The dangerous myth we still believe about the Lehman Brothers bust

The central error in the popular post-crisis consensus was the idea that naive believers in the self-policing efficiency of markets led us over the precipice. Greenspan was painted as the high priestof this laissez-fairy-tale delusion, and people seized on a moment when he appeared to plead guilty: Under the pressure of congressional questioning, he confessed to a “flaw” in his pro-market ideology. What Greenspan meant was that all belief systems — whether pro-government or pro-market — are imperfect. But that subtlety was lost. Quoted and requoted without proportion or context, Greenspan’s purported mea culpa threatened to define his legacy.

.. Bestsellers by two Nobel Prize-winning behaviorists — Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler — encouraged people to see the crisis as proof that this new science had been ignored, as did contributions from the sublime storyteller Michael Lewis.

.. Contrary to myth, Greenspan himself never believed that markets were efficient. In his youth, he wrote lucidly about bubbles and crashes and regarded market inefficiencies as so obvious that he sought to exploit them by day trading

.. As Fed chairman years later, Greenspan frequently reminded his colleagues that periods of prosperity could be punctured by “irrational exuberance” in financial markets.

.. political constraints, not intellectual failures, prevented policymakers from curbing the housing mania. Nobody remembers that in 2001 the Greenspan Fed banned the most abusive subprime mortgages, for the good reason that the ban was circumvented. But why was it circumvented? The answer is that the capture of Congress by financial lobbies ensured the balkanization of regulation into an alphabet soup of agencies, many of them underfunded and ineffective.

.. Nonbank mortgage lenders, for example, came under the authority of the Federal Trade Commission, which had no resources to conduct preemptive supervision. Small wonder that the sharp practices in the industry became egregious, or that nonbanks continue to dominate today’s mortgage business.

.. The Greenspan Fed also tried to force more capital into the banks it supervised, but it soon realized that this would drive risk-taking into various “shadow banks” that lay outside its authority

.. Greenspan also pushed for tougher regulation of the Federal National Mortgage Association and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (a.k.a. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), the government-backed mortgage giants, presciently observing that they posed “a systemic risk sometime in the future.” Fannie’s lobbyists hit back with a TV ad warning Congress not to back the Greenspan plan. That buried it.

.. The important lesson of the crisis is not that markets are fallible, which every thoughtful person knew already. It is that essential regulations — the sort that the supposedly anti-regulation Greenspan actually favored — are stymied by fractured government machinery and rapacious lobbies.

.. Even today, the financial system has multiple overseers answerable to multiple congressional committees, because all this multiplying produces extra opportunities for lawmakers to extract campaign contributions.

.. Vast government subsidies still encourage Americans to take big mortgages; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac still operate, despite endless talk of breaking them up. And although post-2008 regulations have ensured that banks are better capitalized, the lobbyists are pushing back. Merely a decade after the Lehman bankruptcy brought the world economy to its knees, the Trump administration is listening to them.

Brett Kavanaugh Has Shown Deep Skepticism of Regulatory State

As an appellate judge in Washington, President Trump’s Supreme Court pick is known for ruling against regulators he sees as having overstepped their bounds

His dozen years on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit have been marked with dozens of votes to roll back rules and regulations. He has often concluded that agencies stretched their power too far and frequently found himself at odds with the Obama administration, including in dissents he wrote opposing net-neutrality rules and greenhouse-gas restrictions.

.. When a divided Supreme Court in 2015 rejected the Obama administration’s rules requiring power plants to cut mercury emissions and other pollutants, the majority opinion by conservative justices drew heavily from Judge Kavanaugh.

.. The high court cited his earlier dissent when he argued that the Environmental Protection Agency had failed to consider the costs of its regulations before moving forward. The EPA, he concluded, had ignored a requirement in the Clear Air Act that the agency determine whether an electric-utility regulation is “appropriate” before imposing it.

.. Too often, he found, judges were giving agency regulators the benefit of the doubt based on a doctrine that instructs judges to give more deference when the meaning of what Congress wrote isn’t precisely clear.That was the case, he thought, when the D.C. Circuit last year reviewed the legality of net-neutrality rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

In a dissenting opinion, he said the FCC didn’t have the authority to classify internet providers as “telecommunications services” and ban them from splitting internet traffic into fast and slow lanes.

.. In a dissenting opinion, he said the FCC didn’t have the authority to classify internet providers as “telecommunications services” and ban them from splitting internet traffic into fast and slow lanes.

.. “He’s not coming with a machete and slashing through agency regulation,” said Mr. Adler, defending the judge’s record. “He’s holding agencies to a slightly higher standard than other judges.”

Morgan Stanley, Goldman Got Help From Fed on Stress Tests

Federal Reserve officials told Goldman Sachs Group Inc. GS -0.72% and Morgan StanleyMS -0.56% that they were about to flunk a portion of the annual stress tests but offered them a deal to avoid an outright fail and continue paying billions to shareholders.

.. regulators told them that to fully pass the test, they would have to cut almost in half the combined $16 billion they had hoped to pay out to shareholders

.. Fed officials gave the banks an unprecedented option: If they agreed to freeze their payouts at recent levels, they would get a “conditional non-objection” grade and avoid the black eye of failure. That meant the banks could pay out a combined $13 billion, or about $5 billion more than what they would have given back to investors if they had decided to retake the test and get a passing grade.

It also will boost a profitability measure that helps determine how much Goldman Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein and Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman are paid.

.. The arrangement is the first of its kind in the eight years of the Fed’s annual tests, and one of the clearest signs to date of a significant shift in the regulatory environment for banks, which have been expecting a gentler approach from Washington ever since the election of President Donald Trump.

New refs, new rules,” consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP wrote in a note.

This round of tests was the first graded by Trump appointee Randal Quarles, a former Wall Street lawyer and private-equity executive who last year became the Fed’s regulatory czar.

.. “This year’s stress test followed the same notification process as in past years—all firms were notified of the results and given the fixed option to reduce their capital payout plans with no negotiations,” a Fed spokesman said.

.. Fed officials said their leniency toward Goldman and Morgan Stanley was due in part to the impact of the 2017 tax law, which reduced the value of certain tax assets held by the banks and meant they entered the crisis scenario with diminished capital reserves

.. The stress tests, arguably the most visible sign of the postcrisis crackdown on Wall Street, are being changed in ways that benefit the industry. The Fed exempted three firms with less than $100 billion of assets from the test this year under the new banking law. Its treatment of Morgan Stanley and Goldman—as well as State Street Corp. , which got a pass although it also failed to clear capital requirements under the stress scenario—showed the Fed taking a more flexible approach to what had been a binary exercise.

“The Fed was very kind,” said Arthur Angulo, a managing director at Promontory Financial Group and a former Fed official. He added the Fed’s exercise of discretion on the quantitative portion of the test was “a potential slippery slope.”

.. The interim director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney, has largely stopped initiating new investigations and wants the consumer-finance regulator to be less antagonistic to the businesses it regulates.

.. If Goldman had been required to rejigger its plan until its capital ratios exceeded the Fed’s minimum, the bank would have been able to seek just over $1 billion in buybacks, instead of the $5 billion that was approved

Don’t Fix Facebook. Replace It.

what we most need now is a new generation of social media platforms that are fundamentally different in their incentives and dedication to protecting user data. Barring a total overhaul of leadership and business model, Facebook will never be that platform.

.. In Facebook’s case, we are not speaking of a few missteps here and there, the misbehavior of a few aberrant employees. The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal, maximizing the harvest of data and human attention. Its promises to investors have demanded an ever-improving ability to spy on and manipulate large populations of people. Facebook, at its core, is a surveillance machine, and to expect that to change is misplaced optimism.

.. If we have learned anything over the last decade, it is that advertising and data-collection models are incompatible with a trustworthy social media network. The conflicts are too formidable, the pressure to amass data and promise everything to advertisers is too strong for even the well-intentioned to resist.

.. the real challenge is gaining a critical mass of users.

.. Facebook, with its 2.2 billion users, will not disappear, and it has a track record of buying or diminishing its rivals (see Instagram and Foursquare).

.. Wikipedia is a nonprofit, and it manages nearly as much traffic as Facebook, on a much smaller budget. An “alt-Facebook” could be started by Wikimedia, or by former Facebook employees, many of whom have congregated at the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit for those looking to change Silicon Valley’s culture.

.. If today’s privacy scandals lead us merely to install Facebook as a regulated monopolist, insulated from competition, we will have failed completely. The world does not need an established church of social media.