Europe’s Failure to Stem Banking Crisis Haunts Markets Again

German Logo of the ECB.

German Logo of the ECB.

Four years to the month since the global credit crisis began, European lenders remain dependent on central bank aid, plaguing markets and economies worldwide.

Emergency steps such as unlimited loans from the European Central Bank are keeping many banks in Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain solvent and greasing the lending of others, while low interest rates and debt-buying are containing borrowing costs. Such aid is needed as concerns about slowing economic growth and sovereign debt prompt banks to curb lending, stockpile dollars and hoard cash in safe havens.

“I’m not sleeping at night,” said Charles Wyplosz, director of the Geneva-based International Center for Money and Banking Studies. “We have moved into a new phase of crisis.”

Central bankers rescued financial firms after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in 2008 by providing limitless funding of as long as a year. While they treated the symptom — a lack of ready cash — politicians, regulators and bankers in Europe have proved unable to cure the root cause: some European lenders are at growing risk of insolvency.

The tremors, the biggest since Lehman’s collapse, were triggered by European governments’ continuing inability to stop the sovereign debt crisis from spreading beyond Greece, Portugal and Ireland to question the Italy and Spain. Renewed signs of economic weakness globally and the downgrading of U.S. debt by Standard & Poor’s rekindled concern about the quality of all government debt.

Bank Stocks Tumble

The signs of distress are widespread and mounting: Banks deposited 128.7 billion euros ($186 billion) overnight with the ECB yesterday, more than three times this year’s average, rather than lend the money to other firms. Banks also borrowed 555 million euros from the Frankfurt-based ECB’s overnight marginal lending facility, up from 90 million euros the day before.

European bank stocks have sunk 20 percent this month, led by Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc and Societe Generale SA. Edinburgh-based RBS, Britain’s biggest government-controlled lender, has tumbled 43 percent, and Paris-based Societe Generale, France’s second-largest bank, dropped 39 percent.

The extra yield investors demand to buy bank bonds instead of benchmark government debt surged to 302 basis points yesterday, or 3.02 percentage points, the highest since July 2009, data compiled by Bank of America Merrill Lynch show. The cost of insuring that debt against default surged to a record today. The Markit iTraxx Financial Index linked to senior debt of 25 European banks and insurers rose to 252 basis points, compared with 149 when Lehman collapsed.

Greek Default Concern

It was the specter of government debt turning toxic that has revived the liquidity crisis policy makers had tried to stop in 2008. As speculation grew that European banks would have to write down their holdings of more governments’ debt after a Greek default, lenders pulled funding to those banks that held the most peripheral debt. It also raised concern European governments would struggle to afford a further bail out of their banks, because both the state and the lenders had failed to reduce their borrowings since the onset of the crisis.

“The debt has been transferred from the banks to the sovereign, but it hasn’t actually been eradicated,” said Gary Greenwood, a banking analyst at Shore Capital in Liverpool. “Until the sovereigns get their balance sheets in order, then these concerns are going to remain.”

Funding markets have seized up as investors speculate that sovereign debt writedowns are inevitable. Banks in the region hold 98.2 billion euros of Greek sovereign debt, 317 billion euros of Italian government debt and about 280 billion euros of Spanish bonds, according to European Banking Authority data.

Euribor-OIS

The difference between the three-month euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor, and the overnight indexed swap rate, a measure of banks’ reluctance to lend to each other, was at 0.66 percentage point today, within 4 basis points of the widest spread since May 2009.

“The central bank is the only clearer left to settle funds between banks,” said Christoph Rieger, head of fixed-income strategy at Commerzbank AG in Frankfurt. “There is a mistrust between banks in general, between regions and with dollar providers overall.”

Overseas banks operating in the U.S. may have cut dollar holdings by as much as $300 billion in the past four weeks as European banks faced a squeeze on funding and sought dollars, Jens Nordvig, a managing director of currency research at Nomura Holdings Inc. in New York said Aug. 18. Dollar assets declined by about 38 percent to $550 billion in the period, he said.

‘More Nervous’

“Banks are becoming more nervous about being exposed to other banks as they hoard liquidity and become more suspicious of other banks’ balance sheets,” Guillaume Tiberghien, analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, wrote in a note to clients on Aug. 19.

By contrast, banks in the U.S. are “flush” with liquidity, loan loss reserves and capital, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analyst Richard Ramsden wrote in an Aug. 6 report. Large commercial banks combined holdings of cash and securities at large have climbed to 30 percent of managed assets, up from 22 percent at the start of the U.S. financial crisis in October 2007, Ramsden wrote, citing Federal Reserve data.

The Federal Reserve, which provided as much as $1.2 trillion of loans to banks in December 2008, wound down most of its emergency programs by early 2010. One of the few exceptions was the central-bank liquidity swap lines that provide dollars to the ECB and other central banks so they can in turn auction off the dollars to banks in their own jurisdictions.

Trichet, Bernanke

Banks’ woes are again thrusting central bankers to the fore as ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet joins Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and their counterparts from around the world in traveling this week to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the Kansas City Fed’s annual policy symposium.

After increasing its benchmark rate twice this year to counter inflation, the ECB this month provided relief for banks by buying Italian and Spanish bonds for the first time, lending unlimited funds for six months, and providing one unnamed bank with dollars to satisfy the first such request since February. In doing so, it’s maintaining a role it began in August 2007 when it injected cash into markets after they began to freeze.

Coming to the rescue isn’t easy for the ECB. Its balance sheet is now 73 percent bigger than in August 2007 and its latest bond-buying opened it to accusations that by rescuing profligate nations it’s breaking a rule of the euro’s founding treaty and undermining its credibility. Policy makers are also divided over the best course of action, with Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann among those opposing the bond program.

Economic Threat

The central bank is acting in part because governments have yet to ratify a plan to extend the scope of a 440-billion euro rescue facility to allow it to buy bonds and inject capital into banks. Markets tumbled last week on concern policy makers aren’t acting fast enough.

The funding difficulties of banks was one reason cited by Morgan Stanley economists Aug. 17 for cutting their forecast for euro-area economic growth this year to 0.5 percent next year, less than half the 1.2 percent previously anticipated. They now expect the ECB to reverse this year’s rate increases, returning its benchmark to 1 percent by the end of next year.

The economic threat is greater in Europe because consumers and companies are more reliant on banks for funding than their U.S. counterparts, said Tobias Blattner, a former ECB economist now at Daiwa Capital Markets Europe in London. He says the ECB should eventually try to hand over fire-fighting duties either to governments, who would then inject capital into financial firms, or national central banks, who could provide short-term loans to lenders.

‘Uncharted Territory’

Longer-term solutions may involve the restructuring the debt of cash-strapped nations in a way that doesn’t roil bank balance sheets, potentially in lockstep with a European version of the U.S.’s Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Lena Komileva, Group-of-10 strategy head at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in London, said the central bank may have no option but to extend the backstop role it is playing for periphery banks to lenders elsewhere. Refusal to do so would risk a European bank default by the end of the year, she said.

“Markets are back in uncharted territory,” said Komileva. “The crisis is a whole new story now.”

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We’ve Been Warned: The System Is ready to Blow

New-York-stock-exchange

Traders work at the New York Stock Exchange on 9 August. Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

For the past two centuries and more, life in Britain has been governed by a simple concept: tomorrow will be better than today. Black August has given us a glimpse of a dystopia, one in which the financial markets buckle and the cities burn. Like Scrooge, we have been shown what might be to come unless we change our ways.

There were glimmers of hope amid last week’s despair. Neighbourhoods rallied round in the face of the looting. The Muslim community in Birmingham showed incredible dignity after three young men were mown down by a car and killed during the riots. It was chastening to see consumerism laid bare. We have seen the future and we know it sucks. All of which is cause for cautious optimism – provided the right lessons are drawn.

Lesson number one is that the financial and social causes are linked. Lesson number two is that what links the City banker and the looter is the lack of restraint, the absence of boundaries to bad behaviour. Lesson number three is that we ignore this at our peril.

To understand the mess we are in, it’s important to know how we got here. Today marks the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s announcement that America was suspending the convertibility of thedollar into gold at $35 an ounce. Speculative attacks on the dollar had begun in the late 1960s as concerns mounted over America’s rising trade deficit and the cost of the Vietnam war. Other countries were increasingly reluctant to take dollars in payment and demanded gold instead. Nixon called time on the Bretton Woods system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates, under which countries could use capital controls in order to stimulate their economies without fear of a run on their currency. It was also an era in which protectionist measures were used quite liberally: Nixon announced on 15 August 1971 that he was imposing a 10% tax on all imports into the US.

Four decades on, it is hard not to feel nostalgia for the Bretton Woods system. Imperfect though it was, it acted as an anchor for the global economy for more than a quarter of a century, and allowed individual countries to pursue full employment policies. It was a period devoid of systemic financial crises.

Utter mess

There have been big structural changes in the way the global economy has been managed since 1971, none of them especially beneficial. The fixed exchange rate system has been replaced by a hybrid system in which some currencies are pegged and others float. The currencies in the eurozone, for example, are fixed against each other, but the eurofloats against the dollar, the pound and the Swiss franc. The Hong Kong dollar is tied to the US dollar, while Beijing has operated a system under which the yuan is allowed to appreciate against the greenback but at a rate much slower than economic fundamentals would suggest.

The system is an utter mess, particularly since almost every country in the world is now seeking to manipulate its currency downwards in order to make exports cheaper and imports dearer. This is clearly not possible. Sir Mervyn King noted last week that the solution to the crisis involved China and Germany reflating their economies so that debtor nations like the US and Britain could export more. Progress on that front has been painfully slow, and will remain so while the global currency system remains so dysfunctional. The solution is either a fully floating system under which countries stop manipulating their currencies or an attempt to recreate a new fixed exchange rate system using a basket of world currencies as its anchor.

The break-up of the Bretton Woods system paved the way for the liberalisation of financial markets. This began in the 1970s and picked up speed in the 1980s. Exchange controls were lifted and formal restrictions on credit abandoned. Policymakers were left with only one blunt instrument to control the availability of credit: interest rates.

For a while in the late 1980s, the easy availability of money provided the illusion of wealth but there was a shift from a debt-averse world where financial crises were virtually unknown to a debt-sodden world constantly teetering on the brink of banking armageddon.

Currency markets lost their anchor in 1971 when the US suspended dollar convertibility. Over the years, financial markets have lost their moral anchor, engaging not just in reckless but fraudulent behaviour. According to the US economist James Galbraith, increased complexity was the cover for blatant and widespread wrongdoing.

Looking back at the sub-prime mortgage scandal, in which millions of Americans were mis-sold home loans, Galbraith says there has been a complete breakdown in trust that is impairing the hopes of economic recovery.

“There was a private vocabulary, well-known in the industry, covering these loans and related financial products: liars’ loans, Ninja loans (the borrowers had no income, no job or assets), neutron loans (loans that would explode, destroying the people but leaving the buildings intact), toxic waste (the residue of the securitisation process). I suggest that this tells you that those who sold these products knew or suspected that their line of work was not 100% honest. Think of the restaurant where the staff refers to the food as scum, sludge and sewage.”

Finally, there has been a big change in the way that the spoils of economic success have been divvied up. Back when Nixon was berating the speculators attacking the dollar peg, there was an implicit social contract under which the individual was guaranteed a job and a decent wage that rose as the economy grew. The fruits of growth were shared with employers, and taxes were recycled into schools, health care and pensions. In return, individuals obeyed the law and encouraged their children to do the same. The assumption was that each generation would have a better life than the last.

This implicit social contract has broken down. Growth is less rapid than it was 40 years ago, and the gains have disproportionately gone to companies and the very rich. In the UK, the professional middle classes, particularly in the southeast, are doing fine, but below them in the income scale are people who have become more dependent on debt as their real incomes have stagnated. Next are the people on minimum wage jobs, which have to be topped up by tax credits so they can make ends meet. At the very bottom of the pile are those who are without work, many of them second and third generation unemployed.

Deep trouble

A crisis that has been four decades in the making will not be solved overnight. It will be difficult to recast the global monetary system to ensure that the next few years see gradual recovery rather than depression. Wall Street and the City will resist all attempts at clipping their wings. There is strong ideological resistance to the policies that make decent wages in a full employment economy feasible: capital controls, allowing strong trade unions, wage subsidies, and protectionism.

But this is a fork in the road. History suggests there is no iron law of progress and there have been periods when things have got worse not better. Together, the global imbalances, the manic-depressive behaviour of stock markets, the venality of the financial sector, the growing gulf between rich and poor, the high levels of unemployment, the naked consumerism and the riots are telling us something.

This is a system in deep trouble and it is waiting to blow.

Why Congress and S&P Deserve Each Other

Having Standard & Poor’s downgrade the creditworthiness of the U.S., and warn the country about further downgrades, is a little like having the Catholic Church lecture Scout leaders on the proper behavior toward boys. The moral authority seems to be wanting. S&P, you may recall, is one of the ratings agencies (the others being Moody’s and Fitch) that greased the skids of the financial crisis by awarding AAA ratings to tranche after tranche of mortgage bonds called collaterized debt obligations, or CDOs.

Recall that, unlike U.S. Treasuries, backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S., CDOs were underwritten by garbage mortgages — that is, backed by no-documentation “liar loans” and other Alt-A subprime pond scum handed to borrowers who otherwise couldn’t get a nickel’s worth of credit at their local dry cleaner. S&P stamped CDOs with the same grade it previously awarded to a precious few companies, including Exxon and Microsoft. More than 30,000 CDOs got the AAA blessing from the agencies. S&P couldn’t pull its snout out of the trough even when it became apparent in 2007 that the mortgage bond pig-out was over. This e-mail from an S&P employee, uncovered by a congressional investigation, says it all: “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.” In their absorbing history of the financial crisis, The Devils Are All Here, Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera bared the behavior of the agencies.

Even when their own analysts began sounding the alarm, senior management refused to stop the money machine. And if the analysts became insistent on being scrupulous, the agencies got new analysts. Why? Because their clients, big banks such as Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs, demanded that the CDO machine keep on cranking, until it utterly collapsed.

And let’s be clear: this was all perfectly legal. “S&P’s ratings do not speak to the market value of a security or the volatility of its price, and they are not recommendations to buy, sell or hold a security. They simply provide a tool for investors to use as they assess risk and differentiate credit quality of obligors and the debt they issue,” testified Rodney Clark, head of ratings services for S&P, to the House subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance and Government-Sponsored Enterprises. In other words, you can’t take our word to the bank, but you can take it to the poorhouse.

When investors like the Wyoming state pension system sued after many of the CDOs crashed in value, the industry stuck to this “It’s just our opinion” defense and won. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last August that the agencies were not “underwriters” or “control persons” even if they were in bed with them. The fundamental contradiction of the industry is that the companies that issue the securities pay the ratings agencies for their grades; independence is always suspect, and the courts upheld that.

One of many ironies of the S&P downgrade is that the three ratings agencies have so much power because the federal government, in the form of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), handed it to them. As former TIME writer Barbara Kiviat pointed out in this space, the power of the big ratings agencies dates to the post-Depression era, when the government increasingly relied on them to bless new issues for credit-wary investors. Then, in 1975, the SEC iced the cake, designating a number of companies as “nationally recognized statistical rating organizations,” or NRSROs. If you were not an NRSO as a ratings agency, you were SOL. Why would anyone issue bonds rated by an agency that wasn’t government-approved? The SEC designation had the unintended effect of creating a market lock for the bigger firms. That S&P would slap the hand that legitimizes it is wonderfully perverse given last week’s debt deal. The Tea Party supposedly hates Wall Street so much that it ignored warnings that its Taliban economic policy — threatening to decapitate the economy unless it got its way on spending cuts — would spook the markets, since the Street abhors uncertainty. For a moment, it looked as if the Tea team won, in that the market didn’t tank as the deal wrangling went on and on. Instead, the market cratered post-deal, as the compromised compromise left so much up in the air. Republicans had been chastising the Obama Administration for creating uncertainty, yet they allowed their own radical wing to impose it for the foreseeable future. (Clearly, uncertainty about the resolution of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis contributed to the market troubles too.) So S&P in effect fired a shot across the Tea Party’s bow: You mess with Wall Street, you will be punished. It had another for Obama: Lead, follow or get out of the way. And the two parties blamed each other. “It happened on your watch, Mr. President,” screamed Michele Bachmann, exhibiting the full extent of her knowledge of economics. In making its decision, S&P said the downgrade “reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.”

Here’s the other laughable irony: Congress had a chance to rein in the ratings agencies but demurred. Even though the statutory authority that gave S&P, Moody’s and Fitch an oligopoly on ratings was complicit in their contribution to the crisis, Congress nevertheless refused to remove the NRSRO status. The solons bought the idea that smaller agencies would be crushed if an unfettered free market were imposed on the ratings industry. Funny, that didn’t happen in the airline industry when it was deregulated. And by the way, can you name the fourth, fifth or sixth largest ratings agency? Republicans, heeding the deregulation call of their banking clients (whose demands for deregulation more than a decade ago, blessed by the Clinton Administration, led us down the path to the crisis), bent over backward to defang the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was central to the Dodd-Frank bill, whose hilarious formal name is the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Wall Street, having blown trillions during the crisis, demanded not to be hampered by either reform or consumer protection as it recovered from the crisis. Why should the ratings agencies be so encumbered?

So here’s our reward, America: higher costs for our mortgages and higher costs for the federal, state and local governments to borrow. As Fareed Zakaria points out in TIME’s Aug. 15 cover story, a jump of a single percentage point in the interest rate the federal government pays will more than wipe out the savings anticipated by the debt deal. Nice work, that. And we owe it all to an ethically and intellectually suspect ratings agency. (S&P even made a $2.1 trillion error in its calculations but dismissed it as “nonmaterial.”) Yet it has occurred to me that maybe S&P has a point. After all, this is a Congress that let the banking industry run amok, bailed it out with access to trillions of dollars of credit and has since done precious little to ensure that the process won’t be repeated. Nor would Congress reform the ratings industry, which played a vital role in the crisis. Nor did it agree to a deal worked out between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that would have preserved the AAA rating. If our Congress is that dumb, perhaps we deserved the downgrade.

Agency’s ’04 Rule Let Banks Pile Up New Debt

“We have a good deal of comfort about the capital cushions at these firms at the moment.” — Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, March 11, 2008.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Christopher Cox, left, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Roel C. Campos at a House hearing in 2007. Mr. Campos was on the commission in 2004 when a decision was made to change the net capital rule for big investment banks.

The Reckoning

Loosening the Reins
Articles in this series are exploring the causes of the financial crisis.

Dennis Brack for The New York Times

William H. Donaldson, who announced his resignation from the S.E.C. in June 2005, created a risk management office to watch for future problems.

As rumors swirled that Bear Stearns faced imminent collapse in early March, Christopher Cox was told by his staff that Bear Stearns had $17 billion in cash and other assets — more than enough to weather the storm.

Drained of most of its cash three days later, Bear Stearns was forced into a hastily arranged marriage with JPMorgan Chase — backed by a $29 billion taxpayer dowry.

Within six months, other lions of Wall Street would also either disappear or transform themselves to survive the financial maelstrom — Merrill Lynch sold itself to Bank of AmericaLehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley converted to commercial banks.

How could Mr. Cox have been so wrong?

Many events in Washington, on Wall Street and elsewhere around the country have led to what has been called the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s. But decisions made at a brief meeting on April 28, 2004, explain why the problems could spin out of control. The agency’s failure to follow through on those decisions also explains why Washington regulators did not see what was coming.

On that bright spring afternoon, the five members of the Securities and Exchange Commission met in a basement hearing room to consider an urgent plea by the big investment banks.

They wanted an exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on their investments. Those funds could then flow up to the parent company, enabling it to invest in the fast-growing but opaque world of mortgage-backed securities; credit derivatives, a form of insurance for bond holders; and other exotic instruments.

The five investment banks led the charge, including Goldman Sachs, which was headed by Henry M. Paulson Jr. Two years later, he left to become Treasury secretary.

A lone dissenter — a software consultant and expert on risk management — weighed in from Indiana with a two-page letter to warn the commission that the move was a grave mistake. He never heard back from Washington.

One commissioner, Harvey J. Goldschmid, questioned the staff about the consequences of the proposed exemption. It would only be available for the largest firms, he was reassuringly told — those with assets greater than $5 billion.

“We’ve said these are the big guys,” Mr. Goldschmid said, provoking nervous laughter, “but that means if anything goes wrong, it’s going to be an awfully big mess.”

Mr. Goldschmid, an authority on securities law from Columbia, was a behind-the-scenes adviser in 2002 to Senator Paul S. Sarbanes when he rewrote the nation’s corporate laws after a wave of accounting scandals. “Do we feel secure if there are these drops in capital we really will have investor protection?” Mr. Goldschmid asked. A senior staff member said the commission would hire the best minds, including people with strong quantitative skills to parse the banks’ balance sheets.

Annette L. Nazareth, the head of market regulation, reassured the commission that under the new rules, the companies for the first time could be restricted by the commission from excessively risky activity. She was later appointed a commissioner and served until January 2008.

“I’m very happy to support it,” said Commissioner Roel C. Campos, a former federal prosecutor and owner of a small radio broadcasting company from Houston, who then deadpanned: “And I keep my fingers crossed for the future.”

The proceeding was sparsely attended. None of the major media outlets, including The New York Times, covered it.

After 55 minutes of discussion, which can now be heard on the Web sites of the agency and The Times, the chairman, William H. Donaldson, a veteran Wall Street executive, called for a vote. It was unanimous. The decision, changing what was known as the net capital rule, was completed and published in The Federal Register a few months later.

With that, the five big independent investment firms were unleashed.

In loosening the capital rules, which are supposed to provide a buffer in turbulent times, the agency also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models for determining the riskiness of investments, essentially outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves.

Over the following months and years, each of the firms would take advantage of the looser rules. At Bear Stearns, the leverage ratio — a measurement of how much the firm was borrowing compared to its total assets — rose sharply, to 33 to 1. In other words, for every dollar in equity, it had $33 of debt. The ratios at the other firms also rose significantly.

The 2004 decision for the first time gave the S.E.C. a window on the banks’ increasingly risky investments in mortgage-related securities.

But the agency never took true advantage of that part of the bargain. The supervisory program under Mr. Cox, who arrived at the agency a year later, was a low priority.

The commission assigned seven people to examine the parent companies — which last year controlled financial empires with combined assets of more than $4 trillion. Since March 2007, the office has not had a director. And as of last month, the office had not completed a single inspection since it was reshuffled by Mr. Cox more than a year and a half ago.

The few problems the examiners initially uncovered about the riskiness of the firms’ investments and their increased reliance on debt — clear signs of trouble — were all but ignored.

The commission’s division of trading and markets “became aware of numerous potential red flags prior to Bear Stearns’s collapse, regarding its concentration of mortgage securities, high leverage, shortcomings of risk management in mortgage-backed securities and lack of compliance with the spirit of certain” capital standards, said an inspector general’s report issued last Friday. But the division “did not take actions to limit these risk factors.”

Drive to Deregulate

The commission’s decision effectively to outsource its oversight to the firms themselves fit squarely in the broader Washington culture of the last eight years under President Bush.

A similar closeness to industry and laissez-faire philosophy has driven a push for deregulation throughout the government, from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency to worker safety and transportation agencies.

“It’s a fair criticism of the Bush administration that regulators have relied on many voluntary regulatory programs,” said Roderick M. Hills, a Republican who was chairman of the S.E.C. under President Gerald R. Ford. “The problem with such voluntary programs is that, as we’ve seen throughout history, they often don’t work.”

As was the case with other agencies, the commission’s decision was motivated by industry complaints of excessive regulation at a time of growing competition from overseas. The 2004 decision was aimed at easing regulatory burdens that the European Union was about to impose on the foreign operations of United States investment banks.

The Europeans said they would agree not to regulate the foreign subsidiaries of the investment banks on one condition — that the commission regulate the parent companies, along with the brokerage units that the S.E.C. already oversaw.

A 1999 law, however, had left a gap that did not give the commission explicit oversight of the parent companies. To get around that problem, and in exchange for the relaxed capital rules, the banks volunteered to let the commission examine the books of their parent companies and subsidiaries.

The 2004 decision also reflected a faith that Wall Street’s financial interests coincided with Washington’s regulatory interests.

“We foolishly believed that the firms had a strong culture of self-preservation and responsibility and would have the discipline not to be excessively borrowing,” said Professor James D. Cox, an expert on securities law and accounting at Duke School of Law (and no relationship to Christopher Cox).

“Letting the firms police themselves made sense to me because I didn’t think the S.E.C. had the staff and wherewithal to impose its own standards and I foolishly thought the market would impose its own self-discipline. We’ve all learned a terrible lesson,” he added.

In letters to the commissioners, senior executives at the five investment banks complained about what they called unnecessary regulation and oversight by both American and European authorities. A lone voice of dissent in the 2004 proceeding came from a software consultant from Valparaiso, Ind., who said the computer models run by the firms — which the regulators would be relying on — could not anticipate moments of severe market turbulence.

“With the stroke of a pen, capital requirements are removed!” the consultant, Leonard D. Bole, wrote to the commission on Jan. 22, 2004. “Has the trading environment changed sufficiently since 1997, when the current requirements were enacted, that the commission is confident that current requirements in examples such as these can be disregarded?”

He said that similar computer standards had failed to protect Long-Term Capital Management, the hedge fund that collapsed in 1998, and could not protect companies from the market plunge of October 1987.

Mr. Bole, who earned a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Chicago, helps write computer programs that financial institutions use to meet capital requirements.

He said in a recent interview that he was never called by anyone from the commission.

“I’m a little guy in the land of giants,” he said. “I thought that the reduction in capital was rather dramatic.”

Policing Wall Street

A once-proud agency with a rich history at the intersection of Washington and Wall Street, the Securities and Exchange Commission was created during the Great Depressionas part of the broader effort to restore confidence to battered investors. It was led in its formative years by heavyweight New Dealers, including James Landis and William O. Douglas. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked in 1934 why he appointed Joseph P. Kennedy, a spectacularly successful stock speculator, as the agency’s first chairman, Roosevelt replied: “Set a thief to catch a thief.”

The commission’s most public role in policing Wall Street is its enforcement efforts. But critics say that in recent years it has failed to deter market problems. “It seems to me the enforcement effort in recent years has fallen short of what one Supreme Court justice once called the fear of the shotgun behind the door,” said Arthur Levitt Jr., who was S.E.C. chairman in the Clinton administration. “With this commission, the shotgun too rarely came out from behind the door.”

Christopher Cox had been a close ally of business groups in his 17 years as a House member from one of the most conservative districts in Southern California. Mr. Cox had led the effort to rewrite securities laws to make investor lawsuits harder to file. He also fought against accounting rules that would give less favorable treatment to executive stock options.

Under Mr. Cox, the commission responded to complaints by some businesses by making it more difficult for the enforcement staff to investigate and bring cases against companies. The commission has repeatedly reversed or reduced proposed settlements that companies had tentatively agreed upon. While the number of enforcement cases has risen, the number of cases involving significant players or large amounts of money has declined.

Mr. Cox dismantled a risk management office created by Mr. Donaldson that was assigned to watch for future problems. While other financial regulatory agencies criticized a blueprint by Mr. Paulson, the Treasury secretary, that proposed to reduce their stature — and that of the S.E.C. — Mr. Cox did not challenge the plan, leaving it to three former Democratic and Republican commission chairmen to complain that the blueprint would neuter the agency.

In the process, Mr. Cox has surrounded himself with conservative lawyers, economists and accountants who, before the market turmoil of recent months, had embraced a far more limited vision for the commission than many of his predecessors.

‘Stakes in the Ground’

Last Friday, the commission formally ended the 2004 program, acknowledging that it had failed to anticipate the problems at Bear Stearns and the four other major investment banks.

“The last six months have made it abundantly clear that voluntary regulation does not work,” Mr. Cox said.

The decision to shutter the program came after Mr. Cox was blamed by Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, for the crisis. Mr. McCain has demanded Mr. Cox’s resignation.

Mr. Cox has said that the 2004 program was flawed from its inception. But former officials as well as the inspector general’s report have suggested that a major reason for its failure was Mr. Cox’s use of it.

“In retrospect, the tragedy is that the 2004 rule making gave us the ability to get information that would have been critical to sensible monitoring, and yet the S.E.C. didn’t oversee well enough,” Mr. Goldschmid said in an interview. He and Mr. Donaldson left the commission in 2005.

Mr. Cox declined requests for an interview. In response to written questions, including whether he or the commission had made any mistakes over the last three years that contributed to the current crisis, he said, “There will be no shortage of retrospective analyses about what happened and what should have happened.” He said that by last March he had concluded that the monitoring program’s “metrics were inadequate.”

He said that because the commission did not have the authority to curtail the heavy borrowing at Bear Stearns and the other firms, he and the commission were powerless to stop it.

“Implementing a purely voluntary program was very difficult because the commission’s regulations shouldn’t be suggestions,” he said. “The fact these companies could withdraw from voluntary supervision at their discretion diminished the mandate of the program and weakened its effectiveness. Experience has shown that the S.E.C. could not bootstrap itself into authority it didn’t have.”

But critics say that the commission could have done more, and that the agency’s effectiveness comes from the tone set at the top by the chairman, or what Mr. Levitt, the longest-serving S.E.C. chairman in history, calls “stakes in the ground.”

“If you go back to the chairmen in recent years, you will see that each spoke about a variety of issues that were important to them,” Mr. Levitt said. “This commission placed very few stakes in the ground.”