The Subprime Conspiracy:
Was There A Plan to Blow Up The Economy?
By Mike Whitney
As we've pointed out in earlier articles, scores of people knew what was going on during the subprime fiasco. But it's worth a quick review, because Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Timothy Geithner, and others have been defending themselves saying, "Who could have known?".
The FBI knew ("In September 2004, the FBI began publicly warning that there was an "epidemic" of mortgage fraud, and it predicted that it would produce an economic crisis, if it were not dealt with.") The FDIC knew. ( In testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, FDIC chairman Sheila Bair confirmed that she not only warned the Fed of what was going on in 2001, but cited particular regulations (HOEPA) under which the Fed could stop the "unfair, abusive and deceptive practices" by the banks.) Also Fitch ratings knew, and even Alan Greenspan's good friend and former Fed governor Ed Gramlich knew. (Gramlich personally warned Greenspan of the surge in predatory lending that was apparent as early as 2000. Here's a bit of what Gramlich said in the Wall Street Journal:
So, Greenspan knew, too. And, according to Elizabeth MacDonald in an article titled "Housing Red flags Ignored":
"One of the nation’s biggest mortgage industry players repeatedly warned the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other bank regulators during the housing bubble that the U.S. faced an imminent housing crash....But bank regulators not only ignored the group's warnings, top Fed officials also went on the airwaves to say the economy was "building on a sturdy foundation" and a housing crash was "unlikely."
Once again, looking for conspiracy, just diverts attention from the nature of the crime itself. Here's a statement from former regulator and white collar criminologist William K. Black which helps to clarify the point:
"Fraudulent lenders produce exceptional short-term “profits” through a four-part strategy: extreme growth (Ponzi), lending to uncreditworthy borrowers, extreme leverage, and minimal loss reserves. These exceptional “profits” defeat regulatory restrictions and turn private market discipline perverse. The profits also allow the CEO to convert firm assets for personal benefit through seemingly normal compensation mechanisms. The short-term profits cause stock options to appreciate. Fraudulent CEOs following this strategy are guaranteed extraordinary income while minimizing risks of detection and prosecution." (William K. Black, "Epidemics of 'Control Fraud' Lead to Recurrent, Intensifying Bubbles and Crises", University of Missouri at Kansas City - School of Law)
Black's definition of "control fraud" comes very close to describing what really took place during the subprime mortgage frenzy. The investment banks and other financial institutions bulked up on garbage loans and complex securities backed by dodgy mortgages so they could increase leverage and rake off large bonuses for themselves. Clearly, they knew the underlying collateral was junk, just as they knew that eventually the market would crash and millions of people would suffer.
But, while its true that Greenspan and the Wall Street mandarins knew how the bubble-game was played; they had no intention of blowing up the whole system. They simply wanted to inflate the bubble, make their profits, and get out before the inevitable crash. But, then something went wrong. When Lehman collapsed, the entire financial system suffered a major heart attack. All of the so-called "experts" models turned out to be wrong.
Here's what happened: Before to the meltdown, the depository "regulated" banks got their funding through the repo market by exchanging collateral (mainly mortgage-backed securities) for short-term loans with the so-called "shadow banks" (investment banks, hedge funds, insurers) But after Lehman defaulted, the funding stream was severely impaired because the prices on mortgage-backed securities kept falling. When the bank-funding system went on the fritz, stocks went into a nosedive sending panicky investors fleeing for the exits. As unbelievable as it sounds, no one saw this coming.
The reason that no one anticipated a run on the shadow banking system, is because the basic architecture of the financial markets has changed dramatically in the last decade due to deregulation. The fundamental structure is different and the traditional stopgaps have been removed. That's why no one knew what to do during the panic. The general assumption was that there would be a one-to-one relationship between defaulting subprime mortgages and defaulting mortgage-backed securities (MBS). That turned out to be a grave miscalculation. The subprimes were only failing at roughly 8 percent rate when the whole secondary market collapsed. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill explained it best using a clever analogy. He said, "It's like you have 8 bottles of water and just one of them has arsenic in it. It becomes impossible to sell any of the other bottles because no one knows which one contains the poison."
And that's exactly what happened. The market for structured debt crashed, stocks began to plummet, and the Fed had to step in to save the system. Unfortunately, that same deeply-flawed system is being rebuilt brick-by-brick without any substantive changes.. The Fed and Treasury support this effort, because--as agents of the banks--they are willing to sacrifice their own credibility to defend the primary profit-generating instruments of the industry leaders. (Goldman, JPM, etc) That means that Bernanke and Geithner will go to the mat to oppose any additional regulation on derivatives, securitization and off-balance sheet operations, the same lethal devices that triggered the financial crisis.
So, there was no conspiracy to blow up the financial system, but there is an implicit understanding that the Fed will serve the interests of Wall Street by facilitating asset bubbles through "accommodative" monetary policy and by opposing regulation. It's just "business as usual", but it's far more damaging than any conspiracy, because it ensures that the economy will continue to stagnate, that inequality will continue to grow, and that the gigantic upward transfer of wealth will continue without pause.