Given the drama of the debt-ceiling debate, this is a good moment for investors and policymakers alike to look back over the past decade at the mistakes made by our institutions, private sector and government.
If this were a college final exam, it would be in essay form. But because it’s summer, and most of you are out of school, consider this the answer key to that exam.
1 Rates: After the dot-com implosion and 2000 market crash, the Federal Reserve lowered rates to 2 percent for three years, including a 1 percent rate for more than a year. That monetary policy was unprecedented. It had an enormous impact on various asset classes, including dollars, real estate, bonds, oil and gold. A more “traditional” interest rate between 4 and 6 percent would likely not have started the inflationary spiral we saw in commodities during the 2000s. Had rates been “normal,” it is doubtful we would have seen a 41 percent drop in the dollar from 2001 to 2008.
2 The rating agencies: Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings — all originally served bond investors, who paid for their research. But that model changed in the 1990s to one that was funded by the syndicators and underwriter of structured financial products such as mortgage-backed securities. Essentially, bankers “purchased” the rating they desired. As a result, the performance of the rating agencies decayed, as they were no longer judged on the quality of their analytical reviews. Second, the underwriting quality of syndicators fell, as they —not a neutral third party — were, in effect, picking their own credit ratings. The real question for the financial markets is why we even require rating agencies to evaluate complex financial products any more.
3 The radical deregulation of derivatives: The Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 was a highly unusual piece of deregulatory legislation. It created a new world of uniquely self-regulated financial instruments — the credit derivative. Unlike traditional financial instruments — bonds, stocks, futures, options, mutual funds — it did not require anything from underwriters or traders. No reserve requirements against future obligations, no counter-party disclosure, no exchange trading needed, no capital minimums. This had an enormous impact on risk management, leverage and mortgage underwriting. AIG, for example, wrote $3 trillion of credit derivatives with a grand total loss reserves against any payout of zero dollars. Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were able to expand dramatically into the mortgage-backed security space using very little capital and lots and lots of leverage. You remember how that worked out.