Find the Cause, Find the Cure to Financial Crisis

Posted March 11, 2009 at 2:34pm

Millions of hard-working Americans who played by the rules have lost their homes, their jobs, their savings and their health care. These Americans stand in stark contrast to the irresponsible regulators and Wall Street executives who make a mockery of the American taxpayer and their own shareholders with billions of dollars of undeserved bonuses and personal luxuries. Shareholders and taxpayers want someone to level with them about how we got here and how we will get back out.[IMGCAP(1)]

This September, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked Congress and American taxpayers to invest staggering amounts of money to shore up the financial system. Most believed it was critical to stabilizing the financial system. The American people remain skeptical.

If necessity requires us to open the federal coffers to Wall Street any further, we must determine the exact causes of this economic meltdown. We owe at least that much to the 3.6 million Americans who have lost their jobs in the past year.

We need a commission that looks back, not just at the last eight years, but to the last 28 years of regulation and legislation that led to this crisis. The Bush administration has left our economy in a cavernous hole and our climb out will be difficult.

This is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But, we are not on entirely unfamiliar terrain. Since the early 1980s, the American economy has suffered through the bursting of three economic bubbles: two real estate and one high-tech. At the bottom of each bubble we had the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. So far we have failed to do so.

We would be painfully remiss if we don’t learn the lessons of this situation. We must keep future generations — our children and grandchildren — from repeating our mistakes. Journalists, public officials and most importantly the American people have all asked, “How did we get here?— We must find an answer.

Our predecessors struggled with the same question after the stock market crash of 1929. As the eminent financial historian Ron Chernow has written, three years into the Great Depression, Congress formed a panel of experts to investigate the irresponsible and unethical behavior that had brought on the financial collapse. The panel, eventually known as the Pecora Commission after its final chief counsel, Ferdinand Pecora, called upon powerful members of the financial community to testify.

Pecora wrote in his memoir: “Had there been full disclosure of what was being done in furtherance of these schemes, they could not long have survived the fierce light of publicity and criticism. Legal chicanery and pitch darkness were the banker’s stoutest allies.— The commission went on to uncover the full range of abusive practices occurring inside the banks and laid the groundwork for a strong regulatory structure.

Unfortunately, 75 years later, bankers, traders and corporate executives have managed to outsmart that regulation, or the regulators were asleep at the switch. The structure is now outdated, full of holes and blind spots. So we must begin again where Pecora did, shedding “fierce light— on today’s schemes so we can build a modern regulatory framework that first and foremost protects working Americans.

Rather than repeating the devastation of the Great Depression, we should learn from the nation’s recovery. That means not waiting for three years to pass before we begin our efforts. I therefore propose the creation of a new panel of experts to investigate and report back to Congress on the root causes of this economic crisis.

This panel would examine the legislative and regulatory environment that allowed our financial sector to become overrun with questionable behavior. And it would help build a framework under which America’s new financial leaders could excel. In the end, the goal is to deliver not just a report but an “investor’s bill of rights— to protect Americans’ savings, 401(k)s and pension plans.

There are men and women of talent, integrity and goodwill on Wall Street. There are those who are willing and able to fill the shoes of Pecora.

Rep. John Larson (Conn.) is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.