When Wall Street melted down, some liberals and lefties said it was because Wall Street was rotten to the core with corruption. I’m usually skeptical of arguments like this — the worst stuff usually isn’t because of corruption, of acts that were illegal, it’s what’s legal that does the real damage. But in the case of Wall Street, I was wrong. As Frontline’s new documentary shows, the crisis was literally built on a foundation of fraud.
At its heart, the Wall Street meltdown was about a housing bubble. Mortgage lenders created lots of home mortgages that were either likely to blow up or were just plain crap, and then these mortgage loans were packaged together and then sold, mostly as pieces of these packages, to investors, who leveraged them to the point where if anything went wrong the investors would go broke.
The key to making it work was getting enough mortgages to package together. No more mortgages, no more new “financial instruments” — and that meant no more big, fat Wall Street fees for packaging, selling, and repackaging them. But mortgage brokers aren’t supposed to be able to give home loans to just anyone. They’ve got to have a reasonable expectation that they’ll get paid back.
And as the housing bubble inflated and housing prices got higher, it got harder and harder to find folks who wanted to buy a house and could afford it. If Mortgage brokers and the financial types who bought their mortgages played by the rules, the highly lucrative game would have to stop early. So, as the Frontline Documentary shows, they cheated.
The mortgage lenders made tons of loans that fraudulently broke their own lending standards. The people at the mortgage lenders who were supposed to check for fraud and abuse were told to ignore it — or the standards were lowered until, say, marking down a waitress as having a salary of $12,000 a month was no longer considered fraud. Over and over in the documentary, we meet whistleblowers who said that more than half of the loans they were auditing were clearly fraudulent.
Without this fraud, the housing bubble would’ve popped years before 2008.
And so it went up the chain of mortgage financial games. Financial firms that bought bundles of loans and packaged them fraudulently asserted that the loans were ok. In turn they got ratings agencies to take packages of loans that were bound to fail and gave them a AAA rating, without which pension funds and certain other investors couldn’t legally purchase them. And everybody got a cut that made committing this fraud very lucrative.
So yeah, when it comes to the Wall Street meltdown, fraud really was at the core. And — unlike the S&L crisis — not a single high level Wall St exec has been jailed for it, Obama has all but guaranteed it’ll happen again.
UPDATE: just to be clear, it’s not that the evidence about what folks did wasn’t out there before the Frontline documentary. The elements of the basic story have been out there for a very long time. Bt what I didn’t get was how much of the behavior wasn’t simply greedily suicidal, it was also pretty clear cut fraud.
For example, it was perfectly legal to make “interest-only” mortgage loans where borrowers only paid the interest and not the principle for the first few years, then had their mortgage jacked up to almost certainly unaffordable levels once they had to start paying off the principle (i.e., the money they had borrowed). For most folks who got one of these loans, they were essentially being given a big stack of money to gamble that the housing bubble would keep going, sending the value of their house skyrocketing fast enough that they could get out of the loan into something more sensible before the principle was due. No sane housing or financial market should legalize this form of gambling, but it was legal.
What the Frontline documentary added to the story — or maybe more accurately, my understanding of the story — was the degree to which fraud was involved. the question the documentary asked was, how come no major Wall St execs have gone to jail? To explain why, they interviewed whistleblower after whistleblower who explained just how much of the behavior they saw was clearly fraudulent.