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All You Need to Know About Why Things Fell Apart: Michael Lewis

A surprising number of my fellow citizens appear to be unaware of my service these past 18 months as a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Thus it may come as news that I have declined to sign the report issued by the majority, or the dissent by the three- member minority, or even the dissent from their dissent, written by the now-immortal Peter J. Wallison. I hereby dissent from the dissent from the dissent. My dissent is different from all those other dissents, which is why I am dissenting.

I do this, of course, not to call attention to myself. Still less do I seek to enhance the status of my application for employment with JPMorgan Chase. I seek merely to inform the general public of the true causes of our so-called financial crisis.

The task is not a simple one. In limiting me to a mere two pages at the end of their 633-page book, the majority and the other dissenters have suppressed not only several apt metaphors, but deep truths.

Here, in a far-too-brief executive summary, they are:

Financial Crisis Cause No. 1: Wall Street’s shifting demographics.

In the commission’s report Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke describes recent events as “the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.” The event, in other words, was unprecedented. To understand an event that has never before occurred, we must logically begin with those factors that have never before been present. On Wall Street, the most obvious such factor is women.

Distorted Judgment

Of course, the women who flooded into Wall Street firms before the crisis weren’t typically permitted to take big financial risks. As a rule they remained in the background, as “helpmates.” But their presence clearly distorted the judgment of male bond traders --- though the mechanics of their influence remains unexplored by the commission (on which several women sat).

They may have compelled the male risk takers to “show off for the ladies,” for instance, or perhaps they merely asked annoying questions and undermined the risk takers’ confidence.

At any rate, one sure sign of the importance of women in the financial crisis is the market’s subsequent response: to purge women from senior Wall Street roles. Wall Street’s gender problem is, for the moment, of merely academic interest. Less academic is...

Moral Collapse

Financial Crisis Cause No. 2: The moral collapse of the American working class.

AIG head Robert Benmosche has recently pointed out that the reason his firm has enjoyed such great success is precisely because it has avoided selling insurance to the large number of Americans who believe, as Benmosche put it, “that the government is responsible for what happens to me.” (As we know, the government is responsible only for what happens to AIG).

The CEO of JPMorgan, Jamie Dimon, has often called our attention to the outrageous amount of banker bashing by Americans outside the financial sector, who seek to blame their troubles on others.

Wall Street leaders now understand that they made a mistake, one born of their innocent and trusting nature. They trusted ordinary Americans to behave more responsibly than they themselves ever would, and these ordinary Americans betrayed their trust.

Amazingly, these ordinary Americans don’t even appear to feel guilty for their actions. Like wild animals that have lost their fear of humans, they continue to wander down from the hills to rummage through our garbage cans for sustenance.

Best Subprime

Frankly, the commission’s report does nothing to improve public morals. In discussing the role of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, for instance, the report notes that the loans made by big banks to meet the act’s requirements -- that is, loans to poor people in crap neighborhoods -- outperformed, dramatically, the general run of subprime loans.

Such nitpicking merely obscures the critical point. For at least two centuries the U.S. government has encouraged people who didn’t work on Wall Street to think of themselves as “equal.” Government policies have emboldened ordinary Americans to borrow money they never intended to repay, just like rich people do, and cowed the financial elite into lending it to them. You can’t forget to bear-proof the garbage cans, and expect the bears won’t notice.

Along these same lines I cannot help but point out...

Blame China

Financial Crisis Cause No. 3: The Chinese.

The willingness of this remote and curious people to sell us goods at ridiculously low prices is disruptive. It encourages our poor to believe they can afford many items which they should not be able to, for instance. And the vast number of dollars these same Chinese people willingly lend to us at absurdly low rates of interest places an unfair burden on our financiers, who must find someplace to put them.

This is a far more difficult job than is commonly understood; it often leaves Wall Street people feeling overworked and underappreciated. If we want our financiers to perform even better than they do, we must cease to expect more from them than they can give.

Which brings me to...

Financial Crisis Cause No. 4: Upon our trusting, hard- working and underappreciated financiers we thrust the impossible task of overcoming impersonal historical forces.

The most distressing aspect of the commission’s report is its attempt to blame actual human beings for the financial crisis: fraudulent CDO managers, greedy ratings companies, Wall Street bond traders and, especially, Wall Street CEOs. Think about this: If everyone on Wall Street is guilty, how can anyone be? If no one on Wall Street saw it coming, how can anyone be expected to have seen it?

Details for Dummies

Anyway, as several Wall Street CEOs tried patiently to explain to the commission, the details were never their responsibility. Martin Sullivan, the CEO of AIG in the three years leading up to its near collapse, even went so far as to prove that he had no idea how much he’d been paid ($107 million).

The commission proved incapable of grasping the point: the rare man capable of running a big Wall Street firm remains focused on the big picture. And in the big picture, from the point of view of their firms and their earnings potential, the so-called financial crisis was a blip. They’ve already forgotten about it.

And they assume that, eventually, you will, too.

(Michael Lewis, most recently author of the best-selling “The Big Short,” is a columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Michael Lewis at mlewis1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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