Another Financial Crisis Is Looming-Here’s Why and How It Will Play Out
By David Dayen, AlterNet
March 26, 2014
So are we on the precipice of another financial crisis, and what will it look like?
To be sure, danger still lurks in the mortgage market. The latest get-rich-quick scheme, with private equity firms buying up foreclosed properties and renting them out, then selling bonds backed by the rental revenue streams (which look suspiciously like the bonds backed by mortgage payments that were a proximate cause of the last crisis), has the potential to blow up. And continued shenanigans with mortgage documents could lead to major headaches. A new court case against Wells Fargo uncovered a bombshell, a step-by-step manual telling attorneys how they can fake foreclosure papers on demand; the fallout could throw into question the true ownership of millions of homes. Even subprime mortgages are in the midst of a comeback, because what could go wrong?
Recent actions from the Federal Reserve suggest that they are thinking about guarding against financial instability, amid concern that microscopic interest rates and expanded balance sheets have fed speculation. In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission recently began looking into leveraged loans that have been packaged into bonds known as collateralized loan obligations, or CLOs. These CLOs are traded privately between buyers and sellers, so regulators cannot discern whether they hide risks, or whether the sellers cheat the buyers on prices. And some of them are “synthetic” CLOs – derivatives that are basically bets on whether the underlying loans will go up or down, without any stake in the loans themselves. Recently, commercial banks have attempted to get CLOs exempt from the Volcker rule, the prohibition on trading with depositor funds. CLO issuance has skyrocketed since this lobbying push, and it could be the next vessel Wall Street uses for their gambling activities.
But whether the SEC will actually enforce securities laws on CLOs, and drive them out of the shadows, remains to be seen. And other examinations of shady derivatives deals and price-fixing, if past history is a guide, will end with cost-of-doing-business settlements instead of true accountability. Meanwhile, we are told that the economy has little to fear from big bank failures. The Federal Reserve recently released results of its stress tests on the 30 biggest banks; it claims that 29 of them would hold up in the event of a deep recession. But the stress tests, designed in conjunction with the banks subjected to them, do not realistically measure the reality of a financial crisis, and if they did, the banks would all fail them.
Ultimately, we don’t yet know exactly where the next financial crisis will emerge. But we do know how the conditions for future crises get set. When law enforcement fails to prosecute Wall Street for prior misdeeds, they give no reason for them to curb their behavior.
Similarly, the size and power of the largest financial institutions, which has only grown since the crisis, virtually guarantees similar outcomes. Congress and the White House have not yet moved to chop these behemoths down to size; as a result, their sprawling corporate structures and inadequate risk controls make them almost unmanageable.