Daily Archives: January 20, 2011

The Real Job Killers? State Budget Crises

By June Carbone

I sit on the Faculty Senate of a large Midwestern university. Every meeting for the past year has been consumed with planning for this year’s budget crisis. For those insulated from Washington politics, the timing is curious. The economy is improving. State revenues are increasing. Yet this year will be the worst in over a decade for cuts to higher education, school teachers in the suburbs, police in crime-ridden cities, and bridge and infrastructure repair everywhere. Virtually every state will be affected. The cumulative impact will worsen unemployment and may be enough to trigger the feared double dip recession, touching off a new round of economic misery.

In this context, Congressional debate of the misnamed “Repealing the Job Killing Health Care Act” is a tragic distraction from the immediate source of job losses — the rejection of the economic lessons that have kept the economy on track since the Great Depression. As Paul Krugman explained in his critique of the euro in this week’s New York Times Magazine, national fiscal policy and state spending are fundamentally different, whether in Europe or the U.S. Spending at the national level includes automatic correctives. Run federal deficits too high for too long, the dollar falls, imports become more expensive and the demand for American goods increases.

States, however, cannot print money and they are rightly subject to balanced budget provisions that require that they slash expenses when revenues fall. Economists have accordingly maintained since the New Deal that federal spending should be counter-cyclical — a recession is the time to spend money to create jobs. Policy makers since Richard Nixon have further argued that much of the counter-cyclical spending should go to the states; they are closer to people’s needs and more directly hurt by falling revenues. So if the concern is jobs, counter-cyclical federal spending implemented through a Republican idea — revenue sharing — should be the new Congress’ first priority. It would forestall the job slashing taking place in statehouses throughout the country and do more to reduce unemployment than any proposal currently on the table.

Yet no one is talking about revenue sharing. President Obama proposed some aid to the states as part of his original stimulus package, but Republicans pared those measures back in favor of tax cuts that contributed less to job preservation. When the Republicans insisted on running up the deficit through tax cuts for the wealthy, the president responded with more tax cuts for everyone else — but not the spending most directly tied to jobs. The bailout of financial fat cats lasted long enough to bring back high corporate profits and rising stock market prices. Yet assistance to the states is being cut off at a time likely to forestall economic recovery.

The results reject the conventional economic wisdom of the last half century and inflict needless misery on the teachers, policemen, and construction workers who form the backbone of the country. While China undertakes massive public investment in schools, universities, technology, roads and a 21st century infrastructure, we are dismantling the institutions essential to our ability to compete. The token fight to repeal health care is a distraction from the job demolition derby underway in the states as a direct result of federal cutbacks. Yet the connection between ideologically driven federal policy and state layoffs does not even seem to merit notice in the scores of stories about layoffs, tuition increases and reduced crime protection. It is time to focus attention on the real job killers and hold them accountable.

June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0 and the Huffington Post.

Obama Embraces the “Economic Philosophy That Has Completely Failed”

By William K. Black
(via the Huffington Post)

President Obama’s Executive Order on regulatory review was originally set in motion by his February 3, 2009 direction to OMB to create an improved regulatory review process.

The fundamental principles and structures governing contemporary regulatory review were set out in Executive Order 12866 of September 30, 1993. A great deal has been learned since that time. Far more is now known about regulation — not only about when it is justified, but also about what works and what does not. Far more is also known about the uses of a variety of regulatory tools such as warnings, disclosure requirements, public education, and economic incentives. Years of experience have also provided lessons about how to improve the process of regulatory review. In this time of fundamental transformation, that process–and the principles governing regulation in general — should be revisited.

September 30, 1993 is an interesting date. I was the deputy director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement (NCFIRRE). We issued our report in July 1993 on the causes of the S&L debacle. Our report was based on an extensive investigation of what worked and what failed in regulation.

In particular, we found that the deregulation and desupervision created an environment in which at “the typical large failure” “fraud” was “invariably present.” By fall 1993, the Office of Thrift Supervision had learned the lessons and developed extremely effective rules, supervision, enforcement, and support for the criminal justice system. Congress passed the Prompt Corrective Action (PCA) law in 1991. The regulators had removed the abusive regulatory accounting rules designed to cover up the scale of the debacle. Administration officials had falsely used this cover up of losses through accounting gimmickry to claim that the S&L crisis had been “resolved” at no cost to the taxpayers. The PCA was based on the finding that such accounting cover ups and “forbearance” greatly increased the eventual cost to the taxpayers.

By fall 1993, a well-functioning partnership of the OTS and the Justice Department had produced over 1,000 felony convictions of “major” S&L frauds — it remains to this day the greatest success against elite criminals in history. The Justice Department and the OTS ensured that the prosecutions were prioritized properly by creating the “Top 100” list. The OTS (which was created in 1989) had brought over 1,000 serious enforcement actions. The OTS secured over $1 billion in settlements from top tier auditors and brought hundreds of successful civil actions against the elite frauds. The reregulatory effort was so successful that for the next 15 years every U.S. Treasury Secretary flew to Tokyo and urged Japan’s leaders to stop relying on dishonest accounting to cover up their main banks’ losses and to instead adopt the regulatory policies that prevented the S&L debacle from becoming a catastrophe.

By September 1993, the S&L regulators had written extensively of our research findings about the role of accounting control fraud in driving the crisis and the regulatory and accounting lessons we had learned. My papers, collectively roughly 500 pages, had been circulated among many finance economists. Our work explained why econometric studies produced exceptionally erroneous findings in the presence of accounting control fraud and financial bubbles. Three of the nation’s leading white-collar criminologists, Henry Pontell, Kitty Calavita, and Robert Tillman had published several journal articles on these same topics. George Akerlof and Paul Romer formally presented their paper on accounting control fraud — “Looting: the Economic Underworld of Bankruptcy for Profit” at the Brookings Conference on September 9, 1993 before many of the nation’s most prominent finance specialists.

The NCFIRRE report notes that key elements of the Reagan administration — particularly Treasury and OMB, actively opposed our vital reregulation of the S&L industry. That reregulation was essential to containing a raging epidemic of accounting control fraud in the mid-1980s. Only the fact that the Federal Home Loan Bank Board was an independent regulatory agency prevented OMB from blocking S&L reregulation.

President Obama is correct that white-collar criminologists and a few non-theoclassical economists have continued to add to the useful understanding of regulation since 1993. However, his 2009 direction to OMB is not candid. By September 1993, we not only knew how to regulate effectively — financial regulation was exceptionally effective — and employment and growth were surging. The perverse (Gresham’s) dynamics that the accounting control frauds had caused that destroyed wealth and jobs had been eliminated or minimized. Even the most elite frauds and their elite political allies were held accountable. Bank Board Chairman Gray led the successful reregulation in late 1983-mid-1987 over the intense opposition of the Reagan administration, a majority of the House of Representatives, Speaker Wright, and the five U.S. Senators that became known as the “Keating Five.” Paul Volcker was Gray’s sole powerful ally. Wright and the Keating Five intervened on behalf of the two worst control frauds in America. S&L regulators had their careers destroyed, but continued to buck the frauds and their political patrons and do their duty to the public.

In 1991-1992, the OTS’ West Region used its supervisory powers to squash a fast-developing trend among a number of California S&Ls to make “liar’s” loans. We recognized that such loans were inherently unsafe and unsound and frequently fraudulent. Our efforts were so effective that Long Beach Savings gave up its federal charter to escape our regulatory authority. It became a mortgage banker and rebranded itself as Ameriquest — the most notorious of the early non-federally regulated lenders specializing fraudulent and predatory nonprime loans.

What happened after September 1993 is that OMB and Treasury, in alliance with Fed Chairman Greenspan and Senator Gramm, lost the accurate understanding of why vigorous financial regulation is essential and how one makes regulation effective. OMB, Treasury, Greenspan, and Gramm adopted anti-regulatory policies that were intensely criminogenic. We had to reregulate without the benefits of the criminology studies by Pontell, Calavita and Tillman and Akerlof & Romer’s economic studies. The Clinton and Bush administrations had the advantage of all our research and our demonstration of which financial regulatory policies succeed and which fail. (They also had the benefit of the public administration scholars’ books and articles that studied used our reregulation and concluded that it was an exemplar of effective regulation.) Unfortunately, the “completely failed” economic dogma that the Clinton and Bush administrations, Greenspan and Bernanke, and Senator Gramm shared led them to ignore our successes and adopt anti-regulatory policies that were so perverse that they were intensely criminogenic.

The recent epidemics of accounting control fraud, the creation of the largest bubble in history, and the Great Recession could not have occurred if the Clinton and Bush administrations had actually learned a great deal about what works and what fails in regulation. The Clinton and Bush anti-regulatory policies created the “three des” — deregulation, desupervision, and de facto decriminalization. In late 2008, however, then-Senator Obama proclaimed that he had learned the correct regulatory “lessons” from the resulting economic collapse. From the Washington Post:

“John McCain has spent decades in Washington supporting financial institutions instead of their customers,” [Obama] told a crowd of about 2,100 at the Colorado School of Mines. “So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.”

Senator Obama was correct — the Clinton and Bush anti-regulatory policies were a catastrophic failure that permitted the epidemics of fraud that drove the Great Recession and the loss of over 10 million jobs. OMB was among the most virulent opponents of vigorous financial regulation because it has long been dominated by anti-regulatory economists embracing the “economic philosophy that has completely failed.” Bush selected financial regulatory leaders on the basis of the strength of their anti-regulatory zeal. President Obama was incorrect, therefore, in his February 3, 2009 directive to the OMB about the improved understanding of regulation. “Years of experience” have not taught the theoclassical economists “far more” “about what works and what does not” in regulation. The theoclassical economists know vastly less about effective regulation now than did OTS in 1993.

The University of Chicago economists that President Obama appointed to senior positions related to regulatory policy scorned financial regulation. Austan Goolsbee, now Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors poured scorn on those who warned of the urgent need to regulate nonprime loans. In a March 29, 2007 op-ed in the New York Times, Goolsbee derided those warning that nonprime loans were a “time bomb.”

This column shows why the reasoning and methodology that Goolsbee employed “completely failed” because it relied on anti-regulatory dogma rather than sound economics and white-collar criminology. The column also shows that Obama’s regulatory review policy embraces Goolsbee’s “completely failed” anti-regulatory dogma and methodology and ignores the sound findings and methodologies employed by successful regulators, economists, and white-collar criminologists. Obama is correct that white-collar criminologists and non-theoclassical economists have learned “far more” “about what works and what does not” in regulation. He is incorrect that his economic team has learned these “lessons.”

Goolsbee loves financial innovation and “consumer choice.” He began his defense of nonprime loans by decrying the “very old vein of suspicion against innovations in the mortgage market.” Goolsbee premised his argument upon the findings of an econometric study of home lending innovations. He argued:

These innovations mainly served to give people power to make their own decisions about housing, and they ended up being quite sensible with their newfound access to capital.

[T]he mortgage market has become more perfect, not more irresponsible. People tend to make good decisions about their own economic prospects.

Of course, basing loans on future earnings expectations is riskier than lending money to prime borrowers at 30-year fixed interest rates. That is why interest rates are higher for subprime borrowers and for big mortgages that require little money down. Sometimes the risks flop. Sometimes people even have to sell their properties because they cannot make the numbers work.

And do not forget that the vast majority of even subprime borrowers have been making their payments. Indeed, fewer than 15 percent of borrowers in this most risky group have even been delinquent on a payment, much less defaulted.

When contemplating ways to prevent excessive mortgages for the 13 percent of subprime borrowers whose loans go sour, regulators must be careful that they do not wreck the ability of the other 87 percent to obtain mortgages.

For be it ever so humble, there really is no place like home, even if it does come with a balloon payment mortgage.

It’s hard to get something more wrong than Goolsbee (and the economists that conducted the study he relied upon) got this wrong. Theoclassical economics assumes that market participants are rational, informed, and utility-maximizing. It follows that expanding choices is always the correct policy. Some individuals who find the new option desirable will take it and be better off. Individuals that can expect to be worse off if they select a new option will not select it. Anyone who criticizes relying on consumer choice is paternalistic and is demeaning less-affluent consumers’ decision-making skills. The econometric study he relies and topic he discusses are perfect foils to illustrate Goolsbee’s opposition to regulation.

The problem is that the study Goolsbee relied upon illustrates why fraud makes econometric studies fail. I have explained (and these explanations can be found in my 1993 NCFIRRE papers and Akerlof & Romer’s 1993 article) why accounting control fraud epidemics can hyper-inflate financial bubbles. Bubbles allow accounting control frauds to refinance bad loans and delay delinquencies and defaults. The regional real estate bubbles had begun bursting before Goolsbee wrote his op-ed — the delinquencies, defaults, and foreclosures lag the collapse of the bubble. A 13% delinquency rate would kill most subprime lenders, but the eventual default rate was likely to be far higher. Goolsbee ignores the loss to the consumer of purchasing a home with substantial negative equity.

Goolsbee stresses that many of the subprime borrowers are relatively poorer minorities. The predatory lenders that induced them to take out loans they could not repay created reverse Pareto optimality — both parties to the nonprime loans made in 2006 and 2007 typically suffered a serious financial loss. Nonprime loans in 2003-2007 hyper-inflated the bubble and the markets increasingly less efficient (not ever more “perfect”). When one considers the endemic mortgage fraud by lenders and their agents and resultant negative expected value of the transaction we see that the frauds also cause negative externalities to the public. The nonprime borrowers included some speculators, but the typical borrower was the prey and the typical nonprime borrower lost wealth.

The three key elements that Goolsbee relied upon to give the worst possible policy advice on how regulators should respond to the nonprime loans (do nothing, all is well, the lenders are making the nonprime borrowers friends) are (1) a presumption that financial innovation is good and that financial regulation is bad if it reduces innovation, (2) greater consumer choice is good and financial regulation is bad if it reduces choice (note the innovation increases choice), and (3) the scientific means of choosing between alternative regulatory policies is to rely on econometric studies. Obama’s Executive Order revising regulatory review policy enshrines each of these three elements even though Goolsbee demonstrated that they lead to the most destructive regulatory policies if control fraud or bubbles are present. Obama’s Wall Street Journal letter adopted this Republican talking point about “innovation.”

Sometimes, those rules have gotten out of balance, placing unreasonable burdens on business–burdens that have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs.

There are doubtless some contexts where this unsupported assertion could be true, e.g., the various bans on stem cell research, but in the financial context “innovation” frequently poses systemic risks, is devoid of social utility, and has no demonstrated advantage to anyone but the seller. Paul Volcker has made this point forcefully:

I hear about these wonderful innovations in the financial markets, and they sure as hell need a lot of innovation. I can tell you of two — credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations — which took us right to the brink of disaster. Were they wonderful innovations that we want to create more of?

You want boards of directors to be informed about all of these innovative new products and to understand them, but I do not know what boards of directors you are talking about. I have been on boards of directors, and the chance that they are going to understand these products that you are dishing out, or that you are going to want to explain it to them, quite frankly, is nil.

I mean: Wake up, gentlemen. I can only say that your response is inadequate. I wish that somebody would give me some shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy, just one shred of information.

President Obama’s Wall Street Journal letter directed regulators not to interfere with consumer choice.

[C]reating a 21st-century regulatory system … means using disclosure as a tool to inform consumers of their choices, rather than restricting those choices.

We tried this “economic philosophy” and it “completely failed.” Goolsbee’s op-ed was typical of theoclassical dogma: regulations that restrict consumer choice are inherent illegitimate. The predatory lender pushing the loan that the borrower cannot repay is the borrower’s true friend. The regulator is the paternalistic bureaucrat. The FDIC tried to use disclosure plus consumer education to make this anti-regulatory dogma sound more attractive — and disclosure and consumer education failed to protect the nonprime borrowers.
Obama’s directive is a radical, dangerous assault on regulation and consumers. It would require us to get rid of “suitability” requirements — your 85 year old grandmother’s financial advisor could hand her a “disclosure” page explaining the risks investing in the mezzanine tranche of CDOs and proceed to advise her to put her entire savings in the CDOs. We could not ban “liar’s” loans.

We would have to get rid of many of the food and drug safety laws. We cannot “restrict” the consumer’s “choices.” The drug companies can hand out a “disclosure” page about the risks of a drug that has not been FDA approved for safety and efficacy and it’s up to you to decide whether to buy it. We cannot restrict the consumer’s “choice” so there cannot be any limits on usury or default fees. Your friendly payday lender can hand you their disclosure sheet and then when you are delinquent on a $50 loan they can charge you a $500 fee. We cannot restrict choice, so everybody you contract with can take away your right to sue for torts they commit by disclosing that they have a mandatory arbitration clause and you agree that their maximum liability is $10. Under this logic we couldn’t make prostitution unlawful.

The OMB Director (implicitly) explained the import of the new regulatory review standard for econometrics: “Regulations must be guided by objective scientific evidence.” OMB decides whether the rules are guided by “objective scientific evidence.” OMB is dominated by neoclassical economists who believe, in the economic context, that only econometric studies are “objective scientific evidence.” Econometric studies, however, will show that accounting control frauds are reporting record income in the short-term and that whatever asset is used in the frauds has a strong, positive relationship with income. The regulators could not provide the necessary econometric studies to, for example, stop liar’s loans until the true “sign” (negative) of the relationship between making liar’s loans and income emerged — after the fraud and the bubble collapse. Any proposed rule that would restrict the nonprime lenders’ use of liar’s loans would be contradicted by the “objective scientific evidence” (the econometric study).

The administration is adopting the “completely failed” economic philosophies that rendered regulation ineffective and allowed the epidemics of accounting control fraud that caused the Great Recession. Senator Obama knew that it was imperative that we junk that failed philosophy. President Obama is adopting key aspects of the completely failed philosophy that he condemned. Bring back Senator Obama.

‘An Economic Philosophy That Has Completely Failed’

By William K. Black

(via the Huffington Post)

I get President Obama’s “regulatory review” plan, I really do. His game plan is a straight steal from President Clinton’s strategy after the Republican’s 1994 congressional triumph. Clinton’s strategy was to steal the Republican Party’s play book. I know that Clinton’s strategy was considered brilliant politics (particularly by the Clintonites), but the Republican financial playbook produces recurrent, intensifying fraud epidemics and financial crises. Rubin and Summers were Clinton’s offensive coordinators. They planned and implemented the Republican game plan on finance. Rubin and Summers were good choices for this role because they were, and remain, reflexively anti-regulatory. They led the deregulation and attack on supervision that began to create the criminogenic environment that produced the financial crisis.

The zeal, crude threats, and arrogance they displayed in leading the attacks on SEC Chair Levitt and CFTC Chair Born’s efforts to adopt regulations that would have reduced the risks of fraud and financial crises were exceptional. Just one problem — they were wrong and Levitt and Born were right. Rubin and Summers weren’t slightly wrong; they put us on the path to the Great Recession. Obama knows that Clinton’s brilliant political strategy, stealing the Republican play book, was a disaster for the nation, but he has picked politics over substance.

I explained in a prior column how the anti-regulators made the crisis possible and caused the loss of over 10 million jobs. 

Anti-regulation proved to be a profoundly negative sum “game” in the financial sphere. Both principals — the home borrower and the lender — lost (negative Pareto optimality). The unfaithful “agents,” however, made out like bandits. 

Effective financial regulation is essential to protect honest firms and consumers from the frauds — it is distinctly positive sum. The primary purpose of financial regulation is to limit fraud. President Obama, Summers, and OMB do not understand this fundamental aspect of financial regulation — limiting fraud. Consider this portion of the President’s letter:

This is the lesson of our history: Our economy is not a zero-sum game. Regulations do have costs; often, as a country, we have to make tough decisions about whether those costs are necessary.
Voluntary transactions should be positive sum — both parties are typically made better off. Fraud causes negative sum transactions. Regulators are the “cops on the beat” in finance. If cheaters prosper, then “private market discipline” drives honest firms and officers out of the marketplace. Vigorous financial regulation is essential to the effective prosecution of elite criminals. Many of the best financial regulations impose virtually no cost. The traditional underwriting rules, for example, would have been exceeded by any honest, competent bank. Indeed, the rules reduced costs to honest firms. The rules imposed material costs only on dishonest managers — and that reduces costs to hones firms and managers. Net, underwriting rules produce enormous net-benefits. That is equivalent to saying that they have a negative cost. The underwriting rules designed primarily to reduce fraud also reduce losses from incompetence, unrecognized risk, and mistake. This means that financial rules designed primarily to reduce fraud are essential to convert the negative sum (fraudulent) transactions that would prevail absent regulation into positive sum (honest) transactions. Because fraud can impose severe “negative externalities,” this transaction-based analysis dramatically understates the net cost savings of effective safety and soundness regulation.

Obama’s proposal and the accompanying OMB releases do not mention the word or the concept of fraud. Despite an “epidemic” of fraud led by the bank CEOs (which caused the greatest crisis of his life), Obama cannot bring itself to use the “f” word. The administration wants the banks’ senior officers to fund its reelection campaign. I’ve never raised political contributions, but I’m certain that pointing out that a large number of senior bank officers were frauds would make fundraising from them awkward.

President Obama’s explanation for his regulatory review program warrants detailed analysis in multiple columns. He decided to place it in the Wall Street Journal as a symbol of his efforts to placate Wall Street (only two sentence of his letter refer to small businesses).

My first column discussing his regulatory review program focuses on gaps in financial “safety and soundness” regulation. This is an area I lived, research, write about, and teach. (If you look at my bio you will see that public administration experts write about my experiences as a regulator.) Obama entitled his letter: “Toward a 21st-Century Regulatory System.” Where have we heard that mantra before? When President Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 Larry Summers proclaimed that the GLB Act was “a major step forward to the 21st century.”

Clinton’s two great deregulatory failures were the GLB Act and the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (CFMA). The CFMA deliberately created a regulatory “black hole” for credit default swaps (CDS) by removing the CFTC’s authority to regulate CDS and a regulatory black hole in the trading of energy derivatives that helped Enron’s cartel produce the California energy crisis of 2001. The titles of both of these deregulatory acts included the word “modernization” and the great lie was that the acts they were repealing were archaic. The claim was that we needed a regulatory system designed for the 21st-Century. Summers, Obama’s principal economic advisor, framed Obama’s latest deregulatory foray.

Summers and Rubin remain unwilling to admit that their anti-regulatory financial policies were disastrous. Here’s what Obama said in late 2008 about the decisive role that anti-regulatory dogma played in causing the ongoing financial crisis.

“John McCain has spent decades in Washington supporting financial institutions instead of their customers,” [Obama] told a crowd of about 2,100 at the Colorado School of Mines. “So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.”

Obama’s subtitle is designed to illustrate stupid regulation: “If the FDA deems saccharin safe enough for coffee, then the EPA should not treat it as hazardous waste.” The example is supposed to be self-evident, clearly only regulators could do something so stupid. But the facts are inconvenient to Obama’s scorn — and this is his shining example, the best that the scores of OMB staff that review thousands of regulations could come up with to support this major administration initiative. This is the dumbest rule they found. Obama’s statement about saccharin may seem logical, but it is not. Animal studies originally showed that saccharine was carcinogenic in doses that a heavy consumer might experience. The EPA, therefore, classified the disposal of large amounts of saccharine as toxic. Subsequent studies are now interpreted as showing that saccharine is unlikely to be carcinogenic at such dosage levels. The EPA’s classification of saccharine as a hazardous substance for waste disposal purposes based on its carcinogenic effects in small doses was logical. The logic does not work automatically in reverse. An ingredient can be safe to consume by an individual consumer in extremely low doses yet hazardous in far larger doses. To sum it up, the supposedly dumb rule Obama chose as his lead example did not kill any meaningful number of jobs, was based on the best science then available, and wasn’t dumb.

Consider the overall logic of Obama’s approach to regulation. Under his logic during the campaign, the imperative need was to end the anti-regulatory dogma that was the disastrous product of “an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” When he became President, however, Obama placed Summers and Rubin, the leading Democratic Party purveyors of that completely failed philosophy, in charge of the administration’s financial regulatory policies. The administration’s policies are largely anti-regulatory. The most important indicators of this point are the things not in the President’s regulatory review program. Obama says that the lack of financial regulation made possible the financial crisis, but his regulatory review program does not require the administration to search out areas of inadequate regulation. Here is the closest Obama comes: “Where necessary, we won’t shy away from addressing obvious gaps….” Huh? The vital task is to find the non-obvious gaps. Why, two years into his presidency, has the administration failed to address “obvious gaps”? The administration does not need Republican approval to fill obvious gaps in regulation. Even when Obama finds “obvious gaps” in regulatory protection he does not promise to act. He will act only “where necessary.” We know that Summers, Rubin, and Geithner rarely believe that financial regulation is “necessary.” Even if Obama decides it is “necessary” to act he only promises to “address” “obvious gaps” — not “end” or “fill” them.

In the financial sphere, Obama has allowed “obvious gaps” to persist and, by listening to Summers’ continued embrace of an “economic philosophy that has completely failed” he has even made the gaps worse. Obama’s regulatory review program does not promise to fix any of the anti-regulatory actions taken or allowed to fester and grow under his administration. I provide twelve specific examples of these obvious gaps in financial regulation which have persisted and grown during this Obama’s first two years in office. (There are more than a dozen gaps, but it is premature to address some of them, e.g., Basel III, the Volcker rule, and the new consumer financial protection agency, because there is so much uncertainty about the rules that will emerge.) The gaps addressed here are those where Obama has not even proposed to take an action that could prove effective.

The “Dirty Dozen”

  1. Executive compensation is so profoundly perverse that it is intensely criminogenic, but the administration has opposed the FDIC’s modest efforts to reduce the problem. (Both Treasury officials on the FDIC Board voted against the FDIC proposed rule to limit the perverse incentives of modern executive compensation.
  2. Professional compensation is equally perverse. Bank CEOs created the perverse incentives that produced “echo” epidemics of fraud by appraisers, loan brokers, and mortgage bankers. Bank CEOs deliberately create a “Gresham’s” dynamic in order to create the perverse incentives that have routinely allowed them to suborn successfully “independent” professionals and turn them into fraud allies. As long as the CEO can hire and fire the independent professional he can succeed in suborning some of the professionals — and “some” is ample. Then Attorney General Cuomo’s investigation, for example, found that Washington Mutual kept a black list of appraisers — but appraisers were black listed if they refused to inflate the appraisals. (It is critical that the reader understand the significance of this finding. Only the lender and its agents can extort the appraiser in order to secure an inflated value. No honest lender would inflate, or permit the inflation of, appraised values. Appraisal fraud is a superb “marker” of accounting control fraud.) Dodd-Frank has some provisions seeking to improve appraisals and credit rating agencies, but the essential “gap” that must be closed now is the ability of the CEO to pick the independent professionals.
  3. Honest accounting is the prerequisite effective financial regulation. The administration stood by while Bernanke, the Chamber of Commerce, and the specialized bank lobbyists used Congress to extort the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) to pervert the accounting rules so that banks would not have to recognize their losses. The administration knows that perverting the accounting rules in this manner harms the public in many ways. Not recognizing losses creates fictional bank income and capital. Banks that are deeply insolvent and unprofitable are able to claim to be solvent and profitable. This allows the banks to evade the Prompt Corrective Action law and makes it more difficult for regulators to prevent expensive bank failures. It also allows the controlling officers to pay the officers tens of billions of dollars in bonuses that the officers have not earned. The same accounting scam makes the administration’s (self) vaunted “stress tests” a sham. Obama can end the banks’ accounting scams and end these anti-regulatory disasters at any time because banking regulators have the power to impose regulatory accounting principles that would restore honest accounting and restore effective bank regulation. I shouldn’t have to keep emphasizing this, but honesty in accounting is also essential to integrity – and integrity is essential to everything.
  4. The accounting scams combined with the Fed’s secret bailouts of insolvent U.S. and foreign banks also allowed the administration to enter into a cynical gambit on TARP. The continuing Fed’s subsidies are far larger than TARP. Bank CEOs were eager to get out of the TARP restrictions on executive compensation. The administration was eager to claim (A) that it had resolved the banking crisis, and (B) that it did so for a pittance. The accounting cover up of bank losses combined with the Fed subsidies were the perfect (political) answer that met the banks’ and the administration’s greatest desires. The combination allowed the banks to repay TARP. The banks got to hide their losses, receive large subsidies and cheap liquidity from the Fed, and report fictional profits that allowed them to repay the TARP funds and pay large bonuses to their officers. The administration got to make the absurd claim that it had resolved the largest banking crisis in U.S. (measured in absolute dollars) for a pittance (roughly20 billion). (The real economy and real estate losses in the many trillions of dollars produced20 billion in bank losses. “Too good to be true” hardly does justice to the absurdity of Geithner’s claims that he “resolved” the failures virtually without cost.) The combination of covering up and secretly subsidizing the SDI’s losses also explains the SDIs’ unwillingness to lend to the real economy. It’s safer to borrow funds from the Fed at next to nothing, buy bonds, and clip coupons. This perverse dynamic is one of the important factors, along with fraud, that has made the economic recovery so weak. We are following the failed Japanese strategy.
  5. The Fed is an “obvious gap” in regulation. The Fed has consistently sought to prevent the Congress and the public from learning the disgraceful facts of its bailouts and subsidies of the most undeserving rich in modern history. TARP did not resolve failures. The failures have been covered up and subsidized by the Fed. There is an urgent need to regulate the Fed. The Fed has a consistent record of regulatory failure and is actively hostile to transparency. During Obama’s term in office, Bernanke appointed as the head of all Fed examination and supervision an economist with no experience as an examiner or regulator. The economist is a strong proponent of the anti-regulatory economic philosophy that completely failed. Greenspan used him as the agency spokesman before Congress supporting the passage of the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 – the Act that created the multiple regulatory black holes that allowed the frauds that caused the California energy crisis of 2001 and contributed to the frauds that drove the ongoing financial crisis.
  6. The Fed’s regional banks have private directors with untenable conflicts of interest. The U.S. has already reached the policy decision in 1989 that such conflicts pose an unacceptable danger of producing ineffective regulation when it enacted FIRREA, which removed any conceivable authority of the private directors over the regulatory process.
  7. The administration could end the obvious gap in regulation known as the “too big to fail” doctrine at any time by adopting regulations that would stop the systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs) from growing and shrink them to the scale they would no longer pose a systemic risk within five years. (These regulatory gaps interact – many of the SDIs are insolvent yet are paying extraordinary bonuses to the officers that caused their massive, unrecognized, losses.) Instead, of shrinking the SDIs, the administration encouraged the SDIs to grow even larger and pose greater systemic risk. The administration opposed efforts to amend the Dodd-Frank bill to require the end of the SDIs. Remember, it is the administration that is telling us that there are 20 U.S. banks so large that as soon as the next one fails it is likely to trigger a systemic crisis. It is insane to roll the dice twenty times a day waiting for the next world crisis. The SDIs are one of those “obvious gaps” that the administration doesn’t find it politically correct to “address.” Effectively regulating the SDIs would be the antithesis of the administration’s campaign to ingratiate themselves with the SDIs.
  8. The administration could end the scandal of the lack of prosecution of the accounting control frauds that created the epidemic of mortgage fraud that hyper-inflated the largest bubble in history and drove the financial crisis and the Great Recession. Effective prosecutions against elite bank frauds are possible only with effective regulation and supervision. We know that the banking regulatory agencies – which made well over 10,000 criminal referrals in response to the far smaller S&L debacle (producing over 1000 felony convictions in “major” cases against elites – made no, or a handful of criminal referrals in response to this crisis. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) made zero criminal referrals during the crisis. The FDIC apparently made a very small number of criminal referrals, probably not against elites. It is unknown whether the Fed made any criminal referrals. There is no evidence it made any significant criminal referrals. The banking regulators’ dereliction of their duties to make criminal referrals is so complete that the FBI formed a “partnership” with the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) – the trade association of the perps – rather than with the banking regulators. Unsurprisingly, the MBA claimed that the banks were the victims of borrowers and junior officers rather than the CEOs who knowingly created the perverse incentives that drove the epidemic of mortgage fraud.
  9. Only 25 banks – during an “epidemic” of mortgage fraud – made any significant number of criminal referrals, and none of those referrals appear to have been made against the senior bank officers that caused those frauds. Federal rules mandate that the banks file criminal referrals against suspected mortgage fraud, so the data demonstrate endemic regulatory violations by banks. The data also demonstrate that the banks overwhelmingly did not want the FBI to prosecute the mortgage frauds. There is one obvious reason why the banks’ CEOs would be willing to violate a legal mandate to file criminal referrals. I have not found any evidence that the banking regulatory actions have brought enforcement actions against the banks committing these obvious, endemic violations of the law. The mortgage bankers and brokers were not federally insured and therefore were not subject to the rules mandating that they file criminal referrals when they found suspicious activities likely indicating mortgage fraud. The mortgage bankers and brokers, however, were permitted to file criminal referrals. Their nearly universal failure to do so was irrational for honest lenders and brokers – but optimal for control frauds. The administration has allowed the collapse of the criminal referral system within the regulatory agencies, and almost all lenders to continue on its watch. It could fix the scandal of elite bankers being able to loot with impunity without adopting any rules. Each collapse constitutes an “obvious gap” that urgently requires Obama’s attention.
  10. The Mortgage Electronic Registration Service (MERS) is unregulated. MERS, at best, was a system designed to evade county recorder fees. No one – and that includes MERS’ controlling officials – knows the true condition of the mortgage instruments that MERS is supposed to be registering. At best, it is a scandal that threatens the stability of homeowners and holders of instruments that are supposed to be secured by mortgages. MERS is an “obvious gap” in regulatory protections that demonstrates once more the wealth and job destroying consequences of the “completely failed” anti-regulatory philosophy that Obama promised to root out.
  11. The foreclosure scandal revealed an “obvious gap” in regulatory protections – no one regulates the foreclosure process. (The underlying epidemic of accounting control fraud by the nonprime mortgage lenders generated the “echo” epidemic of foreclosure fraud.) Bank of America, the second largest financial institution in America, acquired Countrywide in order to secure its personnel and its mortgage servicing portfolio. Countrywide was notorious for its fraudulent and predatory mortgage lending practices. Placing its employees in charge of servicing – the banking operation that controls the foreclosure process – guaranteed epic abuses. (Bank of America also managed to generate pervasive foreclosure abuses out of the staff it had prior to acquiring Countrywide.) Bank of America personnel, and personnel of other major servicers, eventually confessed that their foreclosure actions relied on massive, universal perjury (a felony). These “robo signing” crimes occurred at a frequency of roughly 10,000 monthly at more than one large servicer. Our most elite banks have confessed to committing hundreds of thousands of felonies.
  12. Fannie and Freddie. These entities are twisting slowly in the wind. Private and regulatory leadership have been ineffective and have lacked courage. I’ll mention only two areas. Fannie and Freddie used some of the most abusive foreclosure law firms in existence. Citicorp’s key mortgage credit guy testified many months ago before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) that 80% of Citi’s mortgages sold to Fannie and Freddie were sold under false “reps and warranties.” The Citicorp official’s warnings to his superiors about this extreme incidence of fraud did not lead to corrective action, so the official cc’d Rubin on key correspondence. Naturally, Citi responded by firing the whistleblower rather than the frauds. If Fannie and Freddie put the bad paper back to Citi, then Citi would be insolvent and Rubin would face serious risks. Fannie and Freddie have put only relatively small amounts of Citi’s paper back to Citi. (Note that the extreme incidence of fraud, and a similar incidence has been shown in Countrwide mortgage paper, again demonstrates how completely failed the anti-regulatory model is.) I have explained previously why Fannie and Freddie, because of their large holdings of nonprime paper from many originators and their dealings with credit rating agencies, offer unique data bases and opportunities for research to document exactly what wrong and how the fraud epidemic, bubble, and financial crisis grew and spread. This is a more subtle, but enormously important and dangerous regulatory gap.