Keep An Eye On This
As much of the content of the traditional media rankles many of us, the editorial decisions should as well. Dozens of potentially game-changing stories go unreported while the Umbrage Brigade on cable talk about what Joe Wilson said about Jimmy Carter or whether Michelle Obama is overstepping her boundaries by talking about health care (I caught that one today). Meanwhile, the biggest financial crisis in 70 years just happened, and even people who consider themselves well-informed don't understand the entire story. The Congress enacted the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (some are calling it the new Pecora Commission, given its similarity to the Depression-era commission of that name led by chief investigator Ferdinand Pecora), headed by former California Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, and they held their first public session yesterday. The meeting was introductory in nature, but Tim Fernholz came away with a few thoughts.
• Given the membership [PDF], I worried that the committee would be beset with partisan bickering and/or clashing ideologies, like the Congressional Oversight Panel. The COP, appointed by Congress to provide oversight of the bank rescues, is regularly undermined by dissents from Representative Jeb Hensarling, whose deeply conservative economic views preclude almost any reasonable discussion about regulation and finance. But though some tensions showed, I though the conservative New Pecora commissioners seemed open-minded; former Bush administration economic official Keith Hennessey and McCain economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin made productive comments, though Peter Wallison, a more doctrinaire conservative than either of the other two, seemed to have his mind made up about the financial crisis, essentially blaming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac right from the outset. He may be the poison pill on this committee.
• Most surprising was Vice-Chairman Bill Thomas, a former Republican Congressman and Committee Chair. Thomas seemed to agree broadly with Chairman Phil Angelides goals of non-partisan fact-finding, and went out of his way to compliment the views of every member of the commission. He even singled out Commissioner Brooksley Born, who strongly advocated regulating derivatives during the Clinton administration, telling her that the crisis would have been much more manageable had her advice been acted on. Later, asked by a reporter if the issue of regulating markets would divide the committee, Thomas stepped forward to say that he thought regulatory reform was inevitable and that making it work correctly was critical. Though it is easy for him to say that now, Thomas' early impressions are much less doctrinaire than had been anticipated.
• One concern: There is no liberal economist on the committee, while there are three conservative economic thinkers in Hennessey, Holtz-Eakin and Wallison. The Democratic appointees have regulatory, legal, political and private business experience, but no specific economic expertise.
• Early in the week, the New Pecora Commission announced the appointment of Thomas Greene as its Executive Director. Greene, a lawyer, has done complex investigatory work both in Washington, D.C. and in California, coordinating anti-trust and securities investigations in a variety of venues. The appointment is critical; recall that the Pecora Commission was named after it's executive director, Ferdinand Pecora, not the members of congress who constituted the actual committee. And more talent is coming: As Greene hung around after the hearing, several different people, including several lawyers, approached him about working for the commission.
The FCIC will hold hearings and issue regular reports between now and December 2010. This needs to be watched. We all have a sense that the banksters turned Wall Street into their private gambling hall and took huge risks, secure in the knowledge that they could get the government to bail them out if things went awry. Currently there have been no prosecutions of the major players in the scandal, no accountability to any degree, and a year later, Wall Street appears to be going back to their same old ways, entirely at our expense. Michael Hirsh believes that this commission offers one last chance to make the record public, and use it as a lever to change the system. He's not optimistic, however. The ideological shadings of the commission and Angelides' wariness of using the subpoena power he's been given worry him (I actually think Angelides can be a lot tougher than Hirsh or anyone gives him credit for). But he offers a glimmer of hope.
Still, Angelides and his team may yet surprise us. It's happened before. The history of "blue ribbon" commissions like this one is rich and storied in Washington; one of them, in 1942, was led by an obscure senator from Missouri who was also seen as a political hack at the time. His name was Harry Truman, and he turned his commission on defense malfeasance into a ticket into the White House and the history books [...]
What we do need, however, is a parade of witnesses who will provide what's been missing so far in this crisis—a prominent outlet for public outrage. In the last nine months, the Obama administration and the grandees in Congress have been designing solutions without much input from the outside, often using experts from Wall Street (especially "Government Sachs"). It's pretty much been a closed system. Even Paul Volcker, considered perhaps the greatest Federal Reserve chairman in history (now that the Alan Greenspan era looks much worse retrospectively), has been all but ignored by the president he is advising. Volcker has been making a series of speeches around the country calling for sensible changes to the structure of Wall Street that the administration and Congress are not yet considering. He wants federally guaranteed bank deposits to be cordoned off from heavy risk-taking and proprietary trading. Volcker wants banks, in other words, to be barred from behaving like hedge funds. "Extensive participation in the impersonal, transaction-oriented capital market does not seem to me an intrinsic part of commercial banking," Volcker told a corporate group Wednesday in Los Angeles. He should be invited to Washington to say the same thing.
I can remember a time when commissions like these, from the Pecora Commission to the Truman Commission to Watergate to Iran-Contra to even the 9-11 Commission, were major public news, followed intensely by the media. You'd think that a similarly designed commission tasked with uncovering the greatest loss of wealth in world history would generated more than a few words on the cable news crawl. But we have to make this important, too. The FCIC may fall into partisan bickering, or it may create some powerful narratives about the criminal enterprise on Wall Street. But none of it will matter if nobody pays any attention.