Markets on Trial: The Economic Sociology of the U.S. Financial Crisis: Part A: Volume 30 Part A

Table of contents

(16 chapters)
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Our volume is comprised of six sections: (1) the crisis; (2) its similarities to, and differences from being a “normal accident;” (3) sociological and historical explanations for the meltdown; (4) analyses of comparable speculative bubbles and business cycles; (5) international parallels and consequences; (6) analysis of how we might approach the future development of society and economy; and also a section of postscripts for looking ahead to future policy and prevention. Each contribution addresses its main topic, and concludes with practical policy recommendations for a better future.

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The current crisis in the mortgage securitization industry highlights significant failures in our models of how markets work and our political will, organizational capability, and ideological desire to intervene in markets. This article shows that one of the main sources of failure has been the lack of a coherent understanding of how these markets came into existence, how tactics and strategies of the principal firms in these markets have evolved over time, and how we ended up with the economic collapse of the main firms. It seeks to provide some insight into these processes by compiling both historical and quantitative data on the emergence and spread of these tactics across the largest investment banks and their principal competitors from the mortgage origination industry. It ends by offering some policy proscriptions based on the analysis.

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On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and nearly caused a meltdown of the financial system. This article looks at the situation before Lehman went bankrupt and how this event came to trigger a financial panic during the fall of 2008 and early 2009. Two key ideas inform the analysis. The first is that what triggers financial panics are typically hidden losses. The second is that confidence plays a key role in financial panics and that confidence can be conceptualized as a belief that action can be based on proxy signs, rather than on direct information about the situation itself.

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Both consumer and corporate credit ratings agencies played a major role in the US subprime mortgage crisis. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion deployed a formalized scoring system to assess individuals in mortgage origination, mortgage pools then were assessed for securitization by Moody's, S&P, and Fitch relying on expert judgment aided by formal models. What can we learn about the limits of formalization from the crisis? We discuss five problems responsible for the rating failures – reactivity, endogeneity, learning, correlated outcomes, and conflict of interest – and compare the way consumer and corporate rating agencies tackled these difficulties. We conclude with some policy lessons.

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This chapter examines the central role played by credit rating agencies in the production of “knowledge” about financial instruments. That “knowledge,” in the form of credit ratings, underpinned disintermediation in mortgage markets by giving investors confidence that they knew the risk-and-return properties of otherwise opaque collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and mortgage-backed securities. Credit ratings helped to “standardize” structured financial products and create liquid markets. However, this cognitive machinery failed and liquidity collapsed during the current crisis. I use this failure to examine the role of institutionalized cognition in the production of market liquidity.

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One of the lessons learned from the recent financial-sector crisis is that institutions may sometimes sow the seeds of their own destruction. We offer a two-tiered analysis of how the diffusion of innovative practices – in this case, issuing and securitizing subprime mortgages – can lead to an unanticipated breakdown of established institutions. At the institutional level, we demonstrate that the lack of effective external regulatory presence, the emergence of new norms through the introduction of a new institutional logic, and intense mimetic and competitive pressures may lead organizational actors to exploit a suboptimal innovation. At the organizational level, we argue that over-embeddedness of central actors within relatively closed networks and superstitious learning processes can exacerbate the biases to which decision makers are susceptible, leading to the institutionalization of a suboptimal organizational practice. These two parallel sets of processes led to severe consequences at the institutional level, which we label “terminal isomorphism.” We end by discussing consequences for institutional theory, future research directions, and recommendations for policy makers.

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We use normal accident theory to analyze the financial sector, especially that part of the financial sector that processed home mortgages, and the mortgage meltdown. We maintain that the financial sector was highly complex and tightly coupled in the years leading up to the mortgage meltdown. And we argue that the meltdown exhibited characteristics of a system or normal accident; the result of a component failure (unusually high mortgage defaults) that, in the context of unique conditions (which included low interest rates and government policy encouraging home loans to less credit-worthy households), resulted in complex and tightly coupled interactions that financial elites and government officials were ill-equipped to control. We also consider the role that agency and wrongdoing played in the design of the financial system and the unfolding of the mortgage meltdown. We conclude that a fundamental restructuring of the financial system, so as to reduce complexity and coupling, is required to avert future similar financial debacles. But we also conclude that such a restructuring faces significant obstacles, given the interests of powerful actors and the difficulties of labeling those responsible for the meltdown as wrongdoers.

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In this article, we examine the different causal chains leading to the crisis in the United States and around the world, emphasizing the market developments, political decisions, and organizational factors that led to the financial and economic meltdown. We argue that a series of political, regulatory, and organizational decisions and events prepared the ground for a major breakdown of financial and economic institutions, a “normal accident” that produced systemic reverberations across markets around the world. In the United States, political, regulatory, and organizational decisions made during the 1990s led to a situation of simultaneously high complexity and tight coupling in the financial system. The global economy also became more complex and tightly coupled during the 1990s, contributing to the rapid spread of the crisis across countries. We propose that solutions to the crisis will need to be tailored to the specific ways in which countries experienced the meltdown and the political preferences of interest groups and citizens. For the United States, the best approach would be to allow for a complex and innovative financial system but with a much reduced degree of coupling so as to avoid another financial normal accident.

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Existing financial market architectures combine astonishing complexity with tight coupling, making them prone to systemic crises or “normal accidents” and placing extraordinary demands on regulation. In light of this, we consider two routes for regulatory reform. A “high modernist” possibility attempts to regulate financial markets as currently designed. This path means not only increasing the capacities of regulators and rating agencies to estimate complex risks, but also designing systems that can manage more radical forms of uncertainty through learning and bargaining. We consider a series of proposals and challenges that lie down this path. An alternative possibility takes seriously the notion that regulation constitutes markets and uses the current crisis to rethink market architectures themselves, especially their complexity and tight coupling. Preventing failures from spiraling into systemic crises may involve using regulation first, to simplify financial products and their interconnectedness, and second, to create redundancies or hedge bets through specialized financial subsectors organized around alternative principles, including recapitalized community banks, credit unions, mutuals, and public financial institutions.

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This volume includes two major explanations of the meltdown that I critically discuss. The first is a “normal accident theory” arguing that the complexity and coupling of the financial system caused the failure. Although these structural characteristics were evident, I argue that the case does not fit the theory because the cause was not the system, but behavior by key agents who were aware of the great risks they were exposing their firms, clients, and society to. The second interpretation is a neoinstitutional one, emphasizing that ideologies, worldviews, cognitive frames, mimicry, and norms were the source of behaviors that turned out to be disastrous for the elites and others. The implication is that elites were victims, not perpetrators. I argue that while ideologies, etc., can have real effects on the behavior of many firm members and society in general, in this case financial elites, to serve personal ends, crafted the ideologies and changed institutions, fully aware that this could harm their firms, clients, and the public. Complexity and coupling only made deception easier and the consequences more extensive. For anecdotal evidence I examine a decade of deregulation, examples of elected representative, regulatory officials, firms, and the plentiful warnings.

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DOI
10.1108/S0733-558X(2010)30_Part_A
Publication date
Book series
Research in the Sociology of Organizations
Editors
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-0-85724-205-1
Book series ISSN
0733-558X