Senseless Panic Book Review

senseless panic
Bill Isaac, former chair of the FDIC during the Savings & Loan Crisis and bail out critic, has written a new book, Senseless Panic: How Washington Failed America. If you want to read a definitive forensic accounting of the 1980's Savings and Loan crisis, this is the one to get.

The book is loaded with details, from someone who personally was involved in the past financial crisis. In fact Isaac lead the charge to try to stop the TARP bail out. The book is loaded with real world details yet written in a short but sweet, cut to the chase style. Take this examination of Tim Geithner's phone logs as an example, where you too will raise an eyebrow:

Telephone logs of New York Fed President Geithner subpoenaed by Congress reveal that from September 14, 2008 to November 4, 2008 (election day), Geithner had 185 telephone conversations with Secretary Paulson and 102 conversations with Dan Jester, formerly a close associate of Paulson's at Goldman Sachs, who apparently had an informal very active consulting role at Treasury during the crisis of 2008. During this same period, the phone logs show that Geithner had just 107 conversations with his boss, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. In contrast, I recall speaking with Treasury Secretary Regan about bank failures maybe 10 times during my years heading the FDIC during the banking crisis of the 1980s, while I was in continuous contact with Fed Chairman Paul Volcker.

Curiously, the logs show that Mr. Geithner spoke with then Congressman Rahm Emanuel (now chief of staff to President Obama) nine times during this period. Emanuel was not in the leadership of the House--Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, appears on the log only once. Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee appears twice, while Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi does not appear at all. Moreover, according to the phone logs, Geithner spoke 21 times with Larry Summers during this period. Summers, currently President Obama's top economic advisor and Treasury Secretary late in the Clinton Administration, had no position in government during 2008. An obvious question is: What were the calls to Emanuel and Summers about?

Including the conversations with Paulson and Jester, the Geithner phone logs reveal that he had nearly 450 telephone conservations--about 10 per day--from September 14, 2008, to November4, 2008, with individuals that I can identify as being affiliated or formerly affiliated with Goldman Sachs.

Geithner had more than 200 additional conversations during this period with the leaders of other major financial institutions.

Someone who has been there, done that, recognizes a rigged game just from the behavior during the height of the crisis.

That's why you should read this book.

Many of us lowly peanut gallery participants were there, commenting minute by minute when the TARP $700 billion bail out happened. Isaac, after the we must do this immediately or the global economy goes down TARP bail out was passed, notes the reasons given the American people as well as Congress, for such large sums of money, were thrown out the window and a host of other actions replaced them.

Immediately after the legislation was enacted, Treasury decided that the plan to purchase toxic assets was not feasible and instead invested in the capital of banks, something the FDIC had authority to do without the legislation. To make matters worse, several of the initial nine recipients of the capital were ordered to take it against their wishes. Hundreds of other banks took the money because they thought it was a good deal or because their regulators pressured them to accept the capital "just in case." On top of all that, Secretary Paulson used the TARP money to bail out two auto companies after Congress considered and refused to pass direct legislation to do so. I am still trying to figure out where financial Armageddon fits in this picture!

Isaac also doesn't believe TARP did much to stabilize the financial system, despite the continual press claiming it did. Instead he believes what worked was:

  • Enhanced guarantees for deposits and bank debt by the FDIC
  • FDIC handling of Wachovia, Citibank that did not expose creditors to losses
  • Federal Reserve Liquidity Programs
  • SEC short seller regulations
  • SEC and FASB "backing off" of mark-to-market accounting

Isaac notes a huge mistake was giving the TARP money to the Banksters and not the smaller, regional and community banks. I think the fact small business credit dried up and we have the never ending bank failure Friday is evidence of Isaac's point. He also blasts the entire Financial Armageddon propaganda and shows that alone caused the entire U.S. economy to flat line while millions of Americans lost their jobs.

Isaac does put part of the blame on Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac, but not in the method being used as a political tool by Republicans at the moment. He calls to reinstate of Glass-Steagall, which of course was defeated. Even a continually watered down version called the Volcker Rule, was thrown out in the Senate, mainly because the banking lobbyists insisted on it. Gotta love how our Congress continually acts in the national interest [sic]. Issac lists many common sense and proved solutions to a problem that is now just waiting for the next crisis because Congress and two administrations failed to act.

Isaac also rips mark-to-market accounting, almost obsessionally, yet doesn't seem to address the dark side and how mark-to-market came about, namely Enron and other accounting scandals. He gives derivatives almost a back seat, but does show how market-to-market accounting enabled more mortgage securitizations as well.

That said, this is an insider's account of the S&L crisis as well as the financial crisis from an outsider's perspective. It's real world problems and actions to immediate banking failures. Whether you agree with everything Isaac concludes or not, it's clear he was in the middle of the battle and if in charge, assuredly would not have given Goldman Sachs 100% payout on AIG CDSes!

Another reason to read this book is Isaac seems to give a rats ass about the national interest. It's clearly not partisan, more what he believes really works and his case presented in a passionate proclamation as some one who plain cares what happens to the United States financially and economically.

You should buy this book just for the S&L crisis financial history alone. Here is someone who has been there, done that and was he really asked for help, by this administration and Congressional leaders, this time around?   Nope, like the rest of the experts who knew what they are talking about. Even former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker was marginalized when it came to reform. What was that about history repeating itself when it's lessons are ignored?



Isaac is one of the good

Isaac is one of the good guys, but I would point out that the bank failures have not significantly escalated in 2010 from 2009, but not for the reasons given by the TARPsters:

The massive liquidity boost shoved into the banking system via effectively free Fed borrowing led to the formation of a number of investment pools which in turn have been buying up failing banks like mad.

Some examples of these pools:

Community and Southern Bank
Premier Bank

These 3 are actually backed by investment pools - and have purchased 11 failed banks in 2010 (out of 157 total).

It is unknown to me just how many others exist, nor how many banks did not failed due to acquisition and partial recapitalization.

Sterling bank in particular is an example of one which should have failed but did not. Others included Flagstar and South Financial.