Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Don’t Blame the New Deal

Published: September 27, 2008
This year’s serial bailouts are proof of a colossal regulatory failure. But it is not “the system” that failed, as President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and others who are complicit in the calamity would like Americans to believe. People failed.

For decades now, antiregulation disciples of the Reagan Revolution have eliminated vital laws, blocked the enactment of much-needed new regulations, or simply refused to exercise their legal authority.

The regulatory system for banks, securities, commodities and insurance is unwieldy and in need of modernization. The system has gaps, like the absence of regulation for “innovations” such as credit default swaps, the insurance-like contracts now valued at $62 trillion whose destructive potential prompted the bailouts of Bear Stearns and the American International Group.

But the failures that have landed us in the mess we are in today are not mainly structural. To assert that they are masks deeper failings and sets false terms for the upcoming debate on regulatory reform.

Under a law passed in 1994, for example, the Federal Reserve was obligated to regulate banks and nonbank lenders to curb unfair, deceptive and predatory lending. Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, ignored his responsibility, even as junk mortgage lending proliferated in plain sight.

Mr. Greenspan later said the law defined “unfair” and “deceptive” too vaguely. If so, he should have asked Congress for clarification. Instead, he did nothing — and the Republican-led Congress did not question him. When Ben Bernanke took over as Fed chairman in early 2006, the negligence continued. It was not until mid-2007, after the housing bubble had begun to burst, that federal regulators offered guidelines for subprime lending.

The systematic dismantling of laws that called for regulation also contributed to the current crisis.

In 1995, Congress passed a law that restricted the ability of investors to sue companies, securities firms and accounting firms for misstatements and pie-in-the-sky projections. That helped inflate the dot-com bubble and contributed to the Enron debacle. It also engendered a sense of impunity that helped to foster the excessive risk-taking so prevalent in the mortgage mess.

Then, in 1999, Congress dismantled the Glass- Steagall Act, a pillar of the New Deal, which separated commercial and investment banking. That enormous change was undertaken with no thought or effort — or desire — to regulate the world that it would help to create. Now we know that an entire “shadow banking system” has grown up, without rules or transparency, but with the ability to topple the financial system itself.

But perhaps no deregulatory effort had more catastrophic effect than the 2000 law that explicitly excluded derivatives, including those credit default swaps, from regulation under the Commodity Exchange Act of 1936.

And there is probably no greater missed opportunity than the reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac passed by the House in 2005. If the law had been enacted, the takeover of those companies may have been avoided. It failed in large part because President Bush wanted to fully privatize them and feared that if they were adequately reformed, privatization would lose steam.

Indeed, it was in the Bush years that antiregulation and deregulation found full expression, fueled by an ideology that markets know best, government hampers markets, and problems will magically fix themselves.

The nation is now painfully relearning that the opposite is true. Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, admitted on Friday that his agency’s “voluntary regulation” of investment banks was a failure that contributed to the current crisis.

That is a good starting point for a debate about how to get back on the road to sensible, responsible government regulation.

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