Tremble, Banks, Tremble
The financial crisis in America isn't over. It's ongoing, it remains unresolved, and it stands in the way of full economic recovery. The cause, at the deepest level, was a breakdown in the rule of law. And it follows that the first step toward prosperity is to restore the rule of law in the financial sector.
First, there was a stand-down of the financial police. The legal framework for this was laid with the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 and the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000. Meanwhile the Basel II process relaxed international bank supervision, especially permitting the use of proprietary models to value complex assets—an open invitation to biased valuations and accounting frauds.
Key acts of de-supervision came under Bush. After 9/11 500 FBI agents assigned to financial fraud were reassigned to counter–terrorism and (what is not understandable) they were never replaced. The Director of the Office of Thrift Supervision appeared at a press conference with a stack of copies of the Code of Federal Regulations and a chainsaw—the message was not subtle. The SEC relaxed limits on leverage for investment banks and abolished the uptick rule limiting short sales to moments following a rise in price. The new order was clear: anything goes.
Second, the response to desupervision was a criminal takeover of the home mortgage industry. Millions of subprime mortgages were made to borrowers with undocumented incomes and bad or non-existent credit records. Appraisers were selected who were willing to inflate the value of the home being sold. This last element was not incidental: surveys showed that practically all appraisers came under pressure to inflate valuations in order to make deals happen. There is no honest reason why a lender would deliberately seek to make an inflated loan.