Audit Roundup: Times digs into SEC

Where was this story years ago? Plus more regulatory mishaps in the WSJ

The Times digs into the SEC’s role in enabling the crisis, looking at a crucial regulatory loosening in 2004 that allowed the investment banks to load up on debt (following up on the late New York Sun’s piece two weeks ago).

The NYT finds the SEC was grossly negligent:

The commission assigned seven people to examine the parent companies — which last year controlled financial empires with combined assets of more than $4 trillion. Since March 2007, the office has not had a director. And as of last month, the office had not completed a single inspection since it was reshuffled by Mr. Cox more than a year and a half ago.

And the designated driver gave the keys to the drunks:

The commission’s decision effectively to outsource its oversight to the firms themselves fit squarely in the broader Washington culture of the last eight years under President Bush.

A similar closeness to industry and laissez-faire philosophy has driven a push for deregulation throughout the government, from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency to worker safety and transportation agencies.

Great reporting, but where was this at the time?

This Journal story puts much of the blame for a bank’s collapse on a regulatory patchwork that allowed it to slip through. But it looks more like an example of regulators simply not using their power.

Barry Ritholtz over at The Big Picture dismantles the right-wing talking points on Fannie and Freddie, as well as the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, being to blame for the crisis.

• Did the 1977 legislation, or any other legislation since, require banks to not verify income or payment history of mortgage applicants?

• 50% of subprime loans were made by mortgage service companies not subject comprehensive federal supervision; another 30% were made by banks or thrifts which are not subject to routine supervision or examinations. How was this caused by either CRA or GSEs ?

• What about “No Money Down” Mortgages (0% down payments) ? Were they required by the CRA? Fannie? Freddie?

And he puts the blame where it belongs:

The root legislative cause of the credit crisis was excessive deregulation. From exempting derivatives from regulation (2000 Commodities Futures Modernization Act) to failing to adequately oversee ratings agencies that slapped a triple AAA on junk paper, the pendulum swung too far away from reasonable oversight. By taking the refs off of the field and erroneously expecting market participants could self-regulate, the powers that be in DC gave the players on Wall Street enough rope to hang themselves with — which they promptly did.

Floyd Norris has a nice column comparing some of the crisis proposals to those that exacerbated the savings and loan debacle of the 1980’s. Here he takes on the mark-to-market campaign.

Personally, I think it is foolish for the banks to mount this campaign. It will raise more questions about the value of their assets when many investors — as well as the banks themselves — already doubt the numbers.

But these are the same banks that got into this mess by creating and buying the toxic securities that they now claim are worth more than they will pay for them. Foolish decisions from such institutions should not come as a surprise.

Bethany McLean blames us all for the crisis. Hey, Bethany, read this.

Here’s a good Slate column that compares the bust to the classic (bad) gambling strategy, the Martingale, where you double your losing bet until you finally win.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to the great ahed in the WSJ yesterday. The old-style Journal headline (which alas aren’t on all the page-one stories anymore) should be enough to sell you on it:

Mackerel Economics in Prison Leads to Appreciation for Oily Fillets

Packs of Fish Catch On as Currency, Former Inmates Say; Officials Carp

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.