RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was created by Congress to answer the question what caused the financial crisis. Yesterday, it released its answer -or rather, its answers. The commission released not one, not two, but three separate reports. The six Democrats on the commission came out with one report. Three of the commissions four Republicans issued a second, dissenting report. And one Republican came out with a report all his own.
Planet Moneys Alex Blumberg says the main majority report and the main minority report differ more in style than substance.
ALEX BLUMBERG: First, the statistics. The report of the Democratic majority: over 500 pages long. Number of footnotes: 6,711. The Republican minority report: just 26 pages long. Number of footnotes: nine. Both reports, of course, seek to explain the causes of the financial crisis, which plunged the world into recession, but the majority report reads a lot like a book, and a bit of a potboiler at that.
The commission conducted hundreds of hours of interviews, with industry insiders, policymakers, whistleblowers and regulators. And the pages of the majority report are strewn with quotes from these interviews - foreboding, eye-popping quotes. A veteran banker at Citigroup says that despite his warnings, his firm continued to loosen its mortgage lending standards, and quote, joined the other lemmings headed for the cliff.
Some sections of the report are downright cinematic. An upscale homebuilder in Bakersfield, California named Warren Peterson describes the exact day he realized that the housing bubble had popped. Normally, he told the commission, real estate agents would be lined up outside his office when he arrived at work, vying to buy the homes he built. But one Saturday in November 2005, quote, he was at the sales office and noticed that not a single purchaser had entered the building. He called a friend, also in the home-building business, who said hed noticed the same thing, and asked him what he thought about it. Its over, his friend told Peterson. End quote. End chapter.
The minority report dismisses these flourishes, writing quote, the majoritys 550-page report is more an account of bad events than a focused explanation of what happened and why. But even the minority, in their slim policy brief, gets in some dramatic moments. The CEOs of Wall Streets most troubled institutions had testified before the commission, and they all made essentially the same argument, we didnt do anything wrong, our firms were fine, if the market hadnt panicked and gone crazy, we wouldnt have needed a government rescue.
The Republican commissioners essentially smack this argument down, in firm, but wonkish, language. Each CEO, they write, was quote, unwilling to admit that his firm was insolvent or nearly so. In each case, the CEOs claims were highly unpersuasive. End quote.
And yet despite their differences in tone, the reports agree on a lot. They both point to the proliferation of exotic mortgages, the failures of regulators, the incompetence of Wall Street managers.
Why come out with these two separate versions? A lot of it comes down to one sentence in the majority report. A sentence that appears in the very beginning, on page 17 of the introduction, where the majority says quote, we conclude this financial crisis was avoidable,' and quote, the result of human action and inaction.
Mr. KEITH HENNESSEY (Commissioner, Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission): I think that is, if not the key difference, is probably one of just a very small number.
BLUMBERG: This is Keith Hennessey, one of the three Republican authors of the dissenting report. He says, its just too simple to say in hindsight, if people would have just behaved differently, this crisis wouldnt have happened.
Mr. HENNESSEY: I think that the crisis was certainly not foreseen and I dont know that it was foreseeable. And given that I dont know that it was avoidable, right, then I dont know that it was avoidable. No.
BLUMBERG: I think its not un-trivial to say, that is a very frustrating answer. You know what I mean?
Mr. HENNESSEY: And its frustrating to me. Look. I had to help tell this story. I wanted more than anything to be able to tell a clear story that explains very precisely, you know, heres what we couldve foreseen and heres what we couldnt. But this is historic analysis as much as anything. And its very difficult to draw those conclusions.
BLUMBERG: Fortunately, you can draw your own conclusions now. All three reports are available for download, free, at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission website, or in book form at bookstores all over the country and online.
I'm Alex Bloomberg, NPR News.