Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?
...In short, a focus on quite different priorities is, I submit, one of the reasons the financial fraud cases have not been brought, especially cases against high-level individuals that would take many years, many investigators, and a great deal of expertise to investigate. But a second, and less salutary, reason for not bringing such cases is the government’s own involvement in the underlying circumstances that led to the financial crisis.

On the one hand, the government, writ large, had a part in creating the conditions that encouraged the approval of dubious mortgages. Even before the start of the housing boom, it was the government, in the form of Congress, that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, thus allowing certain banks that had previously viewed mortgages as a source of interest income to become instead deeply involved in securitizing pools of mortgages in order to obtain the much greater profits available from trading. It was the government, in the form of both the executive and the legislature, that encouraged deregulation, thus weakening the power and oversight not only of the SEC but also of such diverse banking overseers as the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, both in the Treasury Department. It was the government, in the form of the Federal Reserve, that kept interest rates low, in part to encourage mortgages. It was the government, in the form of the executive, that strongly encouraged banks to make loans to individuals with low incomes who might have previously been regarded as too risky to warrant a mortgage.

Thus, in the year 2000, HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo increased to 50 percent the percentage of low-income mortgages that the government-sponsored entities known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were required to purchase, helping to create the conditions that resulted in over half of all mortgages being subprime at the time the housing market began to collapse in 2007.

It was the government, pretty much across the board, that acquiesced in the ever-greater tendency not to require meaningful documentation as a condition of obtaining a mortgage, often preempting in this regard state regulations designed to assure greater mortgage quality and a borrower’s ability to repay. Indeed, in the year 2000, the Office of Thrift Supervision, having just finished a successful campaign to preempt state regulation of thrift underwriting, terminated its own underwriting regulations entirely.

The result of all this was the mortgages that later became known as “liars’ loans.” They were increasingly risky; but what did the banks care, since they were making their money from the securitizations. And what did the government care, since it was helping to create a boom in the economy and helping voters to realize their dream of owning a home?

Moreover, the government was also deeply enmeshed in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It was the government that proposed the shotgun marriages of, among others, Bank of America with Merrill Lynch, and of J.P. Morgan with Bear Stearns. If, in the process, mistakes were made and liabilities not disclosed, was it not partly the government’s fault? One does not necessarily have to adopt the view of Neil Barofsky, former special inspector general in charge of oversight of TARP, that regulators made almost no effort to hold accountable the financial institutions they were bailing out, to wonder whether the government, having helped create the conditions that led to the seeming widespread fraud in the mortgage-backed securities market, was all too ready to forgive its alleged perpetrators....