The most depressing thing about Reason’s analysis of the financial meltdown? This:
No one fully understood how exposed the mortgage-backed securities were to the rising foreclosures. Because of this uncertainty, it was hard to place a value on them, and the market for the instruments dried up. Accounting regulations required firms to value their assets using the “mark-to-market” rule, i.e., based on the price they could fetch that very day. Because no one was trading mortgage-backed securities anymore, most had to be “marked” at something close to zero.
This threw off banks’ capital-to-loan ratios. The law requires banks to hold assets equal to a certain percentage of the loans they give out. Lots of financial institutions had mortgage-backed securities on their books. With the value of these securities moving to zero (at least in accounting terms), banks didn’t have enough capital on hand for the loans that were outstanding. So banks rushed to raise money, which raised self-fulfilling fears about their solvency.
Two simple regulatory tweaks could have prevented much of the carnage. Suspending mark-to-market accounting rules (using a five-year rolling average valuation instead, for example) would have helped shore up the balance sheets of some banks. And a temporary easing of capital requirements would have given banks the breathing room to sort out the mortgage-backed security mess. Although it is hard to fix an exact price for these securities in this market, given that 98 percent of underlying mortgages are sound, they clearly aren’t worth zero.
So instead of simply tweaking the regulations, the government decided to spend great flipping wads of cash. I realize that Washington’s solution to everything — education, healthcare, terrorism, etc. — is to spend money. But this is ridiculous. We could have apparently literally saved tens of billions with a rule tweak.
But, of course, tweaking rules doesn’t make you look glorious for suspending your campaign.