Cliff Notes To The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report

Like most lengthy reports resulting from a governmental commission investigating a past mishap/misdeed, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report is full of obfuscation. Luckily one of the New York Times‘ better business reporters, Gretchen Morgensen, has created what she terms a “Cliff Notes” summary:

Truly startling revelations were few in the voluminous report, published last Thursday by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission on the origins of the financial panic. This is hardly a shock, given the flood-the-zone coverage and analysis of the crisis since it erupted four years ago.

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Yet the report still makes for compelling reading because so little has changed as a result of the debacle, in both banking and in its regulation. Providing chapter and verse, for example, on the bumbling and siloed management at the nation’s largest banks is enlightening, in that many of these institutions are even bigger than they were before. With too-big-to-fail institutions now larger than ever, we are almost certain to go through another episode like 2008 in the not-too-distant future.

For those who might find the report’s 633 pages a bit daunting for a weekend read, we offer a Cliffs Notes version.

Let’s begin with the Federal Reserve, the most powerful of financial regulators. The report’s most important public service comes in its recitation of how top Fed officials, both in Washington and in New York, fiddled while the financial system smoldered and then burned. It is disturbing indeed that this institution, defiantly inert and uninterested in reining in the mortgage mania, received even greater regulatory powers under the Dodd-Frank law that was supposed to reform our system.

The report shows how the Fed refused to exert its authority on predatory lending. On Page 94, we learn that from 2000 to 2006, it referred a grand total of three institutions to prosecutors for possible fair-lending violations in mortgages.

The Fed “succumbed to the climate of the times,” its general counsel, Scott G. Alvarez, told commission investigators. It is hard for a supervisor to challenge banks when they are highly profitable, other officials said. Richard Spillenkothen, head of supervision at the Fed until 2006, attributed its reluctance to “a desire not to inject an element of contentiousness into what was felt to be a constructive or equable relationship with management.”

Is it any shock, then, that neither the Federal Reserve Bank of New York nor the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a partner in regulatory inadequacy, saw that the S.S. Citigroup was headed for the shoals? This depressing case is chronicled in depth in the report…

[Continues in the New York Times]

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