Who Do We Believe / Trust? Causes of the Financial Crisis

In these times of financial crisis, it is easy to be cynical about the leaders of failed organizations and their misleading statements. Perhaps some time in jail to reflect on their behavior would be healing (for the investors and tax payers who are bailing them out). Excerpts from a NYTimes.com story below.

Link: The Reckoning – Agency’s ’04 Rule Let Banks Pile Up New Debt, and Risk – Series – NYTimes.com.

“We have a good deal of comfort about the capital cushions at these firms at the moment.” — Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, March 11, 2008.

As rumors swirled that Bear Stearns faced imminent collapse in early March, Christopher Cox was told by his staff that Bear Stearns had $17 billion in cash and other assets — more than enough to weather the storm.

Drained of most of its cash three days later, Bear Stearns was forced into a hastily arranged marriage with JPMorgan Chase — backed by a $29 billion taxpayer dowry.

Within six months, other lions of Wall Street would also either disappear or transform themselves to survive the financial maelstrom — Merrill Lynch sold itself to Bank of America, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley converted to commercial banks.

How could Mr. Cox have been so wrong?

Many events in Washington, on Wall Street and elsewhere around the country have led to what has been called the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s. But decisions made at a brief meeting on April 28, 2004, explain why the problems could spin out of control. The agency’s failure to follow through on those decisions also explains why Washington regulators did not see what was coming.

On that bright spring afternoon, the five members of the Securities and Exchange Commission met in a basement hearing room to consider an urgent plea by the big investment banks.

They wanted an exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on their investments. Those funds could then flow up to the parent company, enabling it to invest in the fast-growing but opaque world of mortgage-backed securities; credit derivatives, a form of insurance for bond holders; and other exotic instruments.

The five investment banks led the charge, including Goldman Sachs, which was headed by Henry M. Paulson Jr. Two years later, he left to become Treasury secretary.

A lone dissenter — a software consultant and expert on risk management — weighed in from Indiana with a two-page letter to warn the commission that the move was a grave mistake. He never heard back from Washington.

One commissioner, Harvey J. Goldschmid, questioned the staff about the consequences of the proposed exemption. It would only be available for the largest firms, he was reassuringly told — those with assets greater than $5 billion.

After 55 minutes of discussion, which can now be heard on the Web sites of the agency and The Times, the chairman, William H. Donaldson, a veteran Wall Street executive, called for a vote. It was unanimous. The decision, changing what was known as the net capital rule, was completed and published in The Federal Register a few months later.

With that, the five big independent investment firms were unleashed.

In loosening the capital rules, which are supposed to provide a buffer in turbulent times, the agency also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models for determining the riskiness of investments, essentially outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves.

Over the following months and years, each of the firms would take advantage of the looser rules. At Bear Stearns, the leverage ratio — a measurement of how much the firm was borrowing compared to its total assets — rose sharply, to 33 to 1. In other words, for every dollar in equity, it had $33 of debt. The ratios at the other firms also rose significantly.

A once-proud agency with a rich history at the intersection of Washington and Wall Street, the Securities and Exchange Commission was created during the Great Depression as part of the broader effort to restore confidence to battered investors. It was led in its formative years by heavyweight New Dealers, including James Landis and William O. Douglas. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked in 1934 why he appointed Joseph P. Kennedy, a spectacularly successful stock speculator, as the agency’s first chairman, Roosevelt replied: “Set a thief to catch a thief.”

The commission’s most public role in policing Wall Street is its enforcement efforts. But critics say that in recent years it has failed to deter market problems. “It seems to me the enforcement effort in recent years has fallen short of what one Supreme Court justice once called the fear of the shotgun behind the door,” said Arthur Levitt Jr., who was S.E.C. chairman in the Clinton administration. “With this commission, the shotgun too rarely came out from behind the door.”

Under Mr. Cox, the commission responded to complaints by some businesses by making it more difficult for the enforcement staff to investigate and bring cases against companies. The commission has repeatedly reversed or reduced proposed settlements that companies had tentatively agreed upon. While the number of enforcement cases has risen, the number of cases involving significant players or large amounts of money has declined.

Mr. Cox dismantled a risk management office created by Mr. Donaldson that was assigned to watch for future problems. While other financial regulatory agencies criticized a blueprint by Mr. Paulson, the Treasury secretary, that proposed to reduce their stature — and that of the S.E.C. — Mr. Cox did not challenge the plan, leaving it to three former Democratic and Republican commission chairmen to complain that the blueprint would neuter the agency.

In the process, Mr. Cox has surrounded himself with conservative lawyers, economists and accountants who, before the market turmoil of recent months, had embraced a far more limited vision for the commission than many of his predecessors.

‘Stakes in the Ground’

Last Friday, the commission formally ended the 2004 program, acknowledging that it had failed to anticipate the problems at Bear Stearns and the four other major investment banks.

“The last six months have made it abundantly clear that voluntary regulation does not work,” Mr. Cox said.

The decision to shutter the program came after Mr. Cox was blamed by Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, for the crisis. Mr. McCain has demanded Mr. Cox’s resignation.

Mr. Cox has said that the 2004 program was flawed from its inception. But former officials as well as the inspector general’s report have suggested that a major reason for its failure was Mr. Cox’s use of it.