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James K. Galbraith: Why the 'Experts' Failed to See How Financial Fraud Collapsed the Economy

Galbraith to senators: "I write to you from a disgraced profession. Economic theory ... failed miserably to understand the forces behind the financial crisis."
 
 
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Editor's Note: The following is the text of a James K. Galbraith's written statement to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee delivered this May.

Chairman Specter, Ranking Member Graham, Members of the Subcommittee, as a former member of the congressional staff it is a pleasure to submit this statement for your record.

I write to you from a disgraced profession. Economic theory, as widely taught since the 1980s, failed miserably to understand the forces behind the financial crisis. Concepts including "rational expectations," "market discipline," and the "efficient markets hypothesis" led economists to argue that speculation would stabilize prices, that sellers would act to protect their reputations, that caveat emptor could be relied on, and that widespread fraud therefore could not occur. Not all economists believed this – but most did.

Thus the study of financial fraud received little attention. Practically no research institutes exist; collaboration between economists and criminologists is rare; in the leading departments there are few specialists and very few students. Economists have soft- pedaled the role of fraud in every crisis they examined, including the Savings & Loan debacle, the Russian transition, the Asian meltdown and the dot.com bubble. They continue to do so now. At a conference sponsored by the Levy Economics Institute in New York on April 17, the closest a former Under Secretary of the Treasury, Peter Fisher, got to this question was to use the word "naughtiness." This was on the day that the SEC charged Goldman Sachs with fraud.

There are exceptions. A famous 1993 article entitled "Looting: Bankruptcy for Profit," by George Akerlof and Paul Romer, drew exceptionally on the experience of regulators who understood fraud. The criminologist-economist William K. Black of the University of Missouri-Kansas City is our leading systematic analyst of the relationship between financial crime and financial crisis. Black points out that accounting fraud is a sure thing when you can control the institution engaging in it: "the best way to rob a bank is to own one." The experience of the Savings and Loan crisis was of businesses taken over for the explicit purpose of stripping them, of bleeding them dry. This was established in court: there were over one thousand felony convictions in the wake of that debacle. Other useful chronicles of modern financial fraud include James Stewart's Den of Thieves on the Boesky-Milken era and Kurt Eichenwald's Conspiracy of Fools, on the Enron scandal. Yet a large gap between this history and formal analysis remains.

Formal analysis tells us that control frauds follow certain patterns. They grow rapidly, reporting high profitability, certified by top accounting firms. They pay exceedingly well. At the same time, they radically lower standards, building new businesses in markets previously considered too risky for honest business. In the financial sector, this takes the form of relaxed – no, gutted – underwriting, combined with the capacity to pass the bad penny to the greater fool. In California in the 1980s, Charles Keating realized that an S&L charter was a "license to steal." In the 2000s, sub-prime mortgage origination was much the same thing. Given a license to steal, thieves get busy. And because their performance seems so good, they quickly come to dominate their markets; the bad players driving out the good.

The complexity of the mortgage finance sector before the crisis highlights another characteristic marker of fraud. In the system that developed, the original mortgage documents lay buried – where they remain – in the records of the loan originators, many of them since defunct or taken over. Those records, if examined, would reveal the extent of missing documentation, of abusive practices, and of fraud. So far, we have only very limited evidence on this, notably a 2007 Fitch Ratings study of a very small sample of highly-rated RMBS, which found "fraud, abuse or missing documentation in virtually every file." An efforts a year ago by Representative Doggett to persuade Secretary Geithner to examine and report thoroughly on the extent of fraud in the underlying mortgage records received an epic run-around.

 
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