fresh voices from the front lines of change







Somebody said that regulators need real power in order to be tough and effective. He said a strong, independent consumer protection agency is needed to help prevent the next financial crisis. And that we should help the millions of “responsible” homeowners hurt by the crash, instead of demonizing them.

This guy described Fannie and Freddie’s assets as “bullsh*t capital” – $5.4 trillion of it, with taxpayers on the hook and potential debtors that included China and France. He also said this about the whole notion of privatizing a government activity: “To me, if there’s a guarantee, they should be a (government) utility (rather than a private company) – why should people get wealthy off of a government guarantee?”

So is this socialist – Noam Chomsky? He’s Hank Paulson, former Goldman Sachs CEO and Bush’s Treasury Secretary during the 2008 meltdown. Paulson’s interview with the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission may leave you wishing he was still in Washington. The clarity of his comments highlight the absurdity of those politicians who claim that the FCIC reached a “partisan” conclusion. Here’s a Wall Street powerhouse and GOP stalwart who’s saying the same things – and more.

Paulson didn’t just express opinions to the FCIC. He also provided anecdotes that illustrate the real problem with Fannie, Freddie, and the entire “privatize government” movement: When you give government backing to people with private-sector incentives, very bad things happen. So as the media distracts itself (and us) with the power struggle between Democrats and Republicans, a conflict it insists on describes as the “left” versus the “right,” Paulson described problems and their solutions in ways that neither party’s leaders are willing to discuss.

Paulson spoke to FCIC staff last April, and an internal memo summarized that conversation:

Not enough regulation + no consumer protection = catastrophe

Here’s how the memo summarized Paulson’s thoughts, under the heading “Sec. Paulson’s Evaluation of Root Causes of Crisis” (all emphases in these excerpts are mine):

Sec. Paulson stated that the root causes of the crisis were housing policy in addition to the lack of regulation. He explained that many mortgages had big regulatory gaps and many mortgages issued in many number of states did not have an adequate regulator. Sec. Paulson recommended including in a regulatory blue print a consumer agency that focuses on consumer protection and a mortgage origination commission that evaluates the training and regulation that goes on a state level and will be able to evaluate the different programs so investors would be informed.

Look at what Paulson’s saying: We need more regulation (“regulatory gaps”) and more regulators. We need a “consumer agency that focuses on consumer protection” (we now have the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – it was downgraded from an agency to a bureau by the Senate). We need better training and regulation at the state level (banks are now trying to overrule state regulations to escape the consequences of foreclosure fraud). Investors need to be better informed about where there investments are going (Mr. Paulson’s former company is, of course, a major offender in this area).

How many of these ideas are being promoted today by either party?

And about that “housing policy”: This may sound like the old right-wing theme that it’s over-reaching when government tries to help poor people, but that’s not what he’s saying. As I hear it, he’s saying that many people were encouraged to buy homes who would’ve been better off renting. The problem wasn’t that government was too activist, but that the “ownership society” idea (and other government policies, including taxation) used government to encourage over-borrowing by some homeowners, enriching financial speculators while creating needless risk for borrowers.

A lot of innocent homeowners got hurt – and they weren’t getting enough help.

Paulson held town hall-style meetings in hard-hit real estate markets like Burbank, Stockton, Orlando, Chicago, and Kansas City. “I was literally sickened in terms of what I saw in terms of what had happened to some people, the terms of the mortgages,” he told the FCIC staff. He added that “lending essentially shut down on the private side, so now we were in a situation where very responsible people who wanted to buy or refinance to prevent losing their homes under very reasonable terms were having difficulty doing so.”

Paulson described his own efforts to get loans out to these homeowners, which met with strong resistance from Fannie and Freddie’s badly-incentivized executives. Since Paulson left office, the current Administration’s HAMP program has only helped a few hundred thousand people although an estimated eleven million homes are considered at risk for foreclosure, and HAMP has harmed many others through the “extend and pretend” phenomenon. Meanwhile the House is planning to eviscerate funding for all housing programs in the next budget.

Ideological battles diverted Congress from the task at hand.

It’s ironic how many politicians who get campaign money from Wall Street banks – banks which continue to collect billions in indirect government assistance – resist anything that might help homeowners, because American families who obtained mortgages from those banks are supposedly “undeserving.” From the FCIC memo:

According to Sec. Paulson, the “march to reform” in 2008 was diverted because of “really what were inconsequential battles” in the House over the Hope for Homeowners legislation, which he called a “a flash point” in the debate about on one hand, bailing out irresponsible individuals, and on the other hand inflating the number of individuals it would actually help … the battle over the program delayed GSE regulatory reform from being accomplished.

In other words, Representatives were trying so hard to score points by knocking homeowners that they delayed action on the big-picture reforms that were so desperately needed.

Significantly, ten Republican on the House Financial Services Committee crossed party lines to join with Democrats in forwarding Hope For Homeowners to the floor of the House, proving once again that common-sense reform needn’t be and shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

By privatizing Fannie and Freddie, we created a monster.

Intentionally or not, Paulson paints the picture of a monster: A company run by private-sector sharks, backed by government guarantees but unwilling to help the government carry out its policy – and aggressively lobbying to undermine the very principles that led to its creation. From the FCIC memo:

“I had been trying to work regulatory reform through Congress, the House was not a problem, the Senate was a big problem” … Sec. Paulson said that he felt it was necessary to get the GSEs on board with reform … “I wanted them [the GSEs] to reiterate in front of the Senators the commitment to raise capital,” Sec. Paulson said. “And also, we had figured out that we were not going to get regulatory reform done if they opposed it. They had a lot of contacts on both sides of aisle, and were enormously effective, and they had different views …”

Here’s what Paulson doesn’t say: Like Sallie Mae, the institution created to issue government-backed student loans, Fannie and Freddie were privatized and then went on a lobbying rampage designed to undermine their very own mission in order to further enrich the executives in charge. Paulson ran into roadblocks when he tried to get these “government sponsored enterprises” to collaborate with the government during an emergency.

“Regulators were downplaying [the capital situation],” said Paulson. “There was a little bit of regulatory capture going on, I think.” That’s an understatement: He’s referring to $5.4 trillion in loose securities that had the implicit guarantee of the Federal government. $1.7 trillion was held by foreign countries, and Paulson explains how messy it became when he tried to explain this illogical and risky public/private marriage to leaders from countries like China and France. From the memo:

Sec. Paulson said that the enterprises had “flimsy capital” and he said that some people referred to it as “bullshit capital,” (the deferred tax asset, for example), and that the regulator had no discretion to use its judgment with respect to the level of capital. Added to that, the country promoted a policy where the companies were chartered by Congress, “try to go around the world and explain to one leader after another what this implicit-not-explicit government guarantee was about. To me, if there’s a guarantee, they should be a utility – why should people get wealthy off of a government guarantee?

Regarding those regulators, Paulson’s putting it mildly. Fannie and Freddie’s overseers ” didn’t have the power of a normal safety and soundness regulator,” as he put it, adding: “I don’t want to leave Washington without there being some major attempt to make it better and get a regulator who was more power.”

Overall, Paulson paints the picture of runaway enterprises that were designed to fulfill a government mission but structured to do what private corporations do – with the corrupting influence of government guarantees creating a recipe for disaster. The end result was almost inevitable: Overly aggressive and reckless officers, backed by a Board of Directors Paulson described as “cheeky” and uncooperative.

Despite this experiences, what’s the most popular recommendation in Washington these days for reforming Fannie and Freddie? Making them even more “privatized.” Somebody really ought to listen to Hank Paulson. In fact, why not put him in charge of the SEC? I know, I know: He’s ex-Goldman. But hey, Joe Kennedy did a damned good job at the SEC under Roosevelt. This guy’s learned a thing or two, and we could use him now.

Besides, nobody ever called Hank Paulson a socialist.


This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project.

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