… goes to Chain of Title, by David Dayen (with apologies to Jennifer Taub, Alyssa Katz, Michael Lewis, and many others, including my co-author, Simon Johnson).
Chain of Title isn’t primarily about the grand narrative of the financial crisis: subprime lending, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, synthetic CDOs, the collapse of the global financial system in 2008, and the frenzied bailout that followed. Instead, it’s about foreclosure fraud: how mortgage servicers, banks, and the law firms they hired systematically broke the law to force people out of their homes. At the same time, it’s about securitization fraud: the fact that an untold number of securitizations were not properly executed, meaning that they violated the terms of their underlying agreements, meaning that their investors should have been able to force rescission of the entire deal.
The substance of the argument has been well known for years, so I’ll try to pack it into one sentence: The banks creating mortgage-backed securities failed to properly transfer notes (the documents proving a borrower’s obligation) to the trusts that issued the MBS, so not only was the securitization itself faulty, but the trust did not have legal standing to foreclose on homeowners—so the banks paid third-party companies to forge the required paper trail, and lawyers knowingly submitted fraudulent evidence to courts, who usually accepted it.
This has been common knowledge on the Internet since 2009 or 2010. But Dayen does what good writers do: he tells the story of a few real human beings figuring out the workings of this vast fraudulent system on their own, fighting against it … and ultimately, for the most part, losing. The book makes you feel the anger, disbelief, hope, and disappointment of those days over again. Even though I knew how the story ended—in a whimper of liability-eliminating settlements and self-congratulatory back-patting by politicians—it was still painful to read. Continue reading
By James Kwak
These days, some papers get more attention when they are in draft form than when they are published, in part because of the length of the review and publication cycle. Recall the Romer and Romer paper on the impact of tax changes, or the Philippon and Reshef paper on the financial sector, both of which made huge splashes years before they were finally published. My best-known paper also falls in that category. “The Value of Connections in Turbulent Times” began knocking around the Internet in 2013, and is only now being published by the Journal of Financial Economics—nine years after we began working on it, and at a time when the world seems to have completely moved on from its subject. (Note: that link will allow you to download the published version of the paper for free, but only until September 4, 2016. Thanks Elsevier, I guess.)
The paper, as you may have heard years back, shows that financial institutions with connections to Tim Geithner experienced abnormal positive market returns when his nomination to be treasury secretary was leaked and then announced in November 2008, and suffered abnormal negative returns when the news of his tax issues threatened to undermine his confirmation in January 2009. The interesting thing is that this is not ordinarily supposed to happen in the United States. Having connections to important government officials is not supposed to provide financial benefits to a company, and therefore nominations of those officials do not usually produce stock market bumps. The evidence is not completely one-sided, but in one representative example, researchers found that companies with connections to Dick Cheney did not experience abnormal returns in response to unexpected news about Cheney. This is in contrast to developing countries, where numerous studies have found that connections to important politicians are reflected in stock market valuations.
But it’s less clear why the markets (which, remember, are made up of at least some supposedly rational investors) thought that having connections to Geithner would pay off. Our main argument—after testing and discarding a bunch of other possibilities, like the effect was due to Citigroup, or to very large banks—is that, in the confusion of the time, it seemed likely that the treasury secretary would be given a large amount of discretion; and the more discretion that is available to an official, the more valuable it is simply to be able to get a meeting with him, or get him to return your phone call. You don’t have to think that Tim Geithner would consciously help out someone he served on a board with, or someone he had spent time with as president of the New York Fed; you just have to think that people are influenced by the people they spend time with, and so access matters.
This isn’t how we think our government is supposed to operate, but of course it’s how we all realize that it does operate. That’s one reason why individuals and corporations are willing to donate huge amounts of money to super PACs—so they can get access when they need it. What was unusual about the financial crisis was that, with the financial system and economy apparently falling apart, the value of those connections was much higher than usual. It also showed how, when push came to shove, the United States’ political institutions behaved more like those of a developing country than we would care to believe—the central point of Simon’s famous Atlantic article.
By James Kwak
Larry Summers is well on his way to rehabilitating his public image as a brilliant intellectual, moving on from his checkered record as president of Harvard University and as President Obama’s chief economic adviser during the first years of the administration. Unfortunately, he can’t resist taking on his critics—and he can’t do it without letting his debating instincts take over.
I was reading his review of House of Debt by Mian and Sufi. Everything seemed reasonable until I got to this passage justifying the steps taken to bail out the financial system:
“The government got back substantially more money than it invested. All of the senior executives who created these big messes were out of their jobs within a year. And stockholders lost 90 per cent or more of their investments in all the institutions that required special treatment by the government.”
I have no doubt that every word in this passage is true in some meaninglessly narrow sense or other. But on the whole it is simply false.
By James Kwak
Update: See notes in bold below.
The only “Wall Street” “executive” to go to jail for the financial crisis was Kareem Serageldin, the head of a trading desk at Credit Suisse, according to Jesse Eisinger in a recent article. Serageldin pleaded guilty to—get this—holding mortgage-backed securities at artificially high marks in order to minimize reported losses on his trading portfolio.
Now if that’s a crime, there are a lot of other people who are guilty of it. In fact, a major premise of the federal government’s crisis response strategy was exactly that: allowing banks to keep assets at inflated marks in order to pretend they were solvent when they weren’t. FASB changed its rules in April 2009 in order to make it easier for banks to inflate their marks. And the Obama administration’s “homeowner relief program” was designed to allow banks to delay realizing losses on their mortgage loans by dragging out—but generally not preventing—foreclosures. (Remember “foam the runway”?)
Combine Serageldin’s story with the story of the vigorous prosecution of Abacus Federal Savings Bank—a little Chinatown bank that, if anything, was probably allowing its borrowers to underreport their income on loan applications—which Matt Taibbi tells in the first chapter of his latest book, and the picture you get isn’t pretty. It’s a picture of the immense resources of the American criminal justice system being deployed against bit players, with no consequences for the people responsible for the financial crisis. The judge in Serageldin’s case even called his conduct “a small piece of an overall evil climate within the bank and with many other banks.”
By James Kwak
“Except where market discipline is undermined by moral hazard, owing, for example, to federal guarantees of private debt, private regulation generally is far better at constraining excessive risk-taking than is government regulation.”
That was Alan Greenspan back in 2003. This is little different from another of his famous maxims, that anti-fraud regulation was unnecessary because the market would not tolerate fraudsters. It is also a key premise of the blame-the-government crowd (Wallison, Pinto, and most of the current Republican Party), which claims that the financial crisis was caused by excessive government intervention in financial markets.
Market discipline clearly failed in the lead-up to the financial crisis. This picture, for example, shows the yield on Citigroup’s subordinate debt, which is supposed to be a channel for market discipline. (The theory is that subordinated debt investors, who suffer losses relatively early, will be especially anxious to monitor their investments.) Note that yields barely budged before 2008—despite the numerous red flags that were clearly visible in 2007 (and the other red flags that were visible in 2006, like the peaking of the housing market).
By James Kwak
People keep asking why no senior executive has gone to jail for the misdeeds that produced the financial crisis—and cost the United States more than $6 trillion, or $50,000 per household, in lost economic output. The usual answers are that no one did anything wrong (oh, come on) or, more realistically, that it’s too hard to convict individuals in complex financial fraud cases.
At the same time, however, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York—the district that includes Wall Street—has amassed a 79-0 record in insider trading cases, including yesterday’s jury verdict against Mathew Martoma, a trader at the hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors. In Martoma’s case, he obtained confidential information about a clinical trial for a drug being manufactured by two pharmaceutical companies and, according to the jury, convinced his boss, Steven Cohen, to unload the firm’s positions in those two stocks.
By James Kwak
Five years later, and things seem marginally better in some areas (the CFPB exists), significantly worse in others (LIBOR, money laundering, London Whale, etc.). There has been some debate recently about whether we have a safer financial system today than before Lehman collapsed. But the fundamental issue, as Simon and I discussed in 13 Bankers, is whether our political system will put the interests of society at large ahead of the interests of large financial institutions. On that score, there is little to be encouraged about.
In 2002, Art Wilmarth wrote a mammoth (262 pages) article titled “The Transformation of the U.S. Financial Services Industry, 1975–2000.” In that article, he identified many of the key trends in the financial sector—consolidation, deregulation, breakdown of Glass-Steagall, complex products, increased risk-taking—that would not only produce a financial crisis but make it so destabilizing for the economy later in the decade. Now he has written a shorter (164 pages) article, “Turning a Blind Eye: Why Washington Keeps Giving into Wall Street,” on the key question: why our government doesn’t do anything about it, even after the financial crisis.