It was almost four years ago that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Henry Paul Paulson, and then New York Fed Bank President Timothy Geithner ran to Congress warning that the end of the world was near. They told members of Congress that the banks were drowning in bad debt and without a massive bailout they would soon be forced into bankruptcy. Congress quickly coughed up the money in the form of $700 billion in TARP loans. The Fed contributed trillions more.
Undoubtedly most of the bad debt was due to stupidity, which does not seem to be in short supply on Wall Street despite the high paychecks. The folks running the major banks somehow could not see the largest asset bubble in the history of the world. The fact that house prices had risen by more than 70 percent above their trend level, with no plausible explanation in the fundamentals of the housing market, did not trouble these high-flyers.
But there was more than just stupidity involved here. There was an epidemic of mortgage fraud that was identified by the FBI as early as 2004. The general story was that the big subprime issuers were pushing their agents to issue as many mortgages as possible, because they knew that they could sell almost any mortgage the next day in the secondary market. As a result, many mortgage agents put down information that they knew to be false, often changing information provided by applicants to allow borrowers to get mortgages for which they were not actually