Page last updated at 23:07 GMT, Monday, 4 August 2008 00:07 UK

Credit crunch: The blame game

Bear Stearns offices
Bear Stearns is the biggest casualty of the credit crunch

One year after it all started, who is to blame for the global credit crunch?

Different people have different explanations for the parlous state of the world's financial markets.

We asked various experts to tell us who they thought was responsible - and their answers make interesting reading.

BLAME THOSE CLEVER BANKERS

Professor Peter Morici of the University of Maryland has been an adviser to the US Congress and government.

Wizardry. Alchemy. Lead into gold. Are these the playthings only of medieval fools?

The credit crunch tells us perhaps not. The Holy Grail of medieval science was to find the formula to turn lead into gold.

CREDIT CRUNCH: 9 AUGUST 2007
Short-term credit markets freeze up after French bank BNP Paribas suspends three investment funds worth 2bn euros
The bank cited problems in the US sub-prime mortgage sector
During the following months, US and European banks report losses totalling hundreds of billions of dollars
The European Central Bank pumps 95bn euros into the eurozone banking system to ease the sub-prime credit crunch
The US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan take similar steps

And why not? Wealth without work. Everyone was for that, but we modern folks know better. Or do we?

Today, globalisation is driving down profit margins in making everything, from steel to software. If you make a profit, soon someone in China will make it be gone.

But deal making, putting companies together and taking them apart, financing it all, offers great rewards.

Then there are the risks. Making risks evaporate in the morning sun, or the shadows of Wall Street, seems to be where the wealth lies.

Enter our financial engineers. They don't deal in metals or megabytes, they deal in companies that make them.

Combining them, financing them, taking them apart, putting them together again. That's the stuff of modern fortunes.

But what of those risks? The engineers that assemble these deals say all the risks can be laid off on other engineers and their clients.

And by investing in each other, everyone's money will be safe. Profits without risk.

They even thought they could do that with sub-prime mortgages - home loans to people who really couldn't afford them.

They bought each other's debt and erased one another's risk by dealing with one another in a giant chain letter. Until someone realised that what they were trading wasn't worth a hill of beans.

The house of cards has collapsed, but were these guys the fools? Or do true wizards live on Wall Street?

Perhaps they do, because the engineers have escaped with their big paydays and bonuses, and central banks like the Federal Reserve and Bank of England are underwriting the tab to foist the bill on all of us - the taxpayers.

Who are the fools here? Perhaps you and me. The engineers have turned worthless paper into personal fortunes by sticking us with the tab.


BLAME THOSE GREEDY BANKERS

Robert Reich, of the University of California at Berkeley, is a former US labour secretary.

Some greed is necessary to keep capitalism going. But too much greed will bring it down.

Even Adam Smith, the father of economics, understood that capitalism requires some degree of trust.

Yet the greed that's taken over our banking system is undermining the trust of investors, who are necessary if there's going to be any money in the banking system to invest.

Here in America, the authorities are now chasing down investment bankers who recommended their giant hedge funds to investors, even when the bankers knew the funds were about to implode.

Greedy bankers like them have been running a giant con-game. They figure if they can persuade investors to buy something that's actually worth nothing, it might appear to be worth something, which lets them persuade others to buy even more, because - after all - by this time lots of investors are buying it.

And then when the bubble bursts and investors lose their shirts, the bankers keep their fat commissions and a percentage of the upside gains.

But what they've left out of the calculation is the trust needed next time a banker claims something's a good deal.

You see, trust is a precious commodity. And it's eroding fast - which is why the credit crunch continues.

Now, we've been here before: the late 1920s and an anything-goes banking system filled with bankers ready to sell securities to the biggest sucker to come along next.

Wealth then was as concentrated as it is today; debt piling up as high as it is today; greed as rampant as it is today.

And then what happened? The bubble of all bubbles burst on 21 October 1929, ushering in the Great Depression.

Franklin D Roosevelt told Americans they had nothing to fear but fear itself. But the fact was, the financial system had let them down - and they wouldn't trust it again for decades.

Greedy bankers beware.


BLAME GREENSPAN

William Fleckenstein is the author of Greenspan's Bubbles: The Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve. He also manages a hedge fund based in Seattle.

In his latest book, the billionaire investor George Soros makes the case that we are witnessing the end of a 25-year super-bubble.

I certainly agree with his observation and would just note that the time-frame of this super-bubble roughly approximates to the career of Alan Greenspan, who, in my opinion, is responsible for its creation.

It was Alan Greenspan, as chairman of the Federal Reserve, who decided that central banks like his should not try to dampen down the sort of speculation that leads to bubbles in the first place.

To do that might have slowed economic activity, an unacceptable possible outcome.

But then, when the speculative bubble collapsed, after the prices of things like companies no longer represented anything remotely resembling their underlying value, Alan Greenspan just bailed out the financial system.

What began as small bail-outs became big bail-outs, from the year 2000 onwards. Interest rates were taken to the absurdly low level of 1% and held there far too long.

That engendered a housing bubble, which was nourished by the complete abdication of lending standards in the banking system.

Securitisation - swapping hoped-for future cashflow for large amounts of cash now - was spearheaded and championed by Alan Greenspan himself.

Deregulation was thought to be the solution to any and all imbalances, as the market would find any weak institutions and punish them for bad decisions before the whole system became rotten.

The truly sad part is that this outcome was completely foreseeable. It was possible to anticipate a catastrophe of such dimensions, even as the housing boom was still in full swing.

Unfortunately, the very institution that had the regulatory authority to supervise the banking system was the one leading the cheerleading - namely, the Fed, in the form of Alan Greenspan.

In the end, it was sort of like putting the bartender in charge of the breathalyser.


BLAME ESTATE AGENTS

Norma Garcia is senior attorney with the Consumers' Union in the US.

The American dream: having a home of your own can represent security and, in the best-case scenario, a source of building personal wealth.

To guide us to that dream, most home-buyers would be lost without the assistance of a well-qualified realtor, estate agent, property agent - whatever you call them, people who handle the sale of houses.

The home-buying process can be a daunting experience. So, to their credit, good realtors are a real asset for potential home-buyers.

But there are many realtors who were so zealous to get potential home-buyers into homes and earn their commission that they were more concerned about closing the deal than making sure their customers could afford the payments down the line.

No-one really knows how many realtors fall into that category but one thing is for sure: in today's current mortgage foreclosure crisis, there's a sobering lesson for anyone involved in the home ownership business.

It isn't just about getting a buyer into a home - it's also about making sure that that buyer has access to quality credit that isn't going to result in a foreclosure, should the buyer hit one rough bump in the road.

Credit Suisse has predicted that roughly 6.5 million homes will go into foreclosure in the next five years. That's a lot of lost dreams.

Knowing what we know now, realtors on the frontlines of the home-buying process can and should do more to educate their clients about the pitfalls of mortgage financing. Maybe they should recommend more modest properties, too.

That old real estate adage - figure out what you can afford, then stretch a bit - shouldn't be the advice that realtors give today's buyers. Today's message should be: buy something that fits your budget, today.

Realtors ought to be giving their clients advice they can take to the bank, rather than to the poorhouse.




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