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Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Kicks Off First Hearing

I’m watching the first hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the bipartisan panel led by former California Treasurer Phil Angelides, seeking answers to the question of how the financial world nearly melted down in 2008, taking the economy with it. Angelides is currently grilling Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and doing a great job, detailing all of the multitudes of government assistance Goldman and all the banks got, outside of TARP. Blankfein refuses to acknowledge that his company was a ward of the state.

“The reason I pressed this is not to make you say uncle,” Angelides said, “but what I’m trying to drive to is whether there’s a clear recognition that… on a fundamental basis, excessive risk-taking was made.” Blankfein starts talking about hurricanes, and Angelides says, “those were acts of God, these are acts of men.” If the rest of this is as good as Angelides’ examination, we’ll at least get some good chuckles out of this, and maybe something more.

Blankfein is joined on the panel in this first day of testimony by JPMorgan Chase CEO James Dimon, Morgan Stanley Chairman John Mack and Bank of American CEO-President Brian Moynihan.

Meteor Blades has a series of links to other good preview pieces. I’ll highlight two: the Spitzer/Black/Partnoy essay at New Deal 2.0, and Andrew Ross Sorkin’s piece at the New York Times. An excerpt:

In the spirit of trying to help start some lively discussions, here are some questions they might consider asking:

Mr. Blankfein, your firm, and others, created and sold bundles of mortgages known as collateralized debt obligations that it simultaneously sold short, or bet against. These C.D.O.’s turned out to be bad investments for the people who bought them, but your short bets paid off for Goldman Sachs.

In the process of selling them to institutional investors, however, your firm lobbied ratings agencies to assign them high ratings as solid bets — even as your firm planned on shorting them.

Could you explain how Goldman bet against these C.D.O.’s while simultaneously trying to persuade ratings agencies and investors that they were good investments? Were they designed from the outset to be shorted by Goldman and possibly select clients? And were those clients involved in helping design these transactions? What explicit disclosures did you make to Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s about your plans to short these instruments? And should we continue to allow transactions in which you’re betting against what you’re also selling?

Bill Thomas, the ranking Republican member of the FCIC, is actually submitting Sorkin’s questions to the panel for written answers right now, and opening this up for written questions from anyone. He just gave out his email address: billthomas-at-fcic-dot-gov.

The FCIC must deliver its report by the end of the year. Their website is here. You can watch along on C-SPAN 2.

UPDATE: Accountable America, a progressive group, placed full-page ads in Roll Call and Politico (there’s a print edition in DC) calling on the FCIC to hold the financial industry accountable.

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David Dayen

David Dayen