The Secret Goldman Sachs Tapes

Bloomberg View:

Probably most people would agree that the people paid by the U.S. government to regulate Wall Street have had their difficulties. Most people would probably also agree on two reasons those difficulties seem only to be growing: an ever-more complex financial system that regulators must have explained to them by the financiers who create it, and the ever-more common practice among regulators of leaving their government jobs for much higher paying jobs at the very banks they were once meant to regulate. Wall Street’s regulators are people who are paid by Wall Street to accept Wall Street’s explanations of itself, and who have little ability to defend themselves from those explanations.

Our financial regulatory system is obviously dysfunctional. But because the subject is so tedious, and the details so complicated, the public doesn’t pay it much attention.

That may very well change today, for today — Friday, Sept. 26 — the radio program “This American Life” will air a jaw-dropping storyabout Wall Street regulation, and the public will have no trouble at all understanding it.

The reporter, Jake Bernstein, has obtained 46 hours of tape recordings, made secretly by a Federal Reserve employee, of conversations within the Fed, and between the Fed and Goldman Sachs. The Ray Rice video for the financial sector has arrived.

First, a bit of background — which you might get equally well from today’s broadcast as well as from this article by ProPublica. After the 2008 financial crisis, the New York Fed, now the chief U.S. bank regulator, commissioned a study of itself. This study, which the Fed also intended to keep to itself, set out to understand why the Fed hadn’t spotted the insane and destructive behavior inside the big banks, and stopped it before it got out of control. The “discussion draft” of the Fed’s internal study, led by a Columbia Business School professor and former banker named David Beim, was sent to the Fed on Aug. 18, 2009.

It’s an extraordinary document. There is not space here to do it justice, but the gist is this: The Fed failed to regulate the banks because it did not encourage its employees to ask questions, to speak their minds or to point out problems.

Just the opposite: The Fed encourages its employees to keep their heads down, to obey their managers and to appease the banks. That is, bank regulators failed to do their jobs properly not because they lacked the tools but because they were discouraged from using them.

The report quotes Fed employees saying things like, “until I know what my boss thinks I don’t want to tell you,” and “no one feels individually accountable for financial crisis mistakes because management is through consensus.” Beim was himself surprised that what he thought was going to be an investigation of financial failure was actually a story of cultural failure.

You couldn’t make it up.  More coverage here.

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