In Reckless Engagement, the latest book about the financial crisis, co-authors Gretchen Morgenson and Josh Rosner do what many of their high-profile counterparts failed to do: Name names for those responsible for the crisis.
"Instead of it seeming like it was an 'act of god' that couldn't have been prevented, we try to single out some of the people who were crucial at the center in the years leading up the crisis, not just when it struck," says Morgenson, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist with The NY Times.
While familiar culprits like Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Barney Frank are cited in the book, front and center is a name most Americans probably don't know: James Johnson, the former chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae.
Johnson ran Fannie for most of the 1990s and, according to Morgenson and Rosner, was instrumental in expanding the company's size and influence.
"It might seem like he left the scene well before everything started to collapse but what he ended up doing was really building the company up and really imperiling the taxpayers," Morgenson says. "[Johnson was] learning and teaching others how to manipulate Congress and get [Fannie's] regulator to be a 98-pound weakling."
In essence, Morgenson and Rosner view Johnson as the man who wrote the playbook Wall Street would follow in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it scored a series of deregulatory victories.
Fannie Mae also showed Wall Street the path to riches via the securitization of mortgages.
"There's plenty of bad guys here," says Rosner, a partner at Graham Fisher, an independent research firm. "It is [Fannie], it is Congress, it is the regulator. It's the borrower for not taking responsibility for their financial literacy, but they were certainly taken advantage of also."
Wall Street firms and other non-bank mortgage lenders were certainly among those taking advantage of borrowers and the national obsession with home ownership in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"There was a symbiotic relationship" between Wall Street and the GSEs, Rosner says. "Fannie and Freddie were the largest buyers of...subprime securities the street was bundling, packaging and selling themselves."
While the extent of Fannie's and Freddie's role in the crisis is debatable -- no one forced Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to leverage themselves 50 to 1, or AIG to write $3 trillion wroth of credit default swaps — there's no debating the huge costs taxpayers have incurred to rescue the GSEs.
Recalling that Congress "did not deal with [Fannie and Freddie] at all in Dodd-Frank," Morgenson says "job one this year" should be figuring out how to deal with Fannie and Freddie.
But Morgenson has little confidence there will be an intelligent resolution of the situation anytime soon: "It's unfortunate [but] I think we are still very, very far from having an honest discussion about these issues," she says.
- Gretchen Morgenson
- Fannie Mae
- Barney Frank
- Alan Greenspan
- credit default swaps
- Bear Stearns
- Robert Rubin