Testimony of Robert Kuttner
Before the Committee on Financial Services
Rep. Barney Frank, Chairman
U.S. House of Representatives
October 2, 2007
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee:
Thank you for this opportunity. My name is Robert Kuttner. I am an economics and financial journalist, author of several books about the economy, co-editor of The American Prospect, and former investigator for the Senate Banking Committee. I have a book appearing in a few weeks (The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity) that addresses the systemic risks of financial innovation coupled with deregulation and the moral hazard of periodic bailouts.
Although the particulars are different, my reading of financial history suggests that the abuses and risks are all too similar and enduring. When you strip them down to their essence, they are variations on a few hardy perennials -- excessive leveraging, misrepresentation, insider conflicts of interest, non-transparency, and the triumph of engineered euphoria over evidence.
The most basic and alarming parallel is the creation of asset bubbles, in which the purveyors of securities use very high leverage; the securities are sold to the public or to specialized funds with underlying collateral of uncertain value; and financial middlemen extract exorbitant returns at the expense of the real economy. This was the essence of the abuse of public utilities stock pyramids in the 1920s, where multi-layered holding companies allowed securities to be watered down, to the point where the real collateral was worth just a few cents on the dollar, and returns were diverted from operating companies and ratepayers. This only became exposed when the bubble burst. As Warren Buffett famously put it, you never know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out.
A second parallel is what today we would call securitization of credit. Some people think this is a recent innovation, but in fact it was the core technique that made possible the dangerous practices of the 1920. Banks would originate and repackage highly speculative loans, market them as securities through their retail networks, using the prestigious brand name of the bank -- e.g. Morgan or Chase -- as a proxy for the soundness of the security. It was this practice, and the ensuing collapse when so much of the paper went bad, that led Congress to enact the Glass-Steagall Act, requiring bankers to decide either to be commercial banks -- part of the monetary system, closely supervised and subject to reserve requirements, given deposit insurance, and access to the Fed's discount window; or investment banks that were not government guaranteed, but that were soon subjected to an extensive disclosure regime under the SEC.
Since repeal of Glass Steagall in 1999, after more than a decade of de facto inroads, super-banks have been able to re-enact the same kinds of structural conflicts of interest that were endemic in the 1920s -- lending to speculators, packaging and securitizing credits and then selling them off, wholesale or retail, and extracting fees at every step along the way. And, much of this paper is even more opaque to bank examiners than its counterparts were in the 1920s. Much of it isn't paper at all, and the whole process is supercharged by computers and automated formulas. An independent source of instability is that while these credit derivatives are said to increase liquidity and serve as shock absorbers, in fact their bets are often in the same direction -- assuming perpetually rising asset prices -- so in a credit crisis they can act as net de-stabilizers.
A third parallel is the excessive use of leverage. In the 1920s, not only were there pervasive stock-watering schemes, but there was no limit on margin. If you thought the market was just going up forever, you could borrow most of the cost of your investment, via loans conveniently provided by your stockbroker. It worked well on the upside. When it didn't work so well on the downside, Congress subsequently imposed margin limits. But anybody who knows anything about derivatives or hedge funds knows that margin limits are for little people. High rollers, with credit derivatives, can use leverage at ratios of ten to one, or a hundred to one, limited only by their self confidence and taste for risk. Private equity, which might be better named private debt, gets its astronomically high rate of return on equity capital, through the use of borrowed money. The equity is fairly small. As in the 1920s, the game continues only as long as asset prices continue to inflate; and all the leverage contributes to the asset inflation, conveniently creating higher priced collateral against which to borrow even more money.
The fourth parallel is the corruption of the gatekeepers. In the 1920s, the corrupted insiders were brokers running stock pools and bankers as purveyors of watered stock. 1990s, it was accountants, auditors and stock analysts, who were supposedly agents of investors, but who turned out to be confederates of corporate executives. You can give this an antiseptic academic term and call it a failure of agency, but a better phrase is conflicts of interest. In this decade, it remains to be seen whether the bond rating agencies were corrupted by conflicts of interest, or merely incompetent. The core structural conflict is that the rating agencies are paid by the firms that issue the bonds. Who gets the business -- the rating agencies with tough standards or generous ones? Are ratings for sale? And what, really, is the technical basis for their ratings? All of this is opaque, and unregulated, and only now being investigated by Congress and the SEC.
Yet another parallel is the failure of regulation to keep up with financial innovation that is either far too risky to justify the benefit to the real economy, or just plain corrupt, or both. In the 1920s, many of these securities were utterly opaque. Ferdinand Pecora, in his 1939 memoirs describing the pyramid schemes of public utility holding companies, the most notorious of which was controlled by the Insull family, opined that the pyramid structure was not even fully understood by Mr. Insull. The same could be said of many of today's derivatives on which technical traders make their fortunes.
A last parallel is ideological -- the nearly universal conviction, 80 years ago and today, that markets are so perfectly self-regulating that government's main job is to protect property rights, and otherwise just get out of the way.
One last parallel: I am chilled, as I'm sure you are, every time I hear a high public official or a Wall Street eminence utter the reassuring words, "The economic fundamentals are sound." Those same words were used by President Hoover and the captains of finance, in the deepening chill of the winter of 1929-1930. They didn't restore confidence, or revive the asset bubbles.
The fact is that the economic fundamentals are sound -- if you look at the real economy of factories and farms, and internet entrepreneurs, and retailing innovation and scientific research laboratories. It is the financial economy that is dangerously unsound. And as every student of economic history knows, depressions, ever since the South Sea bubble, originate in excesses in the financial economy, and go on to ruin the real economy.
That is a lot of parallels to think about; and they are alarming parallels at that.