Until I read John Allison's The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure, I was pretty much of the belief that the last thing America needed was yet another book on the financial crisis.
But this book is so good that it's worth reading. Mr. Allison brings to the table both a free-market perspective and firsthand experience as a bank executive (CEO of BB&T) during the crisis. Few if any of the journalists, economists, and government officials who have written that bookshelf-full of other books on the topic have that to offer.
Here are some examples of things that I was unaware of until I read Mr. Allison's book, even though I have already read a lot of other books, reports, and articles and watched a lot of congressional hearings and commission meetings about the financial crisis:
•When the FDIC took over Washington Mutual, it paid uninsured depositors in full using money that would have gone to bondholders. Writes Mr. Allison: "This was in complete contradiction to past practice. The bondholders suddenly realized that there is no rule of law when government regulators are involved…The decision to treat WaMu bondholders this way closed the capital markets for banks."
• "Banks spend hundreds of millions of dollars hedging mortgaging servicing rights," which are "an accounting fiction." He writes, "I once had a highly ranked partner at one of the biggest accounting firms tell me that no more than 10 people understood all the interconnections among mortgage servicing rights, mortgage origination income, and derivatives valuation. I think he exaggerated. I do not think anyone understood."
• "The Patriot Act represents a practically impossible regulatory environment for banks because it is in direct conflict with the Privacy Act (which was also passed during the Bush administration). The Privacy Act requires banks not to violate your privacy. The Patriot Act requires that banks violate your privacy." Banks spend hundreds of millions of dollars mailing Privacy Act notices each year. Mr. Allison says one bank CEO ran a test to see if anyone reads the notices and sent out thousands of the notices with a last line offering a $100 prize if the recipient returned the notice to the bank. Only one customer did.
As the comments on the Patriot Act and the Privacy Act indicate, Mr. Allison does not go easy on President George W. Bush. "The panic atmosphere during the recent financial crisis was totally the result of massive mishandling of the financial system by government policy makers in the Bush administration," he writes. "When the head of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and the president announced that Western civilization would end unless Congress approved a $700 billion bailout, people panicked."
Mr. Allison's prescriptions for policy cures are similarly direct. "The most fundamental cure for this crisis and future financial crises would be to eliminate the Federal Reserve," he writes. He also wants to reduce federal spending, including on the military: "It is clear that the defense budget of the United States could be cut at least 25 (and probably 50) percent while making the United States better defended than it is today." He also wants "to eliminate the minimum wage, or at least reduce the minimum-wage rate back to its prerecession level of $5.15 per hour." (He writes that the minimum wage, which has been increased to $7.25 an hour, is "the primary cause of the high unemployment levels in the United States today," pushing jobs to China that would otherwise have been done in America. He suggests eliminating bank loan loss reserves and instead have banks take loan losses when they occur. And he suggests eliminating government deposit insurance and replacing it with a private system.
As for the big picture, Mr. Allison writes that the "fundamental cause" of the financial crisis is the philosophy taught in American liberal arts colleges. "The long term key to success is to recapture the elite universities from the Left," he writes.
I'm not endorsing all of Mr. Allison's analysis or conclusions. But he's succeeded at something that isn't easy: writing a new must-read book on the financial convulsions and their aftermath.