Opinion

Wall Street protesters: Blame cronyism, not capitalism

Melanie Sturm Investor and Conservative Commentator

I didn’t “occupy Wall Street,” though I spent enough hours working there that a sleeping bag could have come in handy. I can attest to one of the protesters’ claims about Wall Street bankers: While most are good and ethical people, they are supremely money-oriented and, like the bear that sniffed out a Payday in my trash, they’ll take the path of least resistance to find theirs.

However, the profit motive is not a bad impulse, and countries with economic systems that ignore it suffer worse economies. In our system, the accumulation of profits is an important metric of success, which is why Steve Jobs’s pride peaked the day Apple’s market value surpassed Microsoft’s — his business model won.

So unless protesters want to do away with our capitalist system (as some might), blaming Wall Street bankers for ransacking our economy is like shooting the bear that ransacked my garage. Both merely followed their instincts. Rather than rage at Wall Street and demand government have a bigger role in our lives, the protesters should do an about-face and march to Washington, where the misguided policies that undermined our economy were hatched.

That would be the impulse of protesters had they read “Reckless Endangerment,” the bestselling book by Gretchen Morgenson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning business reporter for The New York Times. Morgenson and her co-author Joshua Rosner share the protesters’ outrage. They wrote this book to expose “a crowd of self-interested, politically influential, and arrogant people who have not been held accountable for their actions.”

Contrary to the false narrative that Wall Street led the way in subprime lending, the authors place blame squarely on the government sector. The calamitous (though well-meaning) Homeownership Strategy enacted during the Clinton administration and continued by President Bush required banks to make loans to lower-income borrowers. Additionally, Fannie Mae (the government-sponsored mortgage-finance agency, or GSE) forged partnerships with mortgage originators like Countrywide from whom it bought mortgages, and with Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs, which repackaged and sold them.

According to the authors, “What few have recognized is how the partners in the Clinton program embraced a corrupt corporate model … devised by Fannie Mae.” “Reckless Endangerment” details how “Fannie Mae perfected the art of manipulating lawmakers, eviscerating its regulators and enriching its executives.” It’s the story of “how watchdogs who were supposed to protect the country from financial harm were actually complicit in the actions that finally blew up the American economy.”

The chief villain in this story is Fannie Mae, which capitalized on the political cover provided by affordable housing goals (as well as government ties and generous political donations) to “build itself into the largest and most powerful financial institution in the world.” Essentially, taxpayers unwittingly channeled Fannie billions of dollars a year to finance a campaign of self-promotion and self-protection, enriching Fannie’s executives as well as its political patrons.

Fannie Mae CEOs James Johnson and Franklin Raines each took home nearly $100 million — and Wall Street CEOs are over-paid?

Meanwhile, Wall Street banks were drawn to the mortgage market like a bear to trash, seeing Fannie’s soaring profits, stock price and executive compensation. Aided by credit agencies’ erroneous assumptions that housing values wouldn’t decline, the housing bubble continued to inflate. The few brave enough to criticize these government policies were effectively silenced by well-funded, self-interested and sometimes vicious opposition from the “public-private housing machine.”

When the weakest mortgages began to default in 2007, the housing market crashed along with the financial sector, resulting in the Great Recession from which we’ve yet to recover.

The sad reality is that the riskiest loans absorbed by Fannie Mae (no documentation/no equity) originated after 2005, the year Congress tried and failed to pass legislation that would have curtailed Fannie Mae’s financially destabilizing practices. Hence the financial crisis wasn’t caused by deregulation, as false narratives purport, but by Congress’s failure to regulate Fannie Mae and other GSEs.

You’d think policymakers would have learned from this catastrophe. Yet Morgenson concludes that the so-called Dodd-Frank bill — sponsored by Senator Christopher Dodd and Congressman Barney Frank, “two of the most strident defenders of Fannie Mae” — fails to alleviate future threats to taxpayers. As is the case with most regulation, its primary impact has been to increase the cost of doing business, costs which are usually passed onto consumers.

The income inequality decried by the Occupy Wall Street protesters results from this crony capitalist system that allows policymakers to distribute economic favors to special interests in the form of bailouts, preferable tax treatment and favorable regulations. Conversely, capitalists like Steve Jobs who rely on free markets, private financing, American ingenuity and hard work create more prosperity for more people.

Americans prefer capitalist enterprises like Apple to crony capitalist enterprises like Fannie Mae, whose government-abetted ransacking of the economy is the root cause of Americans’ despair.

Melanie Sturm has 15 years of private equity investment experience, previous to which she specialized in project finance at International Finance Corporation and mergers & acquisitions at Morgan Stanley and Drexel Burnham Lambert. She has an MBA from INSEAD and undergraduate degrees in international relations and economics from Tufts University.