12:01am

Fri January 28, 2011
Planet Money

The Crisis Reports: A Literary Analysis

The members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission split along party lines and wrote three competing reports. But their reports differ more in style than in substance.

First, the stats.

The report from the Democratic majority — over 500 pages long. Number of footnotes: 6,711.

The main minority report, from three dissenting Republicans — just 26 pages long. Number of footnotes: Nine.

Both reports, of course, seek to explain the causes of the financial crisis that plunged the world into recession. But the majority report reads a lot like a book, and a bit of a potboiler at that.

The commission conducted hundreds of hours of interviews, with industry insiders, policymakers, whistle-blowers and regulators. And the pages of the majority's report are strewn with quotes from these interviews — foreboding, eye-popping quotes.

A veteran banker at Citigroup says that despite his warnings, the firm continued to loosen its mortgage lending standards and "joined the other lemmings headed for the cliff."

Some sections of the report are downright cinematic.

Warren Peterson, an upscale homebuilder in Bakersfield, Calif., describes the exact day he realized that the housing bubble had popped. Normally, he told the commission, real estate agents would have been lined up outside his office when he arrived at work, vying to buy the homes he built.

But one Saturday in November 2005, the majority report says:

He was at the sales office and noticed that not a single purchaser had entered the building. He called a friend, also in the homebuilding business, who said he had noticed the same thing, and asked him what he thought about it.

"It's over," his friend told Peterson.

The authors of the minority report dismiss these flourishes. They write:

The majority's 550-page report is more an account of bad events than a focused explanation of what happened and why.

But even the minority's slim policy brief has some dramatic moments.

The CEOs of Wall Street's most troubled institutions testified before the commission, and all made essentially the same argument: They said they didn't do anything wrong, their firms were fine, and they wouldn't have needed a government rescue if the market hadn't gone crazy.

The Republican commissioners smack this argument down, in firm but wonkish language. Each CEO, they write, was:

... unwilling to admit that his firm was insolvent or nearly so. In each case the CEO's claims were highly unpersuasive.

The majority and minority reports agree on a lot. They both point to the proliferation of exotic mortgages, the failures of regulators, the incompetence of Wall Street managers.

So why come out with these two separate versions? A lot of it comes down to one sentence in the majority report — a sentence that appears near the very beginning:

We conclude this financial crisis was avoidable.

Keith Hennessey, one of the three Republican authors of the main dissenting report, said that sentence "is, if not the key difference, one of just a very small number" of differences between the majority and the minority.

He says it's too simple to say in hindsight that if people would have just behaved differently, this crisis wouldn't have happened:

I think that the crisis was certainly not foreseen and I don't know that it was foreseeable. ... I don't know that it was avoidable. … It is frustrating to me. … I had to help tell this story. I wanted more than anything to be able to tell a clear story that explains very precisely, 'Here is what we could have foreseen, and here's what we couldn't.' … It's very difficult to draw those conclusions.

Fortunately, now you can draw your own conclusions. All three reports are available for download on the FCIC website, or in book form at bookstores all over the country. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.