Here’s issue #24 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 3/23/12. Last week, I finally watched the movie Inside Job, a documentary on the 2008 collapse of US financial firms that caused our current recession. I highly recommend it. Here are some highlights.
The movie Inside Job documents how the deregulation of the financial industry over the last 30 years has led to three financial crises, each of increasing severity. These three crises were the Savings and Loan (S&L) crisis of the late 1980s, the Internet stock bubble burst of 2000-2001, and the financial collapse of 2008.
The 2008 collapse was the worst of the crises and was largely caused by risky and fraudulent practices in the mortgage industry and by financial firms’ packaging of mortgages into securities that were sold to investors. These practices had fueled a bubble in the housing market – unwarranted price increases and over-building – that then caused a dramatic decline in house prices. This resulted in millions of mortgage defaults and foreclosures, and an economic recession – often called the Great Recession – that is the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The losses in households’ wealth, primarily in housing and investment assets, exceed $14 trillion. Tens of millions of homeowners, who had significant equity in their homes in 2007, now have little or nothing. It is estimated that homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth – who are “underwater” – owe $700 billion more than their homes are worth. 
Inside Job documents that despite warning signs former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretaries Lawrence Summers and Henry Paulson, and SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt (among others) vehemently opposed any regulation of complex financial instruments known as “derivatives” (because they are “derived” from other financial instruments such as mortgages). They blocked efforts of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under the leadership of Brooksley Born to regulate derivatives. By the late 1990s, the unregulated derivatives market involved $50 trillion of securities and was (and is) described by many as legalized gambling.
The movie notes that an orchestrated campaign by Wall St. and its lobbyists for deregulation of the financial industry, along with the incestuous revolving door which had formerWall St. executives in senior positions in government, succeeded in creating widespread support for deregulation. Greenspan, Summers, Paulson, and other senior government officials, as well as many in Congress, supported deregulation. This led to:
- The 1999 repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933, passed in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which had required the separation of Wall Street investment firms and their risky investments from banks to reduce the risks that banks and their depositors would need a government bailout
- Staff cuts at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which oversees our financial markets
- Financial firms being allowed to decrease their reserves that protect against bankruptcy to as little as 3% of their assets, increasing the risk of the need for a taxpayer bailout
- Academic economists supporting deregulation and downplaying risks
- Specific warnings about high levels of risk being ignored
- Credit rating agencies (e.g. Standard & Poor’s) covering up the risks of mortgage-related derivatives
The mortgage industry pushed unaffordable, sub-prime mortgages on unwitting customers because it received higher fees for them. Then, financial firms packaged these mortgages into derivatives and sold them as safe investments when the firms knew they were risky – and often made side bets that underlying mortgages would go into default and that the derivatives would decline in value.
The next issue of my newsletter will provide more context and some follow-up on the 2008 financial collapse, including steps to take to reduce the likelihood of another financial crisis. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that Congress and the regulators will take these steps.