The Myth of Irrational Exuberance
The first part of the conventional wisdom began to make its way into public consciousness soon after September 15, 2008, when most people thought of the crisis as a burst housing bubble. Bubble talk naturally leads to visions of “irrational exuberance,” and the notion that home buyers, bankers, and investors had irrationally thought that house prices would keep rising forever quickly took hold.
But in reality, very sober housing experts and economists (including Ben Bernanke) agreed that there was no bubble, and there was nothing “irrational” about this consensus. After all, housing prices had risen steadily since the Depression as the U.S. population grew and its affluence increased. Why shouldn’t people keep buying bigger, more expensive homes? There had never been a significant nationwide housing bubble, and housing speculation in “hot” markets such as Miami and Las Vegas could be quite rationally dismissed as localized. Those who dismissed the bubble may have been wrong--but they had good reasons for their error; there was nothing irrational about it. Likewise for those who participated in the bubble. For instance, Peter Wallison points out that in most states, “no-recourse” laws effectively removed penalties from home buyers and house flippers who walked away from their mortgages if their investments went sour. So there was a legally sanctioned incentive to gamble on rising prices, and it was hardly irrational for people to take advantage of this incentive by buying into the bubble.
Although careful scholars have grouped psychologically established behavioral biases under the term "irrationality," in the present context the term can easily become an emotionally satisfying but non-explanatory explanation for people’s mistakes. In retrospect, housing investments premised on ever-rising prices can be labeled “irrational,” but the label explains nothing about why people actually made their mistakes.
The Myth of Bankers’ Bonuses
Eventually scholars and pundits began to realize that even a burst housing bubble was not enough to have caused the crisis, since what we were experiencing was a banking crisis (albeit one that was triggered by a burst housing bubble). Many banks had invested heavily in triple-A rated tranches of subprime mortgage-backed securities, and when delinquencies and defaults on subprime mortgages began to spike, the price of these tranches began to fall, calling into question the solvency of banks that had invested in them. But since nobody knew which banks had the biggest subprime investments, or how far the value of these investments would eventually fall, the effect of the sudden re-evaluation of their soundness was to trigger interbank panic, a lending freeze, and the recession; or so most scholars now believe.
How can the banks’ investments in subprime mortgage-backed securities be explained? Here, too, "irrationality" could be invoked, since it can be used as an all-purpose tool to "explain" any error. But self-interest, i.e., "greed," is always the most popular explanation among economists—and the general public. So a new idea took root: Far from being irrational, bankers knew how risky these investments were, but made them anyway because they were paid big bonuses for short-term profits.
This “executive compensation” theory of the crisis is now the keystone of the conventional wisdom, having been embraced by President Obama, the leaders of France and Germany, and virtually the entire financial press. But if anyone has evidence for the executive-compensation thesis, they have yet to produce it. It’s a great theory. It “makes sense”—we all know how greedy bankers are! But is it true?
The evidence that has been produced suggests that it is false.
For one thing, bankers were often compensated in stock as well as with bonuses, and the value of this stock was wiped out because of the investments in question. Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers lost $1 billion this way; Sanford Weill of Citigroup lost half that amount. A study by Rüdiger Fahlenbrach and René Stulz  showed that banks with CEOs who held a lot of stock in the bank did worse than banks with CEOs who held less stock, suggesting that the bankers were simply ignorant of the risks their institutions were taking. Journalists’ and insiders’ books about individual banks bear out this hypothesis: At Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, for example, the decision makers did not recognize the risks until it was too late, despite their personal investments in the banks’ stock.
Perhaps the most powerful evidence against the executive-compensation thesis, however, is that 81 percent of the mortgage-backed tranches purchased by banks were rated AAA, and thus produced lower returns than the double-A and lower-rated tranches of the same mortgage-backed securities that were available. Bankers who were indifferent to risk because they were seeking higher return, hence higher bonuses, should have bought the lower-rated tranches universally, but they did so only 19 percent of the time. And most of those purchases were of double-A rather than A, BBB, or lower-rated, more-lucrative tranches.
The Myth that Capitalism Caused the Crisis
Both the myth of irrational exuberance and the myth of bankers’ bonuses have contributed to the notion that the excesses of capitalists—whether irrational excesses or self-interested ones—were the root cause of the crisis. Without the first two myths, however, the “Capitalism Did It” thesis itself begins to look more like a myth than a reality. Obviously capitalists were involved in the crisis—bankers were not government officials. But with irrationality and bonuses out of the way, the question is why bankers bought those triple-A mortgage-backed securities, and the answer may well lie in the regulations promulgated by government officials.
Had bankers been looking for the safety connoted by triple-A ratings, they could have bought Treasurys, which were even safer. If they were looking for yield, they could have bought double-A or lower-rated bonds. And why mortgage-backed bonds? The answer seems to be an obscure rule enacted by the Fed, the FDIC, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Thrift Supervision in 2001: the Recourse Rule, an amendment to the Basel I accord that governed banks' capital minima.
Under the Recourse Rule, an AA- or AAA-rated asset-backed security, such as a mortgage-backed bond, received a 20-percent risk weight, compared to a zero risk weight for cash and a 50-percent risk weight for an individual (unsecuritized) mortgage. This meant that commercial banks could issue mortgages—regardless of how sound the borrowers were—sell them to investment banks to be securitized, and buy them back as part of a mortgage-backed security, in the process freeing up 60 percent of the capital they would have had to hold against individual mortgages. Capital held by a bank is capital not lent out at interest; by reducing their capital holdings, banks could increase their profitability.
To be sure, banks that bought mortgage-backed securities to reduce their capital cushions were, indeed, knowingly increasing their vulnerability if the investments turned out badly. But absent the Recourse Rule, there is no reason that banks seeking a safe way to increase their profitability would have converged on asset-backed securities (rather than Treasurys or triple-A corporate bonds); thus, they would not have been so vulnerable to a burst housing bubble. The Recourse Rule artificially boosted the profitability of a certain type of investment that the Fed, the FDIC, and the other regulators thought was safe.
We know in retrospect that the capitalists who took advantage of the Recourse Rule, such as those at Citibank, were making a mistake. But not all capitalists made this mistake, even though it was costly for them to turn down the higher profits offered by the Recourse Rule. JPMorgan, for instance, recognized the danger and escaped destruction. None of these capitalists were irrational; all were self-interested; yet they had different perceptions of how to pursue their self-interest, based on different perceptions of risk.
In relatively unregulated markets, this diversity of viewpoints is precisely what makes capitalism work. One capitalist thinks that profit can be made, and loss avoided, by pursuing strategy A; another, by pursuing strategy B. These heterogeneous strategies compete with each other, and the better ideas produce profits rather than losses. In a complex world where nobody really knows what will work until it is tried, competition is the only way that people’s endless capacity for error can be checked, and loss is the regrettable but inescapable result.
In the banking industry, however, bankers’ heterogeneous strategies were homogenized (although not entirely) by the Recourse Rule, which loaded the dice in favor of the regulators’ ideas of where risk did and did not lie.
The regulators thought that AA or AAA tranches of asset-backed securities were 60-percent safer than individual mortgages. To be sure, this was not an “irrational” theory, either: The tranching structure created by Moody’s, Standard and Poor, and Fitch had a lot to be said for it, and even the little-known fact that the SEC had effectively conferred oligopoly status on these three rating companies did not guarantee that disaster would follow from placing further official weight on their ratings. But the crucial fact is that however reasonable it seemed at the time, the Recourse Rule imposed a new profitability gradient over the bankers’ calculations, producing the same effect that is intended by all regulations: The regulatory carrot altered the behavior of those being regulated, the better to align it with the regulators’ ideas about what would make for prudent banking. By thus homogenizing the heterogeneous competitive process, the regulators inadvertently made the banking system more vulnerable--if, in fact, the regulators’ theory turned out to be wrong.
If we seek the sources of a systemic failure, a logical place to look is among the legal rules that govern the system as a whole. Unfortunately, being legal mandates, these rules--unlike the different strategies pursued by competing capitalists--aren't subjected to a competitive process. So if they are based on mistaken ideas, we all suffer the consequences. That turned out to be the case with the Recourse Rule.
Contrary to popular belief, then, the crisis of 2008 is best described as a crisis of regulation—not a crisis of capitalism.
--Jeffrey Friedman, Editor, Critical Review
 Although judging from his recent New York Times Magazine article, Paul Krugman has not yet realized this. See my earlier post on this blog, "Is Macroeconomics Relevant?"
 "Bank CEO Incentives and the Credit Crisis." Social Science Research Network.
 The best of these is William D. Cohan’s House of Cards, which shows that the chief executives and subordinate players at Bear Stearns had full faith in the triple-A ratings of the subprime securities in which they had invested. Lawrence G. McDonald and Patrick Robinson’s A Colossal Failure of Common Sense, about Lehman Brothers, inadvertently makes the same point, despite the authors’ conviction that “common sense” should have revealed to the decision makers that they were mistaken. Gillian Tett’s Fools’ Gold, conversely, shows that at JPMorganChase, Jamie Dimon and his subordinates saw great risk in mortgage-backed securities and largely avoided them.
Evidence from the Cohan and Tett books is assembled in my “A Crisis of Politics, Not Economics: Complexity, Ignorance, and Policy Failure,” Critical Review 21(2-3): 127-84, available online.
 We won't know with any certainty, however, that bankers did buy these securities because of the Recourse Rule until somebody actually asks them, in confidence. This research is being undertaken by Wladimir Kraus of the University of Turin.
 Lawrence J. White, "The Credit-Rating Agencies and the Subprime Debacle." Critical Review 21(2-3): 389-99. (See http://www.criticalreview.com/crf/current_issue.html.)