Apparently, one aspect of American greatness that Donald Trump seeks to recreate is the Great Recession of 2008. He calls for a complete repeal of all the rules that were adopted to govern the financial industry in response to that crisis, restoring to it the freedom to create unlimited debt throughout the economy, with no requirement that serious attention be given to the ability of the indebted to meet their obligations.
By the ’90s, the business of lending had been transformed by securitization. Lenders sold the right to repayment of loans, eliminating their incentive to worry about the borrowers’ solvency. The financial institutions that bought the loans then packaged them into securities and sold pieces of these throughout the economy. Other large institutions then sold insurance against the failure of these securities to pay. The use of derivative forms greatly magnified the amounts of money at stake.
When imprudently granted mortgage loans began to default, so did securities, leading to investor losses, and demands that the insurers make good on their pledges. Faced with a shutdown of the economy caused by the spreading inability of the indebted to repay, and the consequent refusal of anyone to advance funds to anyone else, the Bush administration bailed out multinational insurance company AIG, asked Congress for general bailout authority, and intensified the work that it had begun along with Congress to create rules to prevent a recurrence.
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Modified by the Obama administration and Congress, these rules evolved into the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was designed to prohibit abusive practices, and diminish the negative impact from the misjudgments that are inevitable in a system in which risk-taking is necessary.
Here are some of the most significant changes that will result if Trump succeeds in wiping the law off the books, with real-world reminders of the “great” financial system he would restore.
■ The abolition of the law’s restrictions on granting mortgages to borrowers who are highly unlikely to repay means we will see successors to Countrywide, the mortgage-granting machine that gave us countrywide defaults.
■ The removal of the regulations governing trading in derivatives means Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, and others can return to the unrestricted dissemination throughout the economy of securities composed of bad mortgages, even when, in Goldman’s case, the packager knew enough about the weakness of what it was selling to bet its own money that it would fail to pay off.
■ An end to the rule that participants in derivative trades either do so through exchanges or otherwise demonstrate that they have the funds to meet their obligations to their trading partners brings back the situation that prevailed when three of the five leading investment companies — Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Lehman Brothers — were unable either to pay their own debts or collect what they were owed by others, and AIG told Federal officials it was 170 billion dollars short of meeting its obligations to pay off what it owed those who had bought their credit default swaps (insurance against the failure of mortgage-backed securities).
■ This leads to the next result of a return to the good old days: It will put Federal officials back to having to choose between letting a company go bankrupt — Lehman — with its disruptive effect, or bailing it out — AIG. We repealed the provision that allowed the Fed to advance 170 billion dollars to pay AIG’s debts while letting it stay in business. It replacement — which Trump would repeal, reinstating the unrestricted bailout authority — empowers officials to pay only as much off the debt of the bankrupt entity as is needed to maintain economic stability, but only after putting it out of business, and with a requirement that no money paid out from taxpayers be recouped by assessment on the surviving large financial companies.
■ Trump’s plan to wipe out the provision that purchasers of loans who then package them for resale to bear responsibility for the first 5 percent of the losses that occur means the investing public will once again be wholly dependent on the rating agencies — whose blend of incompetence and dishonesty was chronicled in The Big Short.” (My one objection to the way in which the law has been administrated is the failure to apply this provision to home mortgages, but the power to do so remains in the law if experience calls for it.)
■ The disappearance of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will return to the status quo in which consumers harmed by the abusive behavior of a massive financial institutions could only turn to the federal agencies whose primary mission was to worry about the health of these entities. Had there not been a consumer bureau, Wells Fargo might still be creating false credit card accounts.
I do favor some adjustments to lessen the scrutiny given to small and medium-size banks, although not in the area of consumer protection.
But the major beneficiaries of total repeal are the largest financial entities. I understand why those who believe absolutely in an unregulated market advocate a return to the process that risks repeating 2008. I do not understand how this stance complies with Trump’s promise to vindicate the interests of average working people against those who stand at the top of the economic structure.