Financial crisis of 2008 avoidable, says US inquiry

Wall Street Banks took excessive risks in the run-up to the crisis, the commission said

Regulators, politicians and bankers were to blame for the 2008 US financial meltdown, a report has claimed.

The US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, tasked with establishing the causes of the crisis, said it was "avoidable".

Its report highlighted excessive risk-taking by banks and neglect by financial regulators.

Only the six Democrat members of the 10-strong commission, set up in May 2009, endorsed the report's findings.

"The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or models gone haywire," the report said.

"The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public.

"Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble."

Ethical breaches

Start Quote

The greatest tragedy would be to accept the refrain that no one could have seen this coming and thus nothing could have been done”

End Quote Phil Agelides Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission

The damning report criticised the extent of the financial deregulation overseen by the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan.

It concluded that the crisis was caused by a number of factors:

  • Failures in financial regulation, including the Federal Reserve's failure "to stem the tide of toxic mortgages"
  • A breakdown in corporate governance that led to "reckless" actions and excessive risk taking by financial institutions
  • Households taking on too much debt
  • A lack of understanding of the financial system on the part of policymakers
  • Fundamental breaches in accountability and ethics "at all levels".

It added that "collapsing mortgage-lending standards" and the packaging-up of mortgage-related debt into investment vehicles "lit and spread the flame of contagion".

These complex derivatives, which were traded in huge volumes by major investment banks, then "contributed significantly to the crisis" when the mortgages they were based on defaulted.

The report also highlighted the "abysmal" failures of the credit ratings agencies in recognising the risks involved in these and other products.

Blame game

Leading figures of the George W Bush and Obama administrations were not let off lightly:

  • Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was accused of "championing" financial deregulation during the credit boom that "stripped away key safeguards".
  • Mr Greenspan was also indirectly criticised for the Fed's overly loose monetary policy and pronouncements that "encouraged rather than inhibited the growth of mortgage debt and the housing bubble"
  • The Federal Reserve Bank of New York - then under the aegis of the current Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner - "could have clamped down on Citigroup's excesses in the run-up to the crisis"
  • The government's handling of major financial institutions during the crisis - led by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson - was inconsistent and "increased uncertainty and panic in the market"
  • Goldman Sachs - initially under Mr Paulson's leadership - was singled out for its role in creating "synthetic CDOs" from 2004 that helped magnify risks by letting clients bet against the mortgage market.

However, the report did soften the blow, saying: "In making these observations, we deeply respect and appreciate the efforts made by Secretary Paulson, Chairman Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner... and so many others who labored to stabilise our financial system and our economy in the most chaotic and challenging of circumstances."

Establishing blame was essential in preventing future crises, the report said.

"Despite the expressed view of many on Wall Street and in Washington that the crisis could not have been foreseen or avoided, there were warning signs," said Phil Angelides, chairman of the commission.

"The greatest tragedy would be to accept the refrain that no one could have seen this coming and thus nothing could have been done.

"If we accept this notion, it will happen again."

The commission interviewed more than 700 witnesses and held 19 days of public hearings across the US.

Dissent

All four Republicans on the commission announced several weeks in advance of the report's publication that they would not agree with its findings.

Three of them published a separate report that insisted that blame should be attributed to Mr Greenspan's Federal Reserve.

The fourth produced his own report focusing on the role of government in creating the housing bubble.

Republicans have pointed to the giant government-sponsored mortgage agencies (GSEs), Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, whose subsidised lending they claim inflated the bubble.

They have also argued that legislation introduced by former Democratic President Bill Clinton had encouraged excessive and reckless lending to low income households.

In contrast, the report penned by the six Democrats on the panel said the evidence showed that the GSEs were not at the forefront of the riskiest sub-prime lending, but instead they followed the lead of Wall Street firms.

Nor was the "Community Reinvestment Act" a significant factor in subprime lending, the report said, although "community lending commitments not required by the [act] were clearly used by lending institutions for public relations purposes".

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