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Forum tries to sort out complex fallout from subprime debacle

Roger Conant, who spoke first at a forum Monday evening to discuss the subprime crisis, got right to the point. The nation, he said, is in the midst of a gigantic transfer of wealth from Main Street to Wall Street.

The financial consultant didn’t have time to burrow into the gritty details: shaky Wall Street banking giants effectively landing massive injections of capital from taxpayers, CEOs rewarded with huge paydays for failures that damaged their employees and shareholders, financial innovators who foolishly assumed that housing prices would never fall.

But there was no mistaking his viewpoint. “There’s something seriously wrong with the industry,” he told the audience.

Then things quickly settled into an often-arcane discussion of the academic, philosophical and regulatory issues raised by the subprime debacle. Conant, who spent 25 years managing money at The St. Paul Cos. and other large enterprises, had set the stage for what became, well, pretty much of a white-gloves discussion. Very Minnesota nice.

Filmmakers detailing subprime crisis in documentary
Meanwhile, another story, one likely to be far less genteel, was unfolding in the meeting room. A five-member film crew was there, shooting a national documentary on how the subprime debacle has been affecting owners of foreclosed homes and their neighbors. Barbara Koppel, who co-directed an Academy Award-winning documentary about the impact of the 1984 Hormel strike on union workers in Austin, is the director.

This was the filmmakers’ first stop. They shot in North Minneapolis, which has emerged as one of the nation’s home foreclosure “hot spots.” Next stop: Wall Street.

The forum was titled “Not Again! The Great Depression, Junk Bonds, Enron/WorldCom and now Sub-Prime Mortgages.” The Caux Round Table, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that takes a global perspective on ethical and moral issues, teamed up with the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management  to sponsor the forum.

Gary Stern
 Gary Stern

Gary Stern, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, was a panelist. So was Michael Macaluso, an attorney who specializes in structured finance for the Morgan Lewis & Bockius law firm. Four Carlson School professors joined them.

Ninety minutes for seven panelists, plus questions from the audience. It almost seemed like one of those Democratic or Republican presidential debates a few months ago, when seven or eight candidates were still running.

Panelists tackle intricacies of subprime mess
Yet the panelists did manage to tackle many aspects of the complex, sweeping and spreading subprime mess. Macaluso predicted that the troubles would lead to “one of the largest litigation waves we’ve ever seen.”

The Fed-engineered bailout last month that prevented bankruptcy at Bear Stearns has led to widespread demands for regulation of such investment firms. The Bush administration has responded by proposing that the Fed take on elements of this role. That would add a “market stabilizer” mission to the central bank’s two traditional tasks of fighting inflation and maintaining economic growth

Last month, the Financial Times reported that Stern’s comments in a London speech could signal a shift in the Fed’s policy of standing aside during asset booms. Under former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the bank let the good times roll during the tech stock bubble of the late 1990s and the more recent exuberance over soaring home prices.

Stern didn’t comment on that story at the forum, but he cautioned that “it’s not easy to decide the merits” of using the Fed’s “broad and gross” tools to curb asset bubbles.

Asked by film producer Eileen O’Grady about the impact of the subprime situation, Stern said winners and losers have emerged. “That’s the nature of a market economy,” he told the audience.

But he also acknowledged that those who lost their homes and their neighbors have “paid a heavy price.” If you get enough foreclosures in a community, it’s very difficult to maintain the quality of the vacant properties.”

His comments could enjoy a long shelf life. We might hear them again in about a year, when the documentary debuts.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 04/22/2008 - 12:56 pm.

    If you really want to look under the hood, I found this on the NY Times website this morning and it provides a fascinating look at how these packages got put together.

    This article will be in this Sunday’s edition of the NYT Magazine. It’s an eyeopener……

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