Making Sense of the Credit Debacle

If I Had a Time Machine ...
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March 2 2009 6:48 AM

Making Sense of the Credit Debacle

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Dan, that's a great beginning question. It's funny, because it comes up all the time in the form of "Should the Fed/Treasury have let Lehman Bros. fail?" Hey, if you are going to give me the power to go back in time and change major governmental decision-making, well, then I'm not going to go back only six months and alter the Lehman Bros. decision—rather, I am going to be much more comprehensive and far-reaching than that.

The perfect-storm metaphor is imperfect; rather, what led to the current situation were numerous legislative, ideological, and business decisions that worked together to create a systemic failure. Consider each of the following:

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  • The Commodities Futures Modernization Act (2000) allowed unregulated derivatives to run wild.
  • The repeal of Glass-Steagall (1999) allowed depository banks to become far more intertwined with Wall Street.
  • From 2001-03, Fed Chair Alan Greenspan took rates down to unprecedented levels, causing 1) a mad scramble for yield and 2) an enormous housing boom.
  • In 2004 the SEC allowed the five big investment banks to leverage up from 12-to-1 to 35-to-1 or more.

Reverse each of the above and the total systemic damage is far, far less. There were several other factors—the changing business model of the ratings agencies from customer-financed research to a form of  payola and the misaligned compensation system on Wall Street that pays people for short-term gains despite ongoing long-term risks. There's a lot more, but I cannot forget the misguided deification of markets—a false belief system that led to a radical deregulatory philosophy that ignored the abdication of lending standards  ("Innovative," said Greenspan) among the subprime lenders.

Barry Ritholtz is a money manager, proprietor of The Big Picture blog, and author of the forthcoming Bailout Nation.

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