The New York Times takes an in-depth look at the discredited former senator, current UBS banker/lobbyist, and deregulator extraordinaire Phil Gramm’s role in creating the financial crisis.
Gramm talked to the Times but maybe should have pleaded the Fifth—his self-defense is weaker than water:
Mr. Gramm, ever the economics professor, disputes his critics’ analysis of the causes of the upheaval. He asserts that swaps, by enabling companies to insure themselves against defaults, have diminished, not increased, the effects of the declining housing markets.
“This is part of this myth of deregulation,” he said in the interview. “By and large, credit-default swaps have distributed the risks. They didn’t create it. The only reason people have focused on them is that some politicians don’t know a credit-default swap from a turnip.”
Swaps distributed the risks all right. They distributed them so far and wide that nobody knows where they are, which is why no financial institution trusts any other one now.
The Times has some background that I hadn’t read before.
From 1999 to 2001, Congress first considered steps to curb predatory loans — those that typically had high fees, significant prepayment penalties and ballooning monthly payments and were often issued to low-income borrowers. Foreclosures on such loans were on the rise, setting off a wave of personal bankruptcies.
But Mr. Gramm did everything he could to block the measures. In 2000, he refused to have his banking committee consider the proposals, an intervention hailed by the National Association of Mortgage Brokers as a “huge, huge step for us.”
A year later, he objected again when Democrats tried to stop lenders from being able to pursue claims in bankruptcy court against borrowers who had defaulted on predatory loans.
And check this out:
Once again, he succeeded in putting off consideration of lending restrictions. His opposition infuriated consumer advocates. “He wouldn’t listen to reason,” said Margot Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center. “He would not allow himself to be persuaded that the free market would not be working.”
Speaking at a bankers’ conference that month, Mr. Gramm said the problem of predatory loans was not of the banks’ making. Instead, he faulted “predatory borrowers.” The American Banker, a trade publication, later reported that he was greeted “like a conquering hero.”
Of course he was. And good for the Times for pointing this out:
Mr. Gramm, now 66, who declined to discuss his compensation at UBS, picked an opportune moment to move to Wall Street. Major financial institutions, including UBS, were growing, partly as a result of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.
Increasingly, institutions were trading the derivatives instruments that Mr. Gramm had helped escape the scrutiny of regulators. UBS was collecting hundreds of millions of dollars from credit-default swaps.