Who Killed Wall Street?

Perhaps it is futile to look for the single cause without which America's financial system would not have blown up. There were so many contributing factors that this may have been a case of a “perfect storm,” a rare failure that required a large number of stars to be in alignment simultaneously.

CAMBRIDGE – You don’t have to break a sweat to be a finance skeptic these days. So let’s remind ourselves how compelling the logic of the financial innovation that led us to our current predicament seemed not too long ago. 

Who wouldn’t want credit markets to serve the cause of home ownership? So we start by introducing some real competition into the mortgage lending business. We allow non-banks to make home loans and let them offer creative, more affordable mortgages to prospective homeowners not well served by conventional lenders. 

Then we enable these loans to be pooled and packaged into securities that can be sold to investors, reducing risk in the process. We divvy up the stream of payments on these home loans further into tranches of varying risk, compensating holders of the riskier kind with higher interest rates. We then call on credit rating agencies to certify that the less risky of these mortgage-backed securities are safe enough for pension funds and insurance companies to invest in. In case anyone is still nervous, we create derivatives that allow investors to purchase insurance against default by issuers of those securities.       

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  1. haass102_ATTAKENAREAFPGettyImages_iranianleaderimagebehindmissiles Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

    Taking on Tehran

    Richard N. Haass

    Forty years after the revolution that ousted the Shah, Iran’s unique political-religious system and government appears strong enough to withstand US pressure and to ride out the country's current economic difficulties. So how should the US minimize the risks to the region posed by the regime?

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