industry (whether because of corruption, simple ideological alignment, or orders by political appointees makes little difference in the broad story).
I am skeptical that months or years of study will bring us any closer to consensus on the major questions, because the crisis is so overdetermined; there is plenty of evidence to construct multiple plausible narratives about how it happened, each one of which points to a different regulatory solution (and whether you could get that solution through Congress is yet another question).
Thinking cynically, spending 1-3 years studying the problem could also be cover to let the issue fade away; the impetus for reform is already far weaker today than it was in, say, February when Citigroup was going through its third near-death experience. I know that’s not Davidson’s intent, but I’m sure there are others who would be only too happy to bet that the economy and the popular mood will return to normal. Remember Sarbanes-Oxley? It was weaker than originally imagined, and by 2007 there was a movement afoot to repeal it, since people had already forgotten Enron and Worldcom. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.
By James Kwak