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Panel produces fractured view of financial crisis

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's report, which hits bookstores Thursday, fails to offer a consensus on what triggered the economic downturn. 'It is the worst of partisan politics,' one critic says.

January 27, 2011|By Nathaniel Popper and Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times
  • Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Chairman Phil Angelides and five other Democrats on the panel produced the most expansive of its three reports. They said the crisis was avoidable and blamed a wide array of players on Wall Street and in Washington.
Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Chairman Phil Angelides and five… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

Reporting from New York and Washington — Bookstores nationwide on Thursday get to crack open boxes filled with volumes containing the conclusions of the federal panel tasked with investigating the financial crisis.

Inspired by the commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks and wrote a bestseller in the process, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission set out to produce the definitive account of the calamity that brought the global economy to its knees.

But after 19 hearings and testimony from 700 witnesses, few on Capitol Hill or Wall Street expect the product to live up to the panel's lofty aim of helping to prevent future crises.

For one thing, instead of writing a single, bipartisan report, the commission split into factions that came up with three conflicting reports.

On top of that, all three narratives deal with events already picked apart by a long list of books as well as congressional hearings.

"This is another set of reports that will likely just collect dust in the bin of history," said Robert Litan, co-director of an effort by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution to conduct their own investigation of the crisis. "It's too bad."

The most expansive of the panel's reports was produced by the six Democrats on the 10-person commission, including its chairman, former California Treasurer Phil Angelides.

Their version is expected to describe the crisis as "avoidable" and to blame a wide array of players on Wall Street and in Washington, including regulatory agencies that bowed to the financial industry's wishes and banks that took on enormous, poorly understood risks.

A 27-page dissenting report by three of the Republican-appointed commissioners offers a strikingly different view, arguing that the cause of the crisis went beyond U.S. regulators and companies.

"It's a story that focuses heavily on economics, focuses on a global credit bubble, a housing bubble contributed to by U.S. policies, but recognizes there were housing bubbles in other countries as well," said Keith Hennessey, one of the GOP appointees and a former top economic aide to President George W. Bush. "What other people in our view get wrong is not when they point out problems in U.S. policy, but when they say problems in U.S. policies are sufficient to explain the crisis."

The fourth Republican-appointed commissioner, Peter Wallison, released his own dissenting opinion, blaming the crisis on the U.S. government's promotion of homeownership via quasi-governmental mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Wallison, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, criticized the panel's work as biased.

"The commission's majority used its extensive statutory investigative authority to seek only the facts that supported its initial assumptions," he wrote.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also has been critical of the panel, asking why it needed an additional $1.8 million last year on top of its allotted $8-million budget. He is considering holding hearings on why the commission failed to reach a consensus.

On Tuesday, Issa and two other House Republicans sent Angelides a second request for documents related to how the panel was run.

The letter said the commission's vote along party lines to extend its December deadline was also a bad sign.

"Such partisanship does not bode well for the production of a thorough, systematic and nonpartisan examination of the failures in both government and the financial markets," they wrote.

The cacophony of voices is a far cry from what the commissioners set out to do at their first meeting in September 2008, when panel member Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office, said, "We must seek nothing short of a bipartisan pursuit of the facts that leads to a nonpartisan statement of an understanding about the roots of this crisis."

The panel's work may help inform government agencies that are writing rules to implement the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul enacted last summer.

But for many in the financial world, any relevance the commission might have had evaporated with the passage of that legislation and the recovery of the stock market.

"Wall Street will say, 'Hey, we're turning the corner. Yesterday's news,' " said Larry Doyle, president of asset manager Greenwich Investment Management.

For the millions of Americans out of work or just trying to recover from the decimation of their retirement accounts, the lack of a unified explanation could prove a bitter pill.

"It's deeply, deeply disappointing," said Barry Ritholtz, the author of "Bailout Nation." "It is the worst of partisan politics."

nathaniel.popper@latimes.com

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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