This article originally appeared on DailyKos.com.
Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is Enemy Action. —
James Bond’s wealthy nemesis may have had an obsession with gold, but he judged, quite correctly, that if people keep putting your plans awry, that was likely their intent.
In 1982, the same year John McCain entered the Senate, a bill was put forward that would substantially deregulate the savings and loan industry. The Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act was an initiative of the Reagan administration, and was largely authored by lobbyists for the S&L industry–including John McCain’s warm-up speaker at the Republican National Convention, Fred Thompson. The official description of the bill was “An act to revitalize the housing industry by strengthening the financial stability of home mortgage lending institutions and ensuring the availability of home mortgage loans.” Considering where things stand in 2008, that’s enough to make you wince. It should.
Seven years later, the S&L industry was collapsing. What was the cause? Garn-St. Germain had handed the S&Ls a greatly expanded range of capabilities, allowing them to go head to head with full service banks, but it hadn’t handed them the bank’s regulations. Left to operate in an anarchistic gray area, S&Ls had chased profits, indulged in amazing extravagances and cranked out enough cheap mortgages to fuel a real estate boom. They had also experimented with lots of complex, creative–and risky–investments, even though they didn’t have the economic models to really determine the worth of the things they were buying. The result was a mountain of bad debts and worthless “assets.” Does any of that sound eerily (or nauseatingly) familiar?
It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In 1985, three years after the deregulation of the S&Ls, the chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board saw that the situation was already looking bad, with potential to get much worse. To try to head off disaster, he instituted a rule to limit the amount and types of investments S&Ls could carry on their books. However, many savings and loans–among them Lincoln Savings & Loan Association of Irvine, California, which was headed by a fellow named Charles Keating–promptly ignored these rules.
Now enters a familiar cast of characters. First to pop up was the universally beloved Fed-chief-to-be Alan Greenspan. Greenspan argued against the loan board’s new rules, and persuaded Reagan to appoint one of Keating’s pals to the board to blunt the requirements. A quintet of senators, among them John McCain, began having meetings with both the management at Lincoln and the regulators at the loan board. With their help, Lincoln was able to stay in business an additional two years, at the end of which they failed–taking the life savings of 21,000, mostly elderly, investors with them.