“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”
Henry Hazlitt – Economist/Journalist (1894 – 1993)
If only Alan Greenspan, George Bush, and the rest of the economic imbeciles in Washington who gave us the Great Recession had heeded the words of the great Henry Hazlitt, as a nation we would not have produced so much phony wealth which in turn has caused so much pain. Leftists wholeheartedly support this view. As a matter of fact, the current occupant of the Oval Office is fond of constantly reminding Americans that it was George Bush and his Republican Congress from 2001 to 2006 who implemented the policies that caused the worst financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression. But, while Obama and the left are correct about who caused the crisis, they are way off the mark about what the guilty parties actually did to bring it about.
Obama and his ilk claim the cause of our current troubles was the deregulation of the financial services industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now, they have to be careful because the major deregulation legislation in this period was signed by one of their own, President Bill Clinton. I am of course referring to the law which repealed the Glass/ Steagall Act. Enacted during the Great Depression, Glass/Steagall prohibited commercial banks from owning investment banks, and vice versa. It was meant to safeguard commercial banks against failure by making it illegal for them to participate in investment bank practices such as securities trading and stock and bond underwriting.
It does seem more than coincidental that the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression has taken place shortly after the repeal of Glass/Steagall, and to the shallow statist mindset that is all that matters. But Obama and the left are wrong; repeal of Glass/Steagall did not cause the current financial crisis. In the first place, as Conn Carroll of the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, Glass/Steagall was “steadily weakened” from the 1970s on by the “complex new financial reality” of the times and by waivers from regulators that made mergers routine. The 1998 merger between Travelers and Citigroup essentially repealed the law once and for all. Thus, the erosion of the law over thirty-some years without any major financial crisis is an indication that the ultimate repeal of what was left of the law in 1999 did not cause the troubles of today.
Next, by looking at which institutions brought on the financial carnage one can conclude that Glass/Steagall’s repeal was inconsequential. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch all went belly up as investment banks without commercial bank divisions. The granddaddy of them all, AIG, is an insurance company with no commercial banking division. Washington Mutual was a savings bank which went bankrupt because of the many subprime mortgage loans it made which went bad. Glass/Steagall did not regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and their bailouts are on target to hit $1 trillion if home prices continue to fall at the current rate, so in reality, Glass/Steagall would not have prevented any of these firms from causing so much trouble for the economy. Further, it has been argued with a lot of validity that the repeal of Glass/Steagall has actually benefitted taxpayers in this crisis. It has reduced the losses that would have been incurred by direct government bailout by allowing Bear Stearns to be purchased by JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch to be scooped up by Bank of America. All things considered, the repeal of Glass/Steagall has been a blessing in disguise for our economy.
Lastly, it is ridiculous to believe that the repeal of Glass/Steagall would cause bankers and investors to become so reckless and irresponsible with their resources that they would risk their economic viability. It just wouldn’t happen. Knowing that they could lose everything: their robust salaries and benefits, personal wealth, good name of their companies, and their own professional reputations most CEOs take great care to honor the fiduciary responsibilities they are given.
But, some obviously do not. As we have seen, it was not on account of the repeal of Glass/Steagall. Those who gambled with others’ money to get rich quick did it because of statist government policy, not libertarian deregulation. The simple fact is that the Great Recession was caused solely by the irresponsible welfare policies of Washington. These policies specifically targeted homeowners and banks. Undeterred by the dot-com bubble and ultimate crash he caused in the 1990s, Alan Greenspan kept interest rates too low for too long again in the early 2000s, after 911. At the same time, President Bush stated that he was about to “use the mighty muscle of the federal government” to make homeownership more available for more Americans. He got Congress to spend up to $200 million a year to assist first-time homebuyers with down payments. He pressured mortgage lenders to make subprime loans because “Corporate America has a responsibility to work to make America a compassionate place.” Lastly, he caused immense moral hazard by getting Fannie and Freddie to guarantee all the junk loans being made, again to the tune of potentially $1trillion.
The banksters who closed the deals all along the financial food chain knew that if their get-rich quick scheme ever failed, Alan Greenspan and his Fed and the full financial resources of Uncle Sam would be there to catch their fall. This precedent was set in the 1930s with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the savings and loan bailout of the 1980s, and as recently as 1998, when Greenspan’s Fed bailed out hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. Sure enough, the banksters were correct as Greenspan’s protégé, Ben Bernanke, and treasury secretary Hank Paulson frightened Congress into appropriating over $800 billion toward the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
When Bush, Greenspan, and their legislative accomplices on the Hill launched this massive welfare program for banks and homebuyers after 911, they did not take into account the words of Henry Hazlitt. They only considered the immediate effects for two groups in society. Even years later, when Bernanke and Paulson informed the president of the enormous economic catastrophe that our country was about to face and they pressured him to sign off on government bailouts for their banking buddies, Bush was said to have remarked “How did we get here?”
We got here because of government intervention into the economy, not deregulation. Unfortunately we are going to stay here because Obama is doing exactly what Bush did before him: providing cheap money and encouraging borrowing through government funding (tax credits for first time homebuyers) and guarantees. Maybe that is why Obama and the left are so keen to blame deregulation for the crisis. They use it as a smokescreen to hide the failures of the welfare state in the past, as well as the failures we will experience in the future.