The financial crisis is nearing its three year anniversary, and the ideologically-tinged battles over identifying its causes are still roaring on. For champions of the free market, much is at stake in explaining what led to the 2008 financial meltdown. On its face, it appears that banks and investors foolishly jumped on the bandwagon of an asset bubble driven by the extension of easy credit. When that bubble popped, the investment vehicles built on top of it saw a huge loss in value, causing a panic that would have — if not for government intervention — precipitated a world-wide financial collapse and great depression.
Investors and banks incompetently bankrupting themselves and bringing down the rest of the world with them is hard to reconcile with the usual rhetoric about the self-correcting, rational, efficient market. Defenders of that particular ideology are then pressed to find some way to explain away the crisis that absolves the market actors from the colossal mistakes that they made. If they can blame their actions on something else — ideally government behavior — then they can protect their free market ideology from what would otherwise be a devastating counter-example to its practicality.
Efforts to provide a government-blaming explanation have revolved around two main claims. The first is that the Community Reinvestment Act — a 1977 law that outlaws the racist practice of redlining — forced banks to make the bad mortgages that drove the asset bubble and the eventual financial collapse. At first glance, this argument is very implausible given that the law has been around for three decades, and only requires community banks not to discriminate between equally creditworthy individuals. Whatever one thought of the viability of the argument, it was crushed in the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report which found the following:
The Commission concludes the CRA [Community Reinvestment Act] was not a signifcant factor in subprime lending or the crisis. Many subprime lenders were not subject to the CRA. Research indicates only 6% of high-cost loans — a proxy for subprime loans — had any connection to the law. Loans made by CRA-regulated lenders in the neighborhoods in which they were required to lend were half as likely to default as similar loans made in the same neighborhoods by independent mortgage originators not subject to the law.
With that attempt to blame the government defeated, the only other argument coming from those trying to defend the market ideology centers around Fannie and Freddie. The arguments surrounding that are fairly technical and largely depend on disputes about definitions. I wont go into the discussion in depth here, but Mark Thoma provides an abundance of different analyses explaining where those arguments go wrong. The short of it is this: even though Fannie and Freddie did foolishly participate in subprime lending and securitization, they were late to the game and were only responding to existing market trends set by private originators and investment houses.
To that analysis, I would add that even if the behavior of Fannie and Freddie did lead banks and investors to create a speculative bubble, there is no reason it should have. Private market actors were under no obligation to buy mortgage-backed securities; ratings agencies were under no obligation to provide AAA ratings to those securities; investment firms were under no obligation to leverage themselves in a way that left them insolvent when the bubble burst; AIG was under no obligation to insure the mortgage-backed securities in a way that would eventually leave the firm bankrupt; and, other mortgage originators and investment banks were under no obligation to copy the practices of Fannie and Freddie (although we know that Fannie and Freddie were actually copying their bad practices).
The fact that market actors freely chose to do all of these things reflect that they had misjudged the risk the housing bubble posed, a sector-wide misjudgment that had catastrophic consequences for the entire world. Defenders of the ideology of unrestrained markets have nothing that they can say about those freely chosen decisions. Market actors are supposed to be acting on all of the knowledge that is available to them, including any distortions that Fannie and Freddie introduce, information about which was public and accessible. They are not supposed to make decisions which bankrupt their own firms and bring down the entire financial sector, certainly not en masse. But in this case, they did exactly that.
What the financial crisis represents is a real-world refutation of the idea that the market is rational and can be counted upon to self-regulate. In theory that argument has some compelling features. After all, why would a firm trying to maximize profits take actions which destroys itself. Whatever the reason is — incompetence, misplaced incentives, or irrational exuberance — we have a perfect example of firms doing just that.
If proponents of a wide-open free market were intellectually honest about this financial crisis, they would have to revise their views in the same way that Alan Greenspan — previously a proponent of the ideology of self-regulating markets — did soon after the meltdown took place. Of course, just because they should do it does not mean that they will. Given the central importance of this view for the entire ideology of the right wing, I am doubtful anything could ever convince them to abandon it.