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Bad Explanations for the Financial Crisis Won't Die

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg View columnist. He founded Ritholtz Wealth Management and was chief executive and director of equity research at FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He blogs at the Big Picture and is the author of “Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy.”
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Sometimes, when you lose a debate, you have to just let it go. That seems to be a problem for those who are unwilling to accept the complex realities of what actually caused the financial crisis.

I have been saying for a long time that many elements contributed to the global financial meltdown. From ultralow rates to misaligned incentives to radical deregulation to changes in the business models of the credit-rating companies to plain old bad decision-making by homebuyers -- the list is long.

Discussions of causation frustrate those who seek to oversimplify the complex as they pursue a political agenda (see Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute).

A new group of economists recently challenged the prevailing theory for what caused the crisis. Rather than repeat my earlier admonitions, I want to try a different tack, taking a page from Nicolaus Copernicus, best known for positing that the earth rotates around the sun, not the other way around.

What is so interesting is that he started out with an implied challenge to explain movements of the planets without resorting to “cheats” -- unsupported explanations for observable planetary motions in order to make the data fit a flawed model.  So let’s follow Copernicus’ example and pose a series of challenges. Any theory that claims to explain the financial crisis should be able to answer these 10 questions:

No. 1. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan engaged in unprecedented interest rate cuts: From the end of 2001 to the end of 2004, the federal funds rate was less than 2 percent; for an entire year, he kept it at 1 percent.

What was the impact of ultralow interest rates on housing, credit and derivatives?

No. 2. The credit-rating companies, including Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, were originally research firms, selling their credit analysis and debt ratings, mainly to corporate bond issuers. That changed in the late 1990s to a model where syndicators and securitizers became their dominant clients.

What was the impact of this model change on securitized products? How did this affect the quality of ratings on AAA-rated junk securities?

No. 3. The Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 removed all oversight, including reserve requirements, exchange listings and disclosures, from derivatives.

How did this affect the risk appetite of American International Group Inc. for underwriting derivatives? What was its effect on Bear Stearns Cos., Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. and Merrill Lynch?

No. 4. From 1975 to 2004, brokerage firms were limited to 12-to-1 leverage by the Security and Exchange Commission’s net capitalization rule. The five largest investment banks asked for an exemption from those leverage restrictions. It was granted, and became known as “the Bear Stearns exemption” (it was the smallest investment bank that qualified for it).

What did this do to bank leverage subsequently? How much did this affect the crisis?

No. 5. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 separated commercial banks from their riskier securities businesses. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed much of it in 1998. Before this, financial-market crashes (1966, 1970, 1974 and 1987) didn’t spill over into the rest of the economy.

How much more leverage and risk was assumed by banks as a result? Did the repeal of key parts of Glass-Steagall make the banking crisis worse? 

No. 6. In 2006, more than 84 percent of subprime mortgages were issued by private lenders not regulated by either the Federal Reserve or by the state overseers where they were located.

How different were the mortgages made by these banks from the typical conforming mortgages? What was the impact of different private mortgage underwriting standards on the economy, mortgage markets and derivatives?

No. 7. Greenspan called these lenders “innovators,” and they made a variety of unusual mortgages available to people who wouldn’t have otherwise qualified for credit.

How much was non-bank subprime lending a factor in the crisis?

No. 8. Housing prices rose globally. Overseas markets had an even bigger boom and bust than the United States.

How did the U.S. government-sponsored entities, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, affect the global boom? What impact did legislation such as the Community Reinvestment Act have on global markets?

No. 9. Individual states that had anti-predatory lending laws typically had lower defaults and foreclosure rates than those that did not. The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency preempted state laws regulating mortgage credit and national banks in 2004.

What was the impact of this decision?

No. 10. Wall Street securities firms used to be partnerships, with full responsibility for any losses falling on the partners personally. Most of these firms had became publicly traded corporations by the end of the 1990s.

What was the impact of this change in liability on the risk-taking of senior management at Wall Street banks?

I’ll stop at 10. How did your model do in explaining these issues? If you can adequately answer these questions and have the data to back them up, you may be on to a successful model of the financial crisis.

  1. The sketch set forth seven axioms of a heliocentric solar system: 1) Planets don't revolve around one fixed point; 2) the earth isn't at the center of the universe; 3) the sun is at the center of the universe, and all the planets rotate around it; 4) the distance between the earth and sun is only a tiny fraction of stars' distance from the earth and sun; 5) stars do not move, and if they appear to, it is only because the earth itself is moving; 6) earth moves in a sphere around the sun, causing the sun's perceived yearly movement; and 7) earth's own movement causes other planets to appear to move in an opposite direction.

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Barry Ritholtz at britholtz3@bloomberg.net

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James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net