The release of the final report(s) of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) brings to mind the story of several blind men trying to describe an elephant. One felt the legs and decided an elephant was like a forest, while another felt the trunk and decided that elephants are like snakes.
Sadly, the FCIC went the same way by releasing three different reports, each of which reflects a certain view of the 2008 financial collapse. The majority report lists many causes of the crash but lays most of the blame on deregulation, greed, and poor judgment by financial institutions, mortgage-related banks, and credit-rating agencies. This mainly ideological view appears to be more a defense of the Dodd–Frank legislation than anything else.
On the other hand, three of the four Republican appointees centered their report on the global conditions that played a significant role in the crisis, such as the glut of capital that put such pressure on interest rates that investors would go to any lengths to get a return on their money. They point out that the crisis hit with equal ferocity in Europe and Asia, which were not subject to U.S. regulatory policy.
The fourth commissioner, Peter Wallison, points to the role of the government-created housing finance entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as other government housing policies, as the major cause of the crisis. Wallison points out that a major flaw in the Dodd–Frank bill is that it largely ignored both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Opinions differ on the extent of their role, but they definitely contributed to the crisis.
There were many causes of the 2008 crash, and their interaction was extremely complex. New financial products were much riskier than most issuers, customers, or rating agencies understood, and it is clear that underwriting standards were poor. However, it stretches credibility to assume that these practices occurred only because of deregulation in the U.S. or because of greed or mismanagement on Wall Street. While there is plenty of blame to spread around, just focusing on the U.S. is shortsighted.
The inability to come to a single conclusion is in large part due to the flawed structure and role of the FCIC. Unlike the Pecora Commission of the 1930s, which investigated the crash of 1929 before Congress acted, the FCIC was designed to report after Congress had already decided on its own to impose additional regulations on the financial services industry. That, combined with a partisan structure where six commissioners were appointed by Democrats and four by Republicans, ensured that its report would be written in response to a political agenda rather than as a neutral study of the situation.
As a result, despite a great deal of honest effort by all of the commissioners and their staffs, the report will have little lasting value. There is still a need for technical and academic experts to do an unbiased study that will guide future generations in how to avoid a repetition of 2008’s events.