Commentary: Three female regulators' warnings about financial crisis were ignored

The Kansas City StarJanuary 30, 2012 

More people in positions of power — government regulators, especially — should have foreseen the subprime financial crisis coming.

They could have saved us from this mess.

But wait …

Three regulators did indeed ring warning bells — at the right time, in the right places, and loud enough for other banking and financial system overseers.

All three were women: Brooksley Born, Sheila Bair and Susan Bies.

All three were ignored.

You may have heard before about the warnings issued by Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the 1990s, and Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from 2006 to 2011.

Bies’ concerns, however, came to light recently when the Federal Reserve released transcripts of its policy meetings from 2006, a full two years before the crisis exploded.

Bies was a central bank board member from 2001 to 2007. Several times in the transcripts she said she was worried about the housing bubble.

Bies warned fellow board members that exotic mortgages — for instance, negative amortization loans in which balances become bigger and not smaller over time — were too dangerous for consumers.

She warned about the Wall Street-created securities backed by risky mortgages.

“I just wonder about the consumer’s ability to absorb shocks,” she said at Fed meeting in May 2006.

“The growing ingenuity in the mortgage sector is making me more nervous as we go forward in this cycle, rather than comforted that we have learned a lesson. Some of the models the banks are using clearly were built in times of falling interest rates and rising housing prices. It is not clear what may happen when either of those trends turns around.”

Later in 2006 she told Fed board members: “A lot of the private mortgages that have been securitized during the past few years really do have much more at risk than investors have been focusing on.”

Bies is an economist and was a former Tennessee banker. But the two most powerful men at the Fed and the Fed staff dismissed her concerns.

That May meeting was Ben Bernanke’s second as chairman of the Fed. He said the cooling off of the housing market was a “healthy thing.” And that “so far, we are seeing, at worst, an orderly decline in the housing market.”

In June 2006, Tim Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said that “we see a pretty healthy adjustment process under way. … The world economy still looks pretty robust to us.”

A Fed staff report said: “We have not seen — and don’t expect — a broad deterioration in mortgage credit quality.”

In December 2006, Bernanke was still blinkered:

“Like most people around the table, I think that a soft landing with growth a bit below potential in the short run looks like the most likely scenario.”

Not long after that statement, home sales began to plummet and delinquent mortgages began to soar.

Before Bies came Bair.

She first became concerned about housing in 2001 as an official at the Treasury Department.

Bair, a native of Independence, Kan., became chairwoman of the FDIC in June 2006 and was soon warning about subprime mortgages. She said she “started hearing that lending standards had deteriorated in subprime. So we started looking into it.”

She apparently was the only actual bank regulator to raise alarms.

Again, she was essentially ignored.

And when it came time to bail out the big banks, Bair demanded tougher terms than other regulators at the Treasury and the Fed. She was so stubborn that, The New York Times reported, she irked Geithner and then Treasury secretary Henry Paulson and was excluded from some bailout negotiations.

Before Bair and Bies came Born.

In the late 1990s she was advocating more transparency and regulation of financial derivatives. In 1998, leading the CFTC, she declared that the unregulated contracts could “pose grave dangers to our economy.”

But derivatives turned out to be the precursor ingredient to the financial explosion a decade later. Without derivatives, a multitrillion-dollar market, the simple collapse of the subprime mortgage market wouldn’t have been so dire.

Born was also known as being stubborn. But she ran up against then Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, Clinton Treasury secretary Robert Rubin and assistant Treasury secretary Larry Summers. The three men ultimately prevailed on Congress to stop her and limit regulation over derivatives.

Born’s role was amply documented in a 2009 PBS Frontline special titled “The Warning.” (It’s still online. Go watch it.)

In one key scene she tells a skeptical questioner at a congressional hearing: “We’re trying to protect the money of the American public.”

In another scene, a hearing is coming to an end and you can see Summers, apparently having bested Born, looking dismissively at her.

There were, of course, others who saw the train wreck coming. But mostly they were outside economists whose warnings were easily stifled.

Born, Bair and Bies — accomplished women, experts in their fields — were in positions to be heeded.

There’s a probable, but uncomfortable, reason why they weren’t.

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