What caused the financial crisis? The Big Lie goes viral

Barry Ritholtz
Columnist November 5, 2011

I have a fairly simple approach to investing: Start with data and objective evidence to determine the dominant elements driving the market action right now. Figure out what objective reality is beneath all of the noise. Use that information to try to make intelligent investing decisions.

But then, I’m an investor focused on preserving capital and managing risk. I’m not out to win the next election or drive the debate. For those who are, facts and data matter much less than a narrative that supports their interests.

Ritholtz is chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, the Big Picture. View Archive

One group has been especially vocal about shaping a new narrative of the credit crisis and economic collapse: those whose bad judgment and failed philosophy helped cause the crisis.

Rather than admit the error of their ways — Repent! — these people are engaged in an active campaign to rewrite history. They are not, of course, exonerated in doing so. And beyond that, they damage the process of repairing what was broken. They muddy the waters when it comes to holding guilty parties responsible. They prevent measures from being put into place to prevent another crisis.

Here is the surprising takeaway: They are winning. Thanks to the endless repetition of the Big Lie.

A Big Lie is so colossal that no one would believe that someone could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. There are many examples: Claims that Earth is not warming, or that evolution is not the best thesis we have for how humans developed. Those opposed to stimulus spending have gone so far as to claim that the infrastructure of the United States is just fine, Grade A (not D, as the we discussed last month), and needs little repair.

Wall Street has its own version: Its Big Lie is that banks and investment houses are merely victims of the crash. You see, the entire boom and bust was caused by misguided government policies. It was not irresponsible lending or derivative or excess leverage or misguided compensation packages, but rather long-standing housing policies that were at fault.

Indeed, the arguments these folks make fail to withstand even casual scrutiny. But that has not stopped people who should know better from repeating them.

The Big Lie made a surprise appearance Tuesday when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, responding to a question about Occupy Wall Street, stunned observers by exonerating Wall Street: “It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

What made his comments so stunning is that he built Bloomberg Data Services on the notion that data are what matter most to investors. The terminals are found on nearly 400,000 trading desks around the world, at a cost of $1,500 a month. (Do the math — that’s over half a billion dollars a month.) Perhaps the fact that Wall Street was the source of his vast wealth biased him. But the key principle of the business that made the mayor a billionaire is that fund managers, economists, researchers and traders should ignore the squishy narrative and, instead, focus on facts. Yet he ignored his own principles to repeat statements he should have known were false.

Why are people trying to rewrite the history of the crisis? Some are simply trying to save face. Interest groups who advocate for deregulation of the finance sector would prefer that deregulation not receive any blame for the crisis.

Some stand to profit from the status quo: Banks present a systemic risk to the economy, and reducing that risk by lowering their leverage and increasing capital requirements also lowers profitability. Others are hired guns, doing the bidding of bosses on Wall Street.

They all suffer cognitive dissonance — the intellectual crisis that occurs when a failed belief system or philosophy is confronted with proof of its implausibility.

And what about those facts? To be clear, no single issue was the cause. Our economy is a complex and intricate system. What caused the crisis? Look:

●Fed Chair Alan Greenspan dropped rates to 1 percent — levels not seen for half a century — and kept them there for an unprecedentedly long period. This caused a spiral in anything priced in dollars (i.e., oil, gold) or credit (i.e., housing) or liquidity driven (i.e., stocks).

●Low rates meant asset managers could no longer get decent yields from municipal bonds or Treasurys. Instead, they turned to high-yield mortgage-backed securities. Nearly all of them failed to do adequate due diligence before buying them, did not understand these instruments or the risk involved. They violated one of the most important rules of investing: Know what you own.

●Fund managers made this error because they relied on the credit ratings agencies — Moody’s, S&P and Fitch. They had placed an AAA rating on these junk securities, claiming they were as safe as U.S. Treasurys.

• Derivatives had become a uniquely unregulated financial instrument. They are exempt from all oversight, counter-party disclosure, exchange listing requirements, state insurance supervision and, most important, reserve requirements. This allowed AIG to write $3 trillion in derivatives while reserving precisely zero dollars against future claims.

• The Securities and Exchange Commission changed the leverage rules for just five Wall Street banks in 2004. The “Bear Stearns exemption” replaced the 1977 net capitalization rule’s 12-to-1 leverage limit. In its place, it allowed unlimited leverage for Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. These banks ramped leverage to 20-, 30-, even 40-to-1. Extreme leverage leaves very little room for error.

Wall Street’s compensation system was skewed toward short-term performance. It gives traders lots of upside and none of the downside. This creates incentives to take excessive risks.

• The demand for higher-yielding paper led Wall Street to begin bundling mortgages. The highest yielding were subprime mortgages. This market was dominated by non-bank originators exempt from most regulations. The Fed could have supervised them, but Greenspan did not.

• These mortgage originators’ lend-to-sell-to-securitizers model had them holding mortgages for a very short period. This allowed them to get creative with underwriting standards, abdicating traditional lending metrics such as income, credit rating, debt-service history and loan-to-value.

• “Innovative” mortgage products were developed to reach more subprime borrowers. These include 2/28 adjustable-rate mortgages, interest-only loans, piggy-bank mortgages (simultaneous underlying mortgage and home-equity lines) and the notorious negative amortization loans (borrower’s indebtedness goes up each month). These mortgages defaulted in vastly disproportionate numbers to traditional 30-year fixed mortgages.

●To keep up with these newfangled originators, traditional banks developed automated underwriting systems. The software was gamed by employees paid on loan volume, not quality.

●Glass-Steagall legislation, which kept Wall Street and Main Street banks walled off from each other, was repealed in 1998. This allowed FDIC-insured banks, whose deposits were guaranteed by the government, to engage in highly risky business. It also allowed the banks to bulk up, becoming bigger, more complex and unwieldy.

●Many states had anti-predatory lending laws on their books (along with lower defaults and foreclosure rates). In 2004, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency federally preempted state laws regulating mortgage credit and national banks. Following this change, national lenders sold increasingly risky loan products in those states. Shortly after, their default and foreclosure rates skyrocketed.

Bloomberg was partially correct: Congress did radically deregulate the financial sector, doing away with many of the protections that had worked for decades. Congress allowed Wall Street to self-regulate, and the Fed the turned a blind eye to bank abuses.

The previous Big Lie — the discredited belief that free markets require no adult supervision — is the reason people have created a new false narrative.

Now it’s time for the Big Truth.

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Ritholtz is chief executive of FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, the Big Picture.

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