Financial Crisis Panel: Bank Meltdown Could've Been Avoided

In a report undercut by partisan disagreements, the panel responsible for investigating the root of the financial crisis declared Thursday that the meltdown could have been avoided if not for irresponsible Wall Street executives, excess borrowing in the housing market and "widespread failures" in regulation.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in its final report on the 2008 collapse, assigned blame to both the Bush and Clinton administrations, as well as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, his predecessor Alan Greenspan, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. It criticized bankers who got rich off risky investments and regulators who let the toxic assets build up. The deals grew so complex that bank executives and regulators did not understand them, the report found, and banks discouraged aggressive oversight of their activities, saying the government's interference would stifle financial innovation.

But the findings released Thursday were supported on a strictly party-line vote, signaling the document will not go down in posterity as the definitive account of the crisis. The six Democrats on the panel supported the conclusions, while the four Republicans dissented.

Three of the dissenting members wrote in a Wall Street Journal column Thursday that it is "dangerous" to weave "simple narratives" about the causes of the crisis, suggesting that could lead to "mistaken policies."

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office; former GOP Rep. Bill Thomas; and former White House National Economic Council Director Keith Hennessey outlined a combination of 10 different factors they claim led to the collapse. They pointed to the housing bubble; poor regulation in the mortgage market combined with the rise of nontraditional mortgages; risky mortgage-linked bets on Wall Street leading to severe overexposure; and the general sense of financial panic that spread like contagion after the successive collapse of big firms in September 2008.

Was government support of housing programs to blame? Yes, they said. Were greedy, reckless Wall Street types at fault? Yes, they said.

"But it is dangerous to conclude that the crisis would have been avoided if only we had regulated everything a lot more, had fewer housing subsidies and had more responsible bankers," they wrote.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also hammered the commission in a statement released Thursday, calling the report a "missed opportunity" for a nonpartisan investigation.

"The failure of this commission to do its job is more bad news for workers and businesses who depend on robust, well-regulated, world-leading capital markets to fund growth and job creation," said David Hirschmann, president of the Chamber's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness.

He also criticized the panel for pledging to post "raw materials" from their investigation, calling the move "an astounding abuse of process that would effectively create a government-sanctioned WikiLeaks."

The committee's conclusions contradict a parade of witnesses in the panel's hearings who said the crisis couldn't have been avoided or prevented. Bernanke and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein were among those asserting that defense.

But commission Chairman Phil Angelides suggested it would have been irresponsible for members to throw up their hands and determine the crisis was inevitable.

"There were warning signs," he said in a statement. "The greatest tragedy would be to accept the refrain that no one could have seen this coming and thus nothing could have been done. If we accept this notion, it will happen again."

The report details numerous warning signs that were ignored, among them: an explosion in risky subprime mortgage lending, an unsustainable rise in housing prices, widespread reports of unscrupulous lending practices, steep increases in homeowners' mortgage debt and a spike in Wall Street firms' trading activities, especially in high-risk financial products.

"A combination of excessive borrowing, risky investments and lack of transparency put the financial system on a collision course with crisis," the report said.

The commission also singles out decisions by regulators who believed the industry could police itself, the report says.

The commission interviewed more than 700 witnesses for its study and held 19 days of public hearings.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.