The Housing Bubble isn’t a Bubble- it’s a Blister.

The Housing Bubble isn’t a Bubble- it’s a Blister.

by K.K. MacKinstry

It’s going to hurt when it pops.

Low interest rates have reflated the housing bubble by enticing buyers to enter the market or buy bigger homes while rates are low, with the looming Fed threat that rates will rise quickly.

During May 2017 debt, auto loans, and the stock market hit new irrational highs indicating signs of trouble for the unsuspecting consumer.

Credit delinquencies from the consumer are a new sign of trouble as interest rates begin to head higher.   William McChesney Martin, the longest-serving Fed chairman in the Fed’s 100-year history has said that the Fed’s job is to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.”

It is well know that high valuations in both real estate and the stock market encourage risk and that result in a massive correction later on. Rising home prices give consumers a false sense of security. Index’s demonstrate consumers are beginning to struggle with credit card payments.  If home prices fall as interest rates rise, this could result in a shock to both the consumer and the economy.

Low interest rates encourage leveraged consumers to spend to boost economic activity. The result is that consumer debt levels are now near $2 trillion dollars in the United States. As interest rates begin to rise, the debt burden will strain consumers as they pay ever higher rates on purchases made when rates were more enticing.  The closure of hundreds of retail stores supports the premise that the American consumer is tapped out.

Of the nation’s 20 largest cities, these seven reached their all-time market highs in December: Seattle, Portland, Denver, Boston, Charlotte, North Carolina, San Francisco and Dallas.

Mortgage rates also had an impact on inceased sales at high price points with a 30-year fixed rate mortgage today at 4.2 percent compared to the 6.4 percent market average since 1990.  However, as the Fed starts to raise rates there is a measurable slowing of home sales and price decreases that is already showing with the Fed’s last price increase.

The S&P/Case Shiller 20-city composite index, which tracks the nation’s largest cities, gained 5.6 percent year over year, up from 5.2 percent the previous month. Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Denver once again topped the charts with the largest year-over-year gains. Seattle continued to lead the pack, rising at an annualized rate of 10.8 percent.

The Southern California real estate market is booming again.

Home prices in the region have been climbing steadily, toward record levels not seen since the 2008 housing crisis plunged the country into a severe recession.

The S&P/Case-Shiller home price index, a widely followed gauge of the market, showed that prices in the Los Angeles market in April stood at their highest point since October 2007.

The median home price in Orange County in May was $651,500, surpassing its bubble-era peak reached in 2007, according to the real estate data firm CoreLogic.

 

The consumer market drives the overall economy, and with rising debt service payments there is reason for concern.

The economy appears to be under the false belief that the Fed will save investors and consumers from losses.  However, at Livinglies we know better.  Consumers should not expect any relief when the housing market crashes and this time around investors shouldn’t expect a government bailout of any kind.

 

 

 

The Housing Bubble Mantra: Hurry! Buy Now!

The LivingLies team

The media is reporting that US housing starts, or the construction of a new house, fell more than expected in March. It is reported that buyer traffic is having the best run since 2009, and that consumers are facing stiff competition and a low supply if you’re shopping for a home.

Where have we heard this before?  Prior to every market bubble that implodes, the mainstream media spins the “buy now or lose out” message so that the herd jumps blindly back into the market, while investors and banks start to short the same markets.

Duetsche Bank who is in a death spiral is reporting that the overall recovery of the housing market continues, particularly among single-family units.

Despite the recent housing dip, the media reports that housing starts hit a four-month high this February. The biggest driver for this trend is single-family home purchases, thus, the herd is falling in line by purchasing homes that are artificially inflated because consumers can obtain cheap money and credit requirements have been relaxed.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have recently lowered credit score requirements while allowing homebuyers to borrow down payments.

The number of single-family homes purchased still remains far from pre-recession levels.  In the past three years some markets experienced 20% annual price increases, but home price appreciation has stabilized at a more pragmatic rate of around 5% nationwide.  Most housing markets have not recovered to the 2006-07 peak but are nearing that level.  Meanwhile wages have stayed relatively flat while the cost of living has increased.

The media reports that home purchases have rebounded back to levels seen a decade ago, and that young adults are taking advantage of low mortgage rates.  In direct conflict, the media is reporting that most millennials can’t find a job let alone purchase an overpriced home.

And yet, Bank of America reports that seventy-nine percent of millennial homebuyers believe owning a home has a positive impact on their long-term financial picture.  Of course Millennial’s have never experienced a housing bubble implosion, a job loss or the joys of dealing with a loan servicer.

The media reports that there is an extremely low number of homes for sale — and that it’s truly a seller’s market. That may be true in hot markets, but overall the housing market in most of America is flat.  The media is also using cheap interest rates as a way to scare people so they go out and purchase a new or more expensive home, when in reality,  if the FED continues to raise the interest rate twice more this year- they are going to seriously impair housing sales and prices.  As we reported last week on Livinglies, even a 1% rise in interest rate has a cooling effect on people who can barely afford a mortgage at interest rates around 3.5%.

It is not a lot harder to get a housing loan after the financial crisis as reported.  Although there are no more zero-down, no-qualifying loans there are loans that require less than 1% down with a credit score between 640 and 680.  Before the year 2000 most homeowners put down 10- 20% to purchase a home.

 

The media claims that large homebuilders aren’t able to keep up with the extreme demand to purchase homes and yet contradictory reports state they are sitting on unsold inventory.  The media blames it on builders have become more efficient.  There has been a steady decrease of workers per housing unit under construction since 2012, and yet if the housing market is so robust then why aren’t the workers without jobs being employed?

It is obvious that the media is not being honest and the markets are beginning to look eerily like 2006. When the housing market crashed the media ignored all warning signs while repeating the same mantra we are hearing today.  As I prepare to post this article Reuters is announcing that housing starts last quarter dropped by 6.8%, and blamed it on the weather.

Reuters reports that U.S. homebuilding fell in March after “unseasonably mild weather” buoyed activity in February and manufacturing output dropped for the first time in seven months.

If the Federal Reserve hikes interest rates in June as expected, the first quarter will look strong compared to the second quarter and the markets are already pricing in the interest rate hike.  The Midwest in particular suffered its biggest decline in three years.

Single-family homebuilding, which accounts for the largest share of the residential housing market, fell 6.2 percent to an 821,000 unit pace last month, retreating from a near 9-1/2-year high. Single-family starts in the Midwest, which was lashed by a storm last month, declined 35 percent.

 

 

 

Housing Bust 2? Subprime No-Down-Payment Mortgages Surge, “Shadow Banks” Dominate

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Housing Bust 2? Subprime No-Down-Payment Mortgages Surge, “Shadow Banks” Dominate

 

Some of the same characters that played leading roles last time.

The value of the US housing market has ballooned to $26 trillion. In many markets, prices exceed even the peak or the prior bubble that blew up so spectacularly. This construct is weighed down by $14 trillion in mortgage debt, or about 76% of US GDP. Of that, $10 trillion is owed on one- to four-family residences. The numbers are big – and they matter.

But who’s doing the lending? More and more: nonbanks, evocatively called “shadow banks.” They have now overtaken commercial banks “to grab a record slice” of government-guaranteed mortgages, Attom Data Solutions reported in its housing report.

And these shadow banks are different:

[T]hey typically borrow from Wall Street hedge funds, private investors, or banks to make loans, then quickly sell these mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and other buyers, so they can repay their loans and start the process over again.Nonbank lenders dominate the origination of mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and by the Veterans Administration (VA), the riskier corner of housing lending due to no down payment or low down payment loans and poor-credit buyers.

So subprime mortgages with low or no down payments.

These government entities don’t actually make loans; they buy loans from lenders, package them into mortgage-backed securities, and guarantee them to make investors whole if the mortgages default.

Wells Fargo is still the largest mortgage lender by far, with 26,262 purchase mortgage originations in the second quarter, according to ATTOM. But number two is nonbank Quicken Loans with 18,753 originations, followed by Caliber Home Loans with 13,580 originations, followed by Bank of America, Fairway Independent Mortgage, JP Morgan Chase, Movement Mortgage, Prime lending, Guaranteed Rate, and Guild Mortgage.

Of these top ten originators, shadow banks originated 63% of the mortgages!

us-mortgages-banks-v-nonbanks

These shadow banks are barreling into the market by going after riskier borrowers and government guaranteed no-down payment or low down payment mortgages, with impeccable timing, now that the Fed’s monetary gyrations have inflated home prices nationally past the prior bubble peak, and in many markets far beyond the prior bubble peak.

And some of the same characters that played leading roles in the last housing boom and bust have reappeared. Remember Countrywide? The report:

In California, some of the largest nonbank lenders include PennyMac, AmeriHome Mortgage, and Stearns. All three are headquartered in Southern California, the epicenter of last decade’s subprime mortgage lending industry. And all three companies are run by executives who formerly worked at the once- giant Countrywide Financial, the now defunct subprime lender founded by Angelo Mozilo (Bank of America bought Countrywide for $4 billion in July 2008).

PennyMac, a fast-growing nonbank lender, is run by Stanford Kurland, a former Countrywide Home Loans executive and IndyMac director. Stearns, a Santa Ana, California-based nonbank lender, is run by Brian Hale, a former Countrywide division president. And Joshua Adler, who is AmeriHome’s managing director of secondary marketing, held similar roles at Countrywide and Bank of America.

Banks still originate the majority of mortgages overall, but barely! Their share has dropped from 91% of originations in 2009 – after many of the shadow banks had collapsed in the housing bust – to 51.7% so far in 2016. The share of shadow banks (blue line) has soared to 48.3% (chart by ATTOM):

us-mortgages-nonbanks-percent-of-total

These shadow banks dominate in mortgages that are insured by the FHA and the VA, including no-down-payment and low-down-payment mortgages for buyers with subprime credit ratings, the riskiest mortgages out there. Thus, FHA and VA backed loans have jumped from 6% of all purchase originations in 2006 to 30% in Q3 2016.

“The big banks have restricted their mortgage business,” Guy Cecala, publisher and CEO of Inside Mortgage Finance, told ATTOM. “Instead, banks like Chase and Bank of America are making jumbo loans to more affluent borrowers. More than 50% of their business is jumbo loans.”

Jumbo loans are not insured by the government. Nonbanks and the government are picking up the rest.

Increasingly, the federal government – FHA, VA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae – has played a larger role in the mortgage financing industry as the large depository banks retreat from the home loan market. In all, these five entities own or have guaranteed more than $5 trillion in mortgage risk….

That’s about half of the outstanding mortgage risk.

The role of the government entities that insure high-risk subprime mortgages has soared: The FHA insured 3.4% of all mortgage originations in Q1 2006; by Q2 2016, its share had jumped to 17.5%. Over the same period, the VA’s share soared from 0.7% to 8.7%.

This chart shows the share of FHA and VA insured mortgages as a percent of total mortgage originations by lender. For example, of the mortgages Wells Fargo originated in Q2, 12% were FHA (blue) and VA (green) loans, compared to about 42% for Quicken Loans:

us-mortgages-banks-v-nonbanks-fha-va

It is largely via this conduit of the shadow banks that the nationalization of the riskiest end of the mortgage industry is proceeding. It has now become completely dependent on government guarantees.

“The government is buying and insuring 60% to 70% of all mortgages,” said Richard X. Bove, vice president of equity research at Rafferty Capital Markets. “The government owns the mortgage market. It’s a nationalized market.”

This artificially pushes down mortgage rates as the risk is born by taxpayers. Low mortgage rates and no-down-payment and low-down-payment subprime mortgages are precisely what is required to inflate already inflated home prices further and drive Housing Bubble 2 to its peak. It creates the foundation for the next housing bust, where taxpayers and/or the Fed, will once again bail out investors in mortgage-backed securities. Why? Because politicians, always eager to buy votes, refuse to get the government out of the mortgage industry.

But there is no risk, we hear constantly. Defaults are at a record low. Same as just before the last housing bust. When home prices soar, no one defaults. You can just sell the home and payoff the mortgage. The problem arises when prices head south. Alas, there’s just no letup in dismal tidbits piling up about the condo markets. Read…  Is Chicago’s Housing Market Next?

The Rain in Spain May Start Falling Here

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Editor’s Comment:

It is typical politics. You know the problem and the cause but you do nothing about the cause. You don’t fix it because you view your job in government as justifying the perks you get from private companies rather than reason the government even exists — to provide for the protection and welfare of the citizens of that society. It seems that the government of each country has become an entity itself with an allegiance but to itself leaving the people with no government at all.

And the average man in the streets of Boston or Barcelona cannot be fooled or confused any longer. Hollande in France was elected precisely because the people wanted a change that would align the government with the people, by the people and for the people. The point is not whether the people are right or wrong. The point is that we would rather make our own mistakes than let politicians make them for us in order to line their own pockets with gold.

Understating foreclosures and evictions, over stating recovery of the housing Market, lying about economic prospects is simply not covering it any more. The fact is that housing prices have dropped to all time lows and are continuing to drop. The fact is that we would rather kick people out of their homes on fraudulent pretenses and pay for homeless sheltering than keep people in their homes. We have a government that is more concerned with the profits of banks than the feeding and housing of its population. 

When will it end? Maybe never. But if it changes it will be the result of an outraged populace and like so many times before in history, the new aristocracy will have learned nothing from history. The cycle repeats.

Spain Underplaying Bank Losses Faces Ireland Fate

By Yalman Onaran

Spain is underestimating potential losses by its banks, ignoring the cost of souring residential mortgages, as it seeks to avoid an international rescue like the one Ireland needed to shore up its financial system.

The government has asked lenders to increase provisions for bad debt by 54 billion euros ($70 billion) to 166 billion euros. That’s enough to cover losses of about 50 percent on loans to property developers and construction firms, according to the Bank of Spain. There wouldn’t be anything left for defaults on more than 1.4 trillion euros of home loans and corporate debt. Taking those into account, banks would need to increase provisions by as much as five times what the government says, or 270 billion euros, according to estimates by the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based research group. Plugging that hole would increase Spain’s public debt by almost 50 percent or force it to seek a bailout, following in the footsteps of Ireland, Greece and Portugal.

“How can you only talk about one type of real estate lending when more and more loans are going bad everywhere in the economy?” said Patrick Lee, a London-based analyst covering Spanish banks for Royal Bank of Canada. “Ireland managed to turn its situation around after recognizing losses much more aggressively and thus needed a bailout. I don’t see how Spain can do it without outside support.”

Double-Dip Recession

Spain, which yesterday took over Bankia SA, the nation’s third-largest lender, is mired in a double-dip recession that has driven unemployment above 24 percent and government borrowing costs to the highest level since the country adopted the euro. Investors are concerned that the Mediterranean nation, Europe’s fifth-largest economy with a banking system six times bigger than Ireland’s, may be too big to save.

In both countries, loans to real estate developers proved most toxic. Ireland funded a so-called bad bank to take much of that debt off lenders’ books, forcing writedowns of 58 percent. The government also required banks to raise capital to cover what was left behind, assuming expected losses of 7 percent for residential mortgages, 15 percent on the debt of small companies and 4 percent on that of larger corporations.

Spain’s banks face bigger risks than the government has acknowledged, even with lower default rates than Ireland experienced. If losses reach 5 percent of mortgages held by Spanish lenders, 8 percent of loans to small companies, 1.5 percent of those to larger firms and half the debt to developers, the cost will be about 250 billion euros. That’s three times the 86 billion euros Irish domestic banks bailed out by their government have lost as real estate prices tumbled.

Bankia Loans

Moody’s Investors Service, a credit-ratings firm, said it expects Spanish bank losses of as much as 306 billion euros. The Centre for European Policy Studies said the figure could be as high as 380 billion euros.

At the Bankia group, the lender formed in 2010 from a merger of seven savings banks, about half the 38 billion euros of real estate development loans held at the end of last year were classified as “doubtful” or at risk of becoming so, according to the company’s annual report. Bad loans across the Valencia-based group, which has the biggest Spanish asset base, reached 8.7 percent in December, and the firm renegotiated almost 10 billion euros of assets in 2011, about 5 percent of its loan book, to prevent them from defaulting.

The government, which came to power in December, announced yesterday that it will take control of Bankia with a 45 percent stake by converting 4.5 billion euros of preferred shares into ordinary stock. The central bank said the lender needs to present a stronger cleanup plan and “consider the contribution of public funds” to help with that.

Rajoy Measures

The Bank of Spain has lost its prestige for failing to supervise banks sufficiently, said Josep Duran i Lleida, leader of Catalan party Convergencia i Unio, which often backs Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government. Governor Miguel Angel Fernandez Ordonez doesn’t need to resign at this point because his term expires in July, Duran said.

Rajoy has shied away from using public funds to shore up the banks, after his predecessor injected 15 billion euros into the financial system. He softened his position earlier this week following a report by the International Monetary Fund that said the country needs to clean up the balance sheets of “weak institutions quickly and adequately” and may need to use government funds to do so.

“The last thing I want to do is lend public money, as has been done in the past, but if it were necessary to get the credit to save the Spanish banking system, I wouldn’t renounce that,” Rajoy told radio station Onda Cero on May 7.

Santander, BBVA

Rajoy said he would announce new measures to bolster confidence in the banking system tomorrow, without giving details. He might ask banks to boost provisions by 30 billion euros, said a person with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified because the decision hadn’t been announced.

Spain’s two largest lenders, Banco Santander SA (SAN) and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA (BBVA), earn most of their income outside the country and have assets in Latin America they can sell to raise cash if they need to bolster capital. In addition to Bankia, there are more than a dozen regional banks that are almost exclusively domestic and have few assets outside the country to sell to help plug losses.

In investor presentations, the Bank of Spain has said provisions for bad debt would cover losses of between 53 percent and 80 percent on loans for land, housing under construction and finished developments. An additional 30 billion euros would increase coverage to 56 percent of such loans, leaving nothing to absorb losses on 650 billion euros of home mortgages held by Spanish banks or 800 billion euros of company loans.

Housing Bubble

“Spain is constantly playing catch-up, so it’s always several steps behind,” said Nicholas Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, a consulting firm in London specializing in sovereign-credit risk. “They should have gone down the Irish route, bit the bullet and taken on the losses. Every time they announce a small new measure, the goal posts have already moved because of deterioration in the economy.”

Without aggressive writedowns, Spanish banks can’t access market funding and the government can’t convince investors its lenders can survive a contracting economy, said Benjamin Hesse, who manages five financial-stock funds at Fidelity Investments in Boston, which has $1.6 trillion under management.

Spanish banks have “a 1.7 trillion-euro loan book, one of the world’s largest, and they haven’t even started marking it,” Hesse said. “The housing bubble was twice the size of the U.S. in terms of peak prices versus 1990 prices. It’s huge. And there’s no way out for Spain.”

Irish Losses

House prices in Spain more than doubled in a decade and have dropped 30 percent since the first quarter of 2008. U.S. homes, which also doubled in value, have lost 35 percent. Ireland’s have fallen 49 percent after quadrupling.

Ireland injected 63 billion euros into its banks to recapitalize them after shifting property-development loans to the National Asset Management Agency, or NAMA, and requiring other writedowns. That forced the country to seek 68 billion euros in financial aid from the European Union and the IMF.

The losses of bailed-out domestic banks in Ireland have reached 21 percent of their total loans. Spanish banks have reserved for 6 percent of their lending books.

“The upfront loss recognition Ireland forced on the banks helped build confidence,” said Edward Parker, London-based head of European sovereign-credit analysis at Fitch Ratings. “In contrast, Spain has had a constant trickle of bad news about its banks, which doesn’t instill confidence.”

Mortgage Defaults

Spain’s home-loan defaults were 2.7 percent in December, according to the Spanish mortgage association. Home prices are propped up and default rates underreported because banks don’t want to recognize losses, according to Borja Mateo, author of “The Truth About the Spanish Real Estate Market.” Developers are still building new houses around the country, even with 2 million vacant homes.

Ireland’s mortgage-default rate was about 7 percent in 2010, before the government pushed for writedowns, with an additional 5 percent being restructured, according to the Central Bank of Ireland. A year later, overdue and restructured home loans reached 18 percent. At the typical 40 percent recovery rate, Irish banks stand to lose 11 percent of their mortgage portfolios, more than the 7 percent assumed by the central bank in its stress tests. That has led to concern the government may need to inject more capital into the lenders.

‘The New Ireland’

Spain, like Ireland, can’t simply let its financial firms fail. Ireland tried to stick banks’ creditors with losses and was overruled by the EU, which said defaulting on senior debt would raise the specter of contagion and spook investors away from all European banks. Ireland did force subordinated bondholders to take about 15 billion euros of losses.

The EU was protecting German and French banks, among the biggest creditors to Irish lenders, said Marshall Auerback, global portfolio strategist for Madison Street Partners LLC, a Denver-based hedge fund.

“Spain will be the new Ireland,” Auerback said. “Germany is forcing once again the socialization of its banks’ losses in a periphery country and creating sovereign risk, just like it did with Ireland.”

Spanish government officials and bank executives have downplayed potential losses on home loans by pointing to the difference between U.S. and Spanish housing markets. In the U.S., a lender’s only option when a borrower defaults is to seize the house and settle for whatever it can get from a sale. The borrower owes nothing more in this system, called non- recourse lending.

‘More Pressure’

In Spain, a bank can go after other assets of the borrower, who remains on the hook for the debt no matter what the price of the house when sold. Still, the same extended liability didn’t stop the Irish from defaulting on home loans as the economy contracted, incomes fell and unemployment rose to 14 percent.

“As the economy deteriorates, the quality of assets is going to get worse,” said Daragh Quinn, an analyst at Nomura International in Madrid. “Corporate loans are probably going to be a bigger worry than mortgages, but losses will keep rising. Some of the larger banks, in particular BBVA and Santander, will be able to generate enough profits to absorb this deterioration, but other purely domestic ones could come under more pressure.”

Spain’s government has said it wants to find private-sector solutions. Among those being considered are plans to let lenders set up bad banks and to sell toxic assets to outside investors.

Correlation Risk

Those proposals won’t work because third-party investors would require bigger discounts on real estate assets than banks will be willing to offer, RBC’s Lee said.

Spanish banks face another risk, beyond souring loans: They have been buying government bonds in recent months. Holdings of Spanish sovereign debt by lenders based in the country jumped 32 percent to 231 billion euros in the four months ended in February, data from Spain’s treasury show.

That increases the correlation of risk between banks and the government. If Spain rescues its lenders, the public debt increases, threatening the sovereign’s solvency. When Greece restructured its debt, swapping bonds at a 50 percent discount, Greek banks lost billions of euros and had to be recapitalized by the state, which had to borrow more from the EU to do so.

In a scenario where Spain is forced to restructure its debt, even a 20 percent discount could spell almost 50 billion euros of additional losses for the country’s banks.

“Spain will have to turn to the EU for funds to solve its banking problem,” said Madison Street’s Auerback. “But there’s little money left after the other bailouts, so what will Spain get? That’s what worries everybody.”

The Other Plot to Wreck America

“Americans must be told the full story of how Wall Street gamed and inflated the housing bubble, made out like bandits, and then left millions of households in ruin. Without that reckoning, there will be no public clamor for serious reform of a financial system that was as cunningly breached as airline security at the Amsterdam airport. And without reform, another massive attack on our economic security is guaranteed. Now that it can count on government bailouts, Wall Street has more incentive than ever to pump up its risks — secure that it can keep the bonanzas while we get stuck with the losses.”

Editor’s Note: Frank Rich, along with Gretchen Morgenstern (see Why All Earnings Are Not Equal) have been doing a fabulous job as the fourth estate in our society. Combined with the latest Mother Jones articles (see The REAL Bailout: $14 Trillion), the truth is not only coming out, it is becoming understandable.

Despite the complexity of the securitization chain applied to residential mortgage loans, it is now clear how and why Wall Street stole from investors, stole from homeowners and ran away with the money.

It is getting equally clear that the losses and the profits are illusory IF the companies that screwed the American citizens are held accountable for their actions. It is also clear that Paul Volcker, although marginalized by the the economic team in the Obama administration is speaking the truth. Obama would do well to take stock of what is REALLY happening out there because this time the country is far ahead of its leaders.

January 10, 2010 New York Times
Op-Ed Columnist

The Other Plot to Wreck America

THERE may not be a person in America without a strong opinion about what coulda, shoulda been done to prevent the underwear bomber from boarding that Christmas flight to Detroit. In the years since 9/11, we’ve all become counterterrorists. But in the 16 months since that other calamity in downtown New York — the crash precipitated by the 9/15 failure of Lehman Brothers — most of us are still ignorant about what Warren Buffett called the “financial weapons of mass destruction” that wrecked our economy. Fluent as we are in Al Qaeda and body scanners, when it comes to synthetic C.D.O.’s and credit-default swaps, not so much.

What we don’t know will hurt us, and quite possibly on a more devastating scale than any Qaeda attack. Americans must be told the full story of how Wall Street gamed and inflated the housing bubble, made out like bandits, and then left millions of households in ruin. Without that reckoning, there will be no public clamor for serious reform of a financial system that was as cunningly breached as airline security at the Amsterdam airport. And without reform, another massive attack on our economic security is guaranteed. Now that it can count on government bailouts, Wall Street has more incentive than ever to pump up its risks — secure that it can keep the bonanzas while we get stuck with the losses.

The window for change is rapidly closing. Health care, Afghanistan and the terrorism panic may have exhausted Washington’s already limited capacity for heavy lifting, especially in an election year. The White House’s chief economic hand, Lawrence Summers, has repeatedly announced that “everybody agrees that the recession is over” — which is technically true from an economist’s perspective and certainly true on Wall Street, where bailed-out banks are reporting record profits and bonuses. The contrary voices of Americans who have lost pay, jobs, homes and savings are either patronized or drowned out entirely by a political system where the banking lobby rules in both parties and the revolving door between finance and government never stops spinning.

It’s against this backdrop that this week’s long-awaited initial public hearings of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission are so critical. This is the bipartisan panel that Congress mandated last spring to investigate the still murky story of what happened in the meltdown. Phil Angelides, the former California treasurer who is the inquiry’s chairman, told me in interviews late last year that he has been busy deploying a tough investigative staff and will not allow the proceedings to devolve into a typical blue-ribbon Beltway exercise in toothless bloviation.

He wants to examine the financial sector’s “greed, stupidity, hubris and outright corruption” — from traders on the ground to the board room. “It’s important that we deliver new information,” he said. “We can’t just rehash what we’ve known to date.” He understands that if he fails to make news or to tell the story in a way that is comprehensible and compelling enough to arouse Americans to demand action, Wall Street and Washington will both keep moving on, unchallenged and unchastened.

Angelides gets it. But he has a tough act to follow: Ferdinand Pecora, the legendary prosecutor who served as chief counsel to the Senate committee that investigated the 1929 crash as F.D.R. took office. Pecora was a master of detail and drama. He riveted America even without the aid of television. His investigation led to indictments, jail sentences and, ultimately, key New Deal reforms — the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Glass-Steagall Act, designed to prevent the formation of banks too big to fail.

As it happened, a major Pecora target was the chief executive of National City Bank, the institution that would grow up to be Citigroup. Among other transgressions, National City had repackaged bad Latin American debt as new securities that it then sold to easily suckered investors during the frenzied 1920s boom. Once disaster struck, the bank’s executives helped themselves to millions of dollars in interest-free loans. Yet their own employees had to keep ponying up salary deductions for decimated National City stock purchased at a heady precrash price.

Trade bad Latin American debt for bad mortgage debt, and you have a partial portrait of Citigroup at the height of the housing bubble. The reckless Citi executives of our day may not have given themselves interest-free loans, but they often walked away with the short-term, illusionary profits while their employees were left with shredded jobs and 401(k)’s. Among those Citi executives was Robert Rubin, who, as the Clinton Treasury secretary, helped repeal the last vestiges of Glass-Steagall after years of Wall Street assault. Somewhere Pecora is turning in his grave

Rubin has never apologized, let alone been held accountable. But he’s hardly alone. Even after all the country has gone through, the titans who fueled the bubble are heedless. In last Sunday’s Times, Sandy Weill, the former chief executive who built Citigroup (and recruited Rubin to its ranks), gave a remarkable interview to Katrina Brooker blaming his own hand-picked successor, Charles Prince, for his bank’s implosion. Weill said he preferred to be remembered for his philanthropy. Good luck with that.

Among his causes is Carnegie Hall, where he is chairman of the board. To see how far American capitalism has fallen, contrast Weill with the giant who built Carnegie Hall. Not only is Andrew Carnegie remembered for far more epic and generous philanthropy than Weill’s — some 1,600 public libraries, just for starters — but also for creating a steel empire that actually helped build America’s industrial infrastructure in the late 19th century. At Citi, Weill built little more than a bloated gambling casino. As Paul Volcker, the regrettably powerless chairman of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said recently, there is not “one shred of neutral evidence” that any financial innovation of the past 20 years has led to economic growth. Citi, that “innovative” banking supermarket, destroyed far more wealth than Weill can or will ever give away.

Even now — despite its near-death experience, despite the departures of Weill, Prince and Rubin — Citi remains as imperious as it was before 9/15. Its current chairman, Richard Parsons, was one of three executives (along with Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and John Mack of Morgan Stanley) who failed to show up at the mid-December White House meeting where President Obama implored bankers to increase lending. (The trio blamed fog for forcing them to participate by speakerphone, but the weather hadn’t grounded their peers or Amtrak.) Last week, ABC World News was also stiffed by Citi, which refused to answer questions about its latest round of outrageous credit card rate increases and instead e-mailed a statement blaming its customers for “not paying back their loans.” This from a bank that still owes taxpayers $25 billion of its $45 billion handout!

If Citi, among the most egregious of Wall Street reprobates, feels it can get away with business as usual, it’s because it fears no retribution. And it got more good news last week. Now that Chris Dodd is vacating the Senate, his chairmanship of the Banking Committee may fall next year to Tim Johnson of South Dakota, home to Citi’s credit card operation. Johnson was the only Senate Democrat to vote against Congress’s recent bill policing credit card abuses.

Though bad history shows every sign of repeating itself on Wall Street, it will take a near-miracle for Angelides to repeat Pecora’s triumph. Our zoo of financial skullduggery is far more complex, with many more moving pieces, than that of the 1920s. The new inquiry does have subpoena power, but its entire budget, a mere $8 million, doesn’t even match the lobbying expenditures for just three banks (Citi, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) in the first nine months of 2009. The firms under scrutiny can pay for as many lawyers as they need to stall between now and Dec. 15, deadline day for the commission’s report.

More daunting still is the inquiry’s duty to reach into high places in the public sector as well as the private. The mystery of exactly what happened as TARP fell into place in the fateful fall of 2008 thickens by the day — especially the behind-closed-door machinations surrounding the government rescue of A.I.G. and its counterparties. Last week, a Republican congressman, Darrell Issa of California, released e-mail showing that officials at the New York Fed, then led by Timothy Geithner, pressured A.I.G. to delay disclosing to the S.E.C. and the public the details on the billions of bailout dollars it was funneling to its trading partners. In this backdoor rescue, taxpayers unknowingly awarded banks like Goldman 100 cents on the dollar for their bets on mortgage-backed securities.

Why was our money used to make these high-flying gamblers whole while ordinary Americans received no such beneficence? Nothing less than complete transparency will connect the dots. Among the big-name witnesses that the Angelides commission has called for next week is Goldman’s Blankfein. Geithner, Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke should be next.

If they all skate away yet again by deflecting blame or mouthing pro forma mea culpas, it will be a sign that this inquiry, like so many other promises of reform since 9/15, is likely to leave Wall Street’s status quo largely intact. That’s the ticking-bomb scenario that truly imperils us all.

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