The Fool: In your opinion, what caused the crisis?
Allison: I view the crisis differently than a lot of people. I was a long-serving CEO when the crisis struck and I think the whole thing was caused by regulatory policy.
Yes, some big banks made mistakes. But it was a combination of government housing policy, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in particular, which had $5 trillion in liabilities and $2 trillion in subprime mortgages when they failed, and the Federal Reserve, which held interest rates below inflation, that contributed to the bubble in the housing market, along with bubbles in other markets.
I don’t believe the whole industry was failing. I think that’s ridiculous. It was a relatively small number of large institutions that were in trouble. Banks like Citigroup. I think they should have been allowed to fail and the world would be a better place today.
The whole idea that everybody would have gone broke if one of the big banks failed was absurd. We had been doing business with investment banks like Bear Stearns andGoldman Sachs, but we controlled our risk with those companies just like we did with any borrower. If they had gone broke, we would have lost money, but not nearly as much as we lost to residential builders in the marketplace.
It was a relatively small number of large banks and a handful of small banks that were in trouble. It was not an industrywide crisis, except to the degree that the regulators created a crisis by choosing to fail Wachovia, save Citigroup, fail Lehman Brothers, save Bear Stearns. The uncertainty caused by that response took what was going to be a normal correction and transformed it into a crisis, making everything worse than it had to be.
The Fool: How did regulators’ response to the financial crisis differ from their responses in past crises that you witnessed?
Allison: I went through the financial correction in the early 1980s, which should have been more severe because we were in bad trouble economically after the inflation of the 1970s. I also went through the correction in the early 1990s. In neither case did we have a panic. And the reason we didn’t have a panic was because at least you knew what to expect.
Thousands of banks and thrifts failed in the 1980s and 1990s. The unwillingness to let banks fail in the latest crisis — they were effectively bailing out everybody — prevented the natural correction process from happening.
We had rule of law in the past. In this crisis, we had no rule of law. When Washington Mutual failed, instead of taking the losses out of the FDIC fund, they took it from bondholders. That crashed the capital markets, which then caused Wachovia to fail. That was a regulatory decision.
The entire interview is definitely worth a read.