Saturday, October 24, 2009

Frontline's "The Warning" explains the roots of the financial crisis

PBS's brilliant Frontline really needs to be commended for its work in exposing the causes of the financial crisis. In a time when we can question the motivations of many in the news media, Frontline is not pulling any punches and is clearly party-neutral with respect to identifying the culprits in this calamity.

This week's program, "The Warning," chronicles the efforts of Brooksley Born, then the new head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), to gain approval in the late 1990s to regulate credit default swaps and other types of complex derivatives that were largely responsible for the recent financial system meltdown. Her efforts were thwarted, however, due to heavy opposition from Clinton's triad of senior financial advisors: Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, his Deputy Secretary, Larry Summers, and Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan.

Thanks to documentaries such this, it becomes painfully clearer all the time that we simply don't learn from our mistakes. Even though Ms. Born's concerns were proven to be valid during the very time that Congress was holding hearings on her powers -- thanks to the trillion-dollar meltdown of Long-Term Capital Management, the then-darling of the hedge fund industry -- the CFTC's regulatory authority was never expanded, and now we all know the consequences. Making matters worse, Obama has put virtually the same team that opposed Ms. Born into powerful positions in his own administration. Is there any wonder why more than a year has passed since the meltdown and no financial reforms have been implemented?

Here's a little additional background to keep in mind as you watch the episode:

  1. Prior to becoming Sec'y of the Treasury, Robert Rubin was the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Hank Paulson, Bush's last Treasury Secretary, was also the former CEO of Goldman Sachs. Goldman's power and influence in Washington are extensive! Predictably, Goldman Sachs was the largest contributor to the Obama campaign, and continues to be the most blatantly opportunistic firm on Wall Street with respect to taking advantage of the absence of regulatory reform.
  2. Two of Rubin's disciples, Tim Geithner and Gary Gensler (also ex-Goldman), are now, respectively, Secretary of the Treasury and head of the CFTC, which, again, is the agency that should be regulating derivatives, but isn't.
  3. Rubin moved on from the Treasury to Citigroup, which was one of the sickest of the sick in the meltdown, with the result being the U.S. government supplying $100 billion in emergency aid and taking a 34% equity stake.
  4. Following Clinton's final term, Summers moved on to the presidency of Harvard, where he was embroiled in one controversy after another. He was ultimately ousted by the faculty through a vote of no confidence. Too bad they didn't act sooner, though, as Summers' recommendations regarding investments in derivatives cost the Harvard endowment over $1 billion.
  5. Summers made over $5 million last year from Wall Street connections, supposedly for doing speaking engagements and consulting approximately one day a week. He is now Obama's senior financial advisor, and frequent mouthpiece on financial policy. (Follow my "Larry Summers" link on the right to read some of my additional thoughts about Summers).
  6. Greenspan ultimately retired, with his reputation now in tatters. He admitted this year before Congress that many of his most fundamental beliefs concerning regulation and the self-correcting powers of the markets, upon which his key decisions as Fed chief were based, were simply wrong.

Watch "The Warning" and draw your own conclusions. I'm sure you can probably guess, however, how I feel about our current president surrounding himself with a cast of characters who were so toxic to our way of life, and who seem to be in no particular hurry to put fixes in place.

Also outstanding is this video timelime of the events that set the stage for the financial crisis. Again, big kudos to Frontline.

Click here for Frontline's timeline.