Did the Bankers Do It?

NEW DELHI – Few areas of economic activity in the United States are more politicized than housing finance. Yet the intellectual left has gone to great lengths to absolve regulators, government lending mandates, and agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of any responsibility for the housing boom and the subsequent bust.

The rationale is clear: if these officials, institutions, and policies were held accountable, the reform agenda would necessarily shift from regulating greedy bankers and their bonuses to asking broader questions. Might government mandates contribute to bad behavior by private players? Can regulators be trusted to make appropriate trade-offs between financial stability and mandates that have wide political support? Indeed, can central bankers be truly independent? Unquestioning acceptance of a greater government role in taming markets would, in short, give way to asking whether that role can sometimes be part of the problem.

The left has had an easy task in dominating the debate, partly because the intellectual right’s attempt to place all the blame for the crisis on government is thoroughly implausible. It is far more defensible and correct to argue that everyone – bankers, households, regulators, and politicians – contributed to (and took credit for) the boom while it lasted, only to point fingers at one another when it collapsed.

But bankers’ political tin ear in the aftermath of the crisis – first taking public bailouts and then paying themselves huge bonuses as if nothing had changed – ensured that they got the lion’s share of the blame, with everyone else willing to pose as their unwitting victims. As a result, the public-policy response has been dominated by “the bankers did it” narrative. The risk is that this approach is incomplete – and thus unlikely to be effective.