Editor’s Note: The following post was contributed by Ross Levine, the James and Merryl Tisch Professor of Economics at Brown University. This post summarizes a presentation Professor Levine gave at the World Bank on April 28 entitled An Autopsy of the Financial System: Suicide, Accident, or Negligent Homicide? The presentation from the event is available here and video of the event will be made available soon on the All About Finance blog.
In this blog entry, I address three issues: (1) The causes of the cause of the financial crisis, (2) Core approaches to financial regulation, and (3) Systemic improvements. I also direct readers to longer treatments of each of these issues.
In a recent paper, An Autopsy of the U.S. Financial System: Accident, Suicide, or Negligent Homicide, I show that the design, implementation, and maintenance of financial policies by U.S. policymakers and regulators during the period from 1996 through 2006 were the primary causes of the financial system’s collapse. I study five important policies (1) Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) policies toward credit rating agencies, (2) Federal Reserve policies that allowed banks to reduce their capital cushions through the use of credit default swaps, (3) SEC and Federal Reserve policies concerning over-the-counter derivatives, (4) SEC policies toward the consolidated supervision of major investment banks, and (5) government policies toward the housing-finance giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Let me be blunt—time and again, U.S. regulatory authorities and policymakers (1) were acutely aware of the growing fragility of the financial system caused by their policies during the decade before the crisis, (2) had ample power to fix the problems, and (3) chose not to. This crisis did not just fall from the sky on the heads of policymakers; policymakers helped cause this crisis. While Alan Greenspan (former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve) depicts the financial crisis as a once in a “hundred years flood” and a “classic euphoric bubble,” the evidence is inconsistent with these overly simple characterizations. More importantly, this focus on “irrational exuberance” self-servingly deflects attention from the policy determinants of the crisis.
Regulators were not simply victims of limited information or a lack of regulatory power. Rather, the role of regulators in the five policies I mention above demonstrates that the crisis represents the selection—and most importantly the maintenance—of policies that increased financial fragility. The financial regulatory system failed systemically. To fix it, we need more than tinkering, we need systemic change.