Some Things I Missed Before the Financial Crisis

I take some pride, but little satisfaction, from having tried to fix several of the systemic flaws that ultimately led to the financial crisis.  I also was fortunate to spend that time serving under Senate Banking Committee leadership that was more often right than wrong.  But I’m only human and did miss a few things.  In the spirit of the new year, here is my, far from exhaustive, list of things I missed:

1.  The extent of house price declines.  While I never bought the housing industry line “prices never go down”, my sense back in 2005 was that we’d see something like a 10 to 15 percent decline.  It was well known before the bubble that inflation-adjusted home prices have declined nationally on several occasions.

2.  Growth of strategic default.  In previous housing busts, the percent of borrowers who simply walked away only because of their negative equity position was small.  Boston Fed economists have estimated 6% during the last bust.  We are likely between 20 and 30% this time around.

3.  There’s no substitute for a downpayment.  I served as the primary drafter of the American Dream Downpayment Act.  While small in impact, it did offer an experiment in downpayment assistance.  Its results have not been good in my view.  That bill was a mistake.

4.  Bailouts for everyone.  Don’t believe the spin, the rescues of AIG, Bear, Fannie, Freddie, the autos were all bailouts of choice.   While I had serious reservations about Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner, I underestimated their willingness to just throw money at every problem.  Accordingly I now have far less trust in the discretion of regulators (not that I had much before).

5.  Receivership doesn’t end too-big-to-fail.  The primary reason that Democrats, and some Republicans, opposed GSE reform beginning in 2004 was over the creation of a receivership (bankruptcy) mechanism for Fannie/Freddie.  Such a mechanism was finally put into place in July 2008.  It was ignored and the GSEs were rescued.  It is partly for this reason that I don’t see the receivership authority in Dodd-Frank as very credible.  If we won’t wind down Fannie, why would we wind down Citi.

6.  GSE role in the re-po market.  While banks regulators did nothing to reduce the exposure of the banking system to GSE debt, they at least knew about it.  What was less understood was that about a third of the collateral in the overnight re-purchase market (called by some “shadow-banking”) was GSE debt.  When hair-cuts on GSE debt expanded in 2008, liquidity in the re-po market contracted.

7.  Level of Pure Speculation in the Housing Market.  Setting aside that every home purchase entails a degree of speculation, the amount of pure investor sales as a percent of single family home sales turns out to be about double what I had thought back in 2005-06.

 Obviously this doesn’t cover the things that caused the crisis which I did see coming.  And perhaps an even bigger surprise to me was the degree during, and since, the crisis that many continue to hold onto certain beliefs even in the face of compelling evidence otherwise.  For instance, it seemed clear to me as early as 2007 that “exploding adjustable rate mortgages” were not the primary driver of default.  Anyway, we could all use a little more modesty when it comes to discussing the financial crisis.