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Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Financial Crisis of 2008: On the Role of Negligence Breaching Fiduciary Obligation

Roger Lowenstein laments that “New York Times columnist Joe Nocera lamented that ‘Wall Street bigwigs whose firms took unconscionable risks … aren't even on Justice's radar screen.’ A news story in the Times about a mortgage executive who was convicted of criminal fraud observed, ‘The Justice Dept. has yet to bring charges against an executive who ran a major Wall Street firm leading up to the disaster.’ In the same dispassionate tone, National Public Radio's All Things Considered chimed in, ‘Some of the most publicly reviled figures in the mortgage mess won't face any public accounting.’ New York magazine saw fit to print the estimable opinion of Bernie Madoff, who observed that the dearth of criminal convictions is ‘unbelievable.’ Rolling Stone, which has been beating this drum the longest and with the heaviest hand, reductively asked, ‘Why isn't Wall Street in jail?’”
Lowenstein interprets these sentiments as implying “that the financial crisis was caused by fraud; that people who take big risks should be subject to a criminal investigation; that executives of large financial firms should be criminal suspects after a crash; that public revulsion indicates likely culpability; that it is inconceivable (to Madoff, anyway) that people could lose so much money absent a conspiracy; and that Wall Street bears collective guilt for which a large part of it should be incarcerated.”
Lowenstein argues that “(t)hese assumptions do violence to our system of justice and hinder our understanding of the crisis. The claim that it was ‘caused by financial fraud’ is debatable, but the weight of the evidence is strongly against it. The financial crisis was accompanied by fraud, on the part of mortgage applicants as well as banks. It was caused, more nearly, by a speculative bubble in mortgages, in which bankers, applicants, investors, and regulators were all blind to risk. More broadly, the crash was the result of a tendency in our financial culture, especially after a period of buoyancy, to push leverage and risk-taking to the extreme.”
Lowenstein also ticks off a loose monetary policy (i.e., extremely low interest rates), unaccountability at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, weak financial regulation, and an overconfidence in “risk management” methods in arguing that we should not be reductionist in ascribing the crisis to fraud alone or even primarily.