Ten years ago, on Saturday, September 13th, 2008, the world was about to end.
The New York Federal Reserve was a zoo. Imagine NASA headquarters on the day a giant asteroid careens into the atmosphere. That was the New York Fed: all hands on deck, peak human panic.
The crowd included future Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, then-Treasury Secretary (and former Goldman Sachs CEO) Hank Paulson, the representatives of multiple regulatory offices, and the CEOs of virtually every major bank in New York, each toting armies of bean counters and bankers.
The asteroid metaphor fit. In the twin collapses of top-five investment bank Lehman Brothers and insurance giant AIG, Wall Street saw a civilization-imperiling ball of debt hurtling its way.
The legend of that meeting, as immortalized in hagiographic reconstructions like Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, is that the tough-minded bank honchos found a way to scrape up just enough cash to steer the debt-comet off course.
In Too Big To Fail, the “superstar” chief of Goldman, Lloyd Blankfein, along with “smart” Jamie Dimon of Chase, “fighter” John Mack of Morgan Stanley, and other titans brokered the deal of deals, just in time to stave off a Mad Max scenario for us all.
The plan included a federal bailout of incompetent AIG, along with key mergers – Bank of America buying Merrill, Barclays swallowing the sinking hull of Lehman, etc.
With respect to the fine actors in the film, the legend is bull.
There are more accurate chronicles of the crisis period, including the just-released Financial Exposure by Elise Bean of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, probably the most aggressive crew of financial detectives who sifted through the rubble over the past 10 years. Bean’s account of what went on at banks like Goldman, HSBC, UBS and Washington Mutual is terrifying to read even now.
But history is written by the victors, and the banks that blew up the economy are somehow still winning the narrative. Persistent propaganda about what happened 10 years ago not only continues to warp news coverage, but contributed to a wide array of political consequences, including the election of Donald Trump.
The most persistent myths about 2008:
Myth#1: The crash was an accident
In the early days of the crash, reporters were told the crisis particulars were probably too complex for news audiences. But metaphors would do. And the operating metaphor for 2008 was a “thousand-year flood,” a rare and inexplicable accident – something that just sort of happened.
It was even implied that the meltdown was due in part to irrational panic, “hysteria,” a fear of fear itself. When Lehman Brothers failed, the theory held, investors overreacted by freezing all lending, causing more disruptions and more losses. The economy was basically healthy, but fear had caused it to founder on a lack of confidence.
In Too Big to Fail, William Hurt plays Treasury Secretary Paulson as a saddened, wearied Atlas. He quips, early in the mess: “This is a confidence game,” and if Lehman Brothers failed, “all the other banks are gonna drop like dominoes.”
Poor Cynthia Nixon, who plays Treasury spokesperson Michele Davis, is heard responding, “Congress won’t move until we’ve already hit the iceberg.”
The film flashes to Lehman’s Dick “The Gorilla“ Fuld (played by James Woods in kinetic perma-jerk mode), who contrasts their fears with his overconfident weather report:
“Real estate always comes back,” he snorts, smugly fixing his tux. “I’ve seen this before. CEOs panic and they sell out cheap… The street’s running around with its hair on fire, but the storm always passes.”
This colorful language – dominoes, a confidence game, an “iceberg,” a “storm” – artfully disguised reality. This wasn’t weather coming at them, but the consequences of years of untrammeled criminal fraud.
Banks like Lehman had lent billions to fly-by-night mortgage mills like Countrywide and New Century. Those firms in turn sent hordes of loan hustlers into lower-income neighborhoods offering magical deals to anyone who could “fog a mirror,” as former Countrywide executive Michael Winston once put it to me. The targets were frequently minorities and the elderly.
Tales of mortgage swindlers guzzling Red Bulls and handing out easy loans in all directions began showing up in news reports as early as 2005. “It was like a boiler room,” one agent told the Los Angeles Times. “You produce, you make a lot of money… There’s no real compassion or understanding of the position they’re putting their customers in.”
These mortgage mills dispensed with due diligence, rarely bothering to verify incomes, identification, even citizenship. The loans were designed to have short, fragile lives, like fruit flies. They had to stay viable just long enough to be sent back to Wall Street and resold to secondary buyers, who took the losses.
It was a classic Ponzi scheme. So long as new loans were created and sold faster than the old ones failed, the subprime market made everyone rich. But the minute the market started to swing back the other way, everyone knew they would all crash to earth, Wile E. Coyote-style.
Paulson knew as well as anyone. Treasury and the other regulators received ample warning. Take the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), a regulatory arm of Treasury that happened to oversee two of the worst basket-cases, Washington Mutual and AIG. According to Bean, the OTS observed and ignored more than 500 deficiencies in mortgage practices just at WaMu in the years before the crash.
Even the FBI – not exactly an on-the-ball financial regulator, certainly not to the degree that Treasury or the Fed is expected to be – had warned as far back as 2004 that so-called “liar’s loans” were “epidemic” and would cause a “financial crisis” if not addressed.
CNN told the public of the FBI warning of a “next S&L crisis,” going so far as to identify the top 10 “hot spots’ for mortgage fraud” in: Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado.
All places that would later be rocked by mass foreclosures.
It took longer to get a car wash than a home loan in those days. I had one mortgage broker in Florida tell me he used to look for customers on the way home from work at night, at the beer cooler at his neighborhood 7-Eleven. His pitch was, “Hey, buddy, you like where you’re living?”
The end of this party was no confidence game. This was gravity: what went way up, coming way down.
The captain of the Titanic ignored one day’s worth of iceberg warnings and went down in history as an all-time schmuck for it. History commends him only for the honorable act of going down with his ship.
The titans of Wall Street ignored at least four years of warnings, escaped richer than ever, and in the end were lauded as heroes by the likes of Sorkin.
Myth #2: The crash was caused by greedy homeowners
Too Big To Fail shows Fuld on a rant:
“People act like we’re crack dealers,” Fuld (James Woods) gripes. “Nobody put a gun to anybody’s head and said, ‘Hey, nimrod, buy a house you can’t afford. And you know what? While you’re at it, put a line of credit on that baby and buy yourself a boat.”
This argument is the Wall Street equivalent of Reagan’s famous Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” spiel, which today is universally recognized as asinine race rhetoric.
Were there masses of people pre-2008 buying houses they couldn’t afford? Hell yes. Were some of them speculators or “flippers” who were trying to game the bubble for profit? Sure.
Most weren’t like that – most were ordinary working people, or, worse, elderly folks encouraged to refinance and use their houses as ATMs – but there were some flippers in there, sure.
People pointing the finger at homeowners are asking the wrong questions. The right question is, why didn’t the Fulds of the world care if those “nimrods” couldn’t afford their loans?
The answer is, the game had nothing to do with whether or not the homeowner could pay. The homeowner was not the real mark. The real suckers were institutional customers like pensions, hedge funds and insurance companies, who invested in these mortgages.
If you had a retirement fund and woke up one day in 2009 to see you’d lost 30 percent of your life savings, you were the mark. Ordinary Americans had their remaining cash in houses and retirement plans, and the subprime scheme was designed to suck the value out of both places, into the coffers of a few giant banks.