Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon

Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon

by Gretchen Morgenson, Joshua Rosner

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A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book for 2011
One of The Economist's 2011 Books of the Year

The New York Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist reveals how the financial meltdown emerged from the toxic interplay of Washington, Wall Street, and corrupt mortgage lenders

In Reckless Endangerment, Gretchen Morgenson, the star business columnist of The New York Times, exposes how the watchdogs who were supposed to protect the country from financial harm were actually complicit in the actions that finally blew up the American economy.

Drawing on previously untapped sources and building on original research from coauthor Joshua Rosner—who himself raised early warnings with the public and investors, and kept detailed records—Morgenson connects the dots that led to this fiasco.

Morgenson and Rosner draw back the curtain on Fannie Mae, the mortgage-finance giant that grew, with the support of the Clinton administration, through the 1990s, becoming a major opponent of government oversight even as it was benefiting from public subsidies. They expose the role played not only by Fannie Mae executives but also by enablers at Countrywide Financial, Goldman Sachs, the Federal Reserve, HUD, Congress, the FDIC, and the biggest players on Wall Street, to show how greed, aggression, and fear led countless officials to ignore warning signs of an imminent disaster.

Character-rich and definitive in its analysis, this is the one account of the financial crisis you must read.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805091205
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 05/24/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

GRETCHEN MORGENSON  is a business reporter and writes the Fair Game column at The New York Times, where she also serves as assistant business and financial editor. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her “trenchant and incisive“ coverage of Wall Street. Prior to joining the Times in 1998, she worked as a broker at Dean Witter in the 1980s, and as a reporter at Forbes, Worth, and Money magazines. She lives with her husband and son in New York City. JOSHUA ROSNER is a partner at independent research consultancy Graham Fisher and Co. and advises global policy-makers and institutional investors on housing and mortgage-finance issues. He was among the first analysts to identify operational and accounting problems at the GSEs (government-sponsored enterprises) and one of the earliest to identify the peak in the housing market, the likelihood of contagion in the credit rating agencies’ CDO assumptions. He lives with his son in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


More Americans should own their own homes, for reasons that are economic and tangible, and reasons that are emotional and intangible, but go to the heart of what it means to harbor, to nourish, to expand the American Dream.
—William Jefferson Clinton,
forty-second president of the United States, November 1994

The president of the United States was preaching to the choir when he made that proclamation in 1994, just two years into his first term. Facing an enthusiastic crowd at the National Association of Realtors' annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Clinton launched the National Partners in Homeownership, a private-public cooperative with one goal: raising the numbers of homeowners across America.

Determined to reverse what some in Washington saw as a troubling decline of homeownership during the previous decade, Clinton urged private enterprise to join with public agencies to ensure that by the year 2000, some 70 percent of the populace would own their own homes.

An owner in every home. It was the prosperous, 1990s version of the Depression-era "A Chicken in Every Pot."

With homeownership standing at around 64 percent, Clinton's program was ambitious. But it was hardly groundbreaking. The U.S. government had often used housing to achieve its public policy goals. Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act of 1862 gave away public land in the nation's western precincts to individuals committed to developing it. And even earlier, during the Revolutionary War, government land grants were a popular way for an impoverished America to pay soldiers who fought the British.

Throughout the American experience, a respect, indeed a reverence, for homeownership has been central. The Constitution, as first written, limited the right to vote to white males who owned property, for example. Many colonists came to America because their prospects of becoming landowners were far better in the New World than they were in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.

Still, Clinton's homeownership plan differed from its predecessors. The strategy was not a reaction to an economic calamity, as was the case during the Great Depression. Back then, the government created the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, which acquired and refinanced one million delinquent mortgages between 1933 and 1936.

On the contrary, the homeownership strategy of 1994 came about as the economy was rebounding from the recession of 1990 and '91 and about to enter a long period of enviable growth. It also followed an extended era of prosperity for consumer-oriented banks during most of the 1980s when these institutions began extending credit to consumers in a more "democratic" manner for the first time.

Rather than pursue its homeownership program alone, as it had done in earlier efforts, the government enlisted help in 1995 from a wide swath of American industry. Banks, home builders, securities firms, Realtors—all were asked to pull together in a partnership made up of 65 top national organizations and 131 smaller groups.

The partnership would achieve its goals by "making homeownership more affordable, expanding creative financing, simplifying the home buying process, reducing transaction costs, changing conventional methods of design and building less expensive houses, among other means."

Amid the hoopla surrounding the partnership announcement, little attention was paid to its unique and most troubling aspect: It was unheard of for regulators to team up this closely with those they were charged with policing.

And nothing was mentioned about the strategy's ultimate consequence—the distortion of the definition of homeownership—gutting its role as the mechanism for most families to fund their retirement years or pass on wealth to their children or grandchildren.

Instead, in just a few short years, all of the venerable rules governing the relationship between borrower and lender went out the window, starting with the elimination of the requirements that a borrower put down a substantial amount of cash in a property, verify his income, and demonstrate an ability to service his debts.

With baby boomers entering their peak earning years and the number of two-income families on the rise, banks selling Americans on champagne hopes and caviar dreams were about to become the most significant engine of economic growth in the nation. After Congress changed the tax code in 1986, eliminating the deductibility of interest payments on all consumer debt except those charged on home mortgages, the stage was set for housing to become Americans' most favored asset.

Of course, banks and other private-sector participants in the partnership stood to gain significantly from an increase in homeownership. But nothing as crass as profits came up at the Partners in Homeownership launch. Instead, the focus was on the "deeply-rooted and almost universally held belief that homeownership provides crucial benefits that merit continued public support." These included job creation, financial security (when an individual buys a home that rises in value), and more stable neighborhoods (people don't trash places they own).

In other words, homeownership for all was a win/win/win.

A 1995 briefing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development did concede that the validity of the homeownership claims "is so widely accepted that economists and social scientists have seldom tested them." But that note of caution was lost amid bold assertions of homeownership's benefits.

"When we boost the number of homeowners in our country," Clinton said in a 1995 speech, "we strengthen our economy, create jobs, build up the middle class, and build better citizens."

Clinton's prediction about the middle class was perhaps the biggest myth of all. Rather than building it up, the Partners in Homeownership wound up decimating the middle class. It left Americans in this large economic group groaning under a mountain of debt and withdrawing cash from their homes as a way to offset stagnant incomes.

It took a little more than a decade after the partnership's launch for its devastating impact to be felt. By 2008, the American economy was in tatters, jobs were disappearing, and the nation's middle class was imperiled by free-falling home prices and hard-hit retirement accounts. Perhaps most shocking, homeownership was no longer the route to a secure spot in middle-class America. For millions of families, especially those in the lower economic segments of the population, borrowing to buy a home had put them squarely on the road to personal and financial ruin.

Fueled by dubious industry practices supported by many in Congress and unchecked by most of the regulators charged with oversight of the lending process, the homeownership drive helped to plunge the nation into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Truly this was an unprecedented partnership.

But what few have recognized is how the partners in the Clinton program embraced a corrupt corporate model that was also created to promote homeownership. This was the model devised by Fannie Mae, the huge and powerful government-sponsored mortgage finance company set up in 1938 to make it easier for borrowers to buy homes in Depression-ravaged America. Indeed, by the early 1990s, well before the government's partnership drive began, Fannie Mae had perfected the art of manipulating lawmakers, eviscerating its regulators, and enriching its executives. All in the name of expanding homeownership.

Under the direction of James A. Johnson, Fannie Mae's calculating and politically connected chief executive, the company capitalized on its government ties, building itself into the largest and most powerful financial institution in the world. In 2008, however, the colossus would fail, requiring hundreds of billions in taxpayer backing to keep it afloat. Fannie Mae became the quintessential example of a company whose risk taking allowed its executives to amass great wealth. But when those gambles went awry, the taxpayers had to foot the bill.

This failure was many years in the making. Beginning in the early 1990s, Johnson's position atop Fannie Mae gave him an extraordinary place astride Washington and Wall Street. His job as chief executive of the company presented him with an extremely powerful policy tool to direct the nation's housing strategy. In his hands, however, that tool became a cudgel. With it, he threatened his enemies and regulators while rewarding his supporters. And, of course, there was the fortune he accrued.

Perhaps even more important, Johnson's tactics were watched closely and subsequently imitated by others in the private sector, interested in creating their own power and profit machines. Fannie Mae led the way in relaxing loan underwriting standards, for example, a shift that was quickly followed by private lenders. Johnson's company also automated the lending process so that loan decisions could be made in minutes and were based heavily on a borrower's credit history, rather than on a more comprehensive financial profile as had been the case in the past.

Eliminating the traditional due diligence conducted by lenders soon became the playbook for financial executives across the country. Wall Street, always ready to play the role of enabler, provided the money for these dubious loans, profiting mightily. Without the Wall Street firms giving billions of dollars to reckless lenders, hundreds of billions of bad loans would never have been made.

Finally, Fannie Mae's aggressive lobbying and its methods for neutering regulators and opponents were also copied by much of the financial industry. Regulators across the country were either beaten back or lulled into complacency by the banks they were supposed to police.

How Clinton's calamitous Homeownership Strategy was born, nurtured, and finally came to blow up the American economy is the story of greed and good intentions, corporate corruption and government support. It is also a story of pretty lies told by politicians, company executives, bankers, regulators, and borrowers.

And yet, there were those who questioned the merits of the homeownership drive and tried to alert regulators and policymakers to its unintended consequences.

A handful of analysts and investors, for example, tried to warn of the rising tide of mortgage swindlers; they were met with a deafening silence. Consumer lawyers, seeing the poisonous nature of many home loans, tried to outlaw them. But they were beaten back by an army of lenders and their lobbyists. Some brave souls in academia argued that renting a home was, for many, better than owning. They were refuted by government studies using manipulated figures or flawed analysis to conclude that homeownership was a desired goal for all.

Even the credit-rating agencies, supposedly neutral assayers of risks in mortgage securities, quelled attempts to rein in predatory lending.

All the critics were either willfully ignored or silenced by well-funded, self-interested, and sometimes vicious opposition. Their voices were drowned out by the homeownership trust, a vertically integrated, public-private housing machine whose members were driven either by ideology or the vast profits that rising homeownership would provide.

The consortium was too big and too powerful for anyone to take on. Its reach extended from the mortgage broker on Main Street to the Wall Street traders and finally to the hallowed halls of Congress. It was unstoppable.


Because housing finance was heavily regulated, government participation was vital to the homeownership push. And Washington played not one but three starring roles in creating the financial crisis of 2008. First, it unleashed the mortgage mania by helping to relax basic rules of lending that had been in place for decades. Then its policymakers looked the other way as the mortgage binge enriched a few and imperiled many. Even after the disaster hit and the trillion-dollar bailouts began, Congress and administration officials did little to repair the damaged system and ensure that such a travesty could not happen again.

This was a reckless endangerment of the entire nation by people at the highest levels of Washington and corporate America.

Barney Frank, the powerful Massachusetts Democrat and ardent supporter of Fannie Mae, summed it up perfectly back in March 2005. He had just delivered a luncheon speech on housing at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.

Walking up from the lower-level conference room where he had addressed the Institute of International Bankers, Frank was asked whether he had considered the possible downsides to the homeownership drive. Was he afraid, for instance, that easy lending programs could wind up luring many of his constituents into homes they could not ultimately afford? Was he concerned that, after the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies were forgotten, the same people he had put into homes would be knocking on his door, complaining of being trapped in properties and facing financial ruin?

Frank brushed off the questioner. "We'll deal with that problem if it happens," he barked.

Excerpted from Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner
Copyright 2011 by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner
Published in 2011 by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Reckless Endangerment 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 84 reviews.
Mark Wright More than 1 year ago
This marvelous book lays out the sad sad story of the breakdown of our country's financial system in a very readable, logical progression. Among the better books on the subject, it lays bare the dangerous lies of Government Sponsered Entities - Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac - & the insidious relationship with the Congress, the regulators, & Wall Street.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book covers every step that took us to the road of financial disaster. It is an eye opener into the "you scratch my back and I will scratch yours". I belive we have the BEST GOVERNMENT MONEY CAN BUY. The disregard for our financial security by members of Congress who allowewd Wall Street to run out of control is amazing. Oh I forgot, the problem did not begin with George W.Bush.
JimSpencer More than 1 year ago
While many of us have had a sense about who was REALLY responsible for the debt crisis we are presently in, this book takes no prisoners. They name names, they back up their facts with honest investigative journalism and present it all from a politically neutral corner. After I read the book, I was even madder than before I read it, because the perpetrators are still in places of prominence in our society. They go on with their lives as if it were just a minor bump in the road, while the rest of us have to pay for their gross misconduct. That said, I am now a fan of Gretchen Morgenson. She is easy to read and a very knowledgeable writer.
ItsOnlyMe More than 1 year ago
The thing that smacked me between the eyes while reading this book is how great an effect corruption in government has on all of us. Our own congressman glibly spews his version of the meltdown: it was Goerge Bush's fault, and the fault of the private sector. People, according to his story, just quit spending and investing, motivated by selfishness. He refuses to acknowledge any involvement of congress in creating the 2008 economic crisis. This mantra is being repeated in Democratic circles everywhere. Reckless Endangerment gives the background, in a fascinating read, to enable one to state the case against lazy, polically convenient, and false "explanations" of the housing crisis. "Forewarned is forearmed": Multiply the corruption that led to this debacle by about 100, and that's what's going on today. Take the lessons of this book and investigate what's really happening under the Obama administration with paybacks, regulatory burdens, favoritism by the Justice Department, and the list continues. If we don't clean this rat's nest out of DC, the housing crisis will look like a walk in the park.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Everyone should read this book. If you want to understsnd what lead to the financail crisis of 2008.
fab4fan More than 1 year ago
The way the book puts things together, names names and then gives a list at the end as to where the culprets ended up is great.
Bradley Ellis More than 1 year ago
This book should be required reading for everyone. It not only details the events and actions that lead up to our current economic crisis, it also hints at the bigger problems that face our country that of the revolving door of leadership in Washington. Read this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great reporting on the financial meltdown exposing all those implicated in this man cause disaster. A reader of this book cannot look at the news and the political processes in the same way as before. Excellent job!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book twice to get all the lurid details of the greatest con game of my time. Everyone was guilty of conning Americans in the Great Real Estate Bubble. Must read if you want to know the whole truth. Ann Thompson
altim More than 1 year ago
This is the best single book explaining the crisis. It identifies the major culprits and exposes all the facilitators. Other books focus and expand on the seperate aspects in great detail but this one touches on them all. The only negative is that it focuses too much on the government housing policy that provided the fuel.
GreenvilleReader More than 1 year ago
Marvelously researched, this book explains in detail how the false ideal of home ownership for everyone, influence peddling by politicians, the public/private partnership of the GSE's (profits for them, losses for taxpayers), the banks quest for profits while trying to pretend they weren't taking bigger and bigger risks, the lame behavior of regulators and the foolhardiness and economic ignorance of the American borrower combined to tumble our economy. And, it's not over yet. Morgenson and Rosner are bright and thorough.
EclecticReaderWR More than 1 year ago
As the authors demonstrate, nothing compares in power to an idea--especially one twisted and corrupted by greedy people. The American Dream of homeownership is as old as Jefferson's idea of America and the westward movement, as powerful in the collective national mind as the ideas of the Individual and the Free Enterprise System. That in less than two decades James Johnson and a huge cast of nefarious characters was able to corrupt every one of these ideas is disheartening, but, more troubling, not at all amazing. For, as the authors show on every page, there exists a pernicious interlocking of government and big business. The irony of the story is that while we spend hundreds of billions protecting ourselves from enemies beyond our borders, those at the highest levels of our government and corporations are at work every day undermining the American dreams. The authors leave us with the cheerily true conclusion that it will happen again because, despite the wrenching melodrama of the past three years, nothing has changed and, as Charles Ferguson declared accepting his Academy Award for INSIDE JOB, none of the bad guys has been punished. On this score, there are two fellows who we should set loose to bring the many malefactors to justice: Patrick Fitzgerald (on loan only, as we still desperately need him here in Illinois, the State of Corruption) and Eliot Spitzer (flawed, yes, but forgiven and superbly brilliant and indefatigably tenacious). Sadly, another American Dream that cannot be fulfilled.
WaldoRWE More than 1 year ago
Most people don't understand that government policies and regulation led to the real estate bubble and financial colapse. Wall street only prolonged the problem by trying to solve the problem. The liberals thought that if they could help poor people qualify for a home purchase without any ability to pay the loan off, they could convert their growth appreciation to pay off the loan. Unfortunately, the false increase in demand created over valuation which finally cause the colapse. Basic economics 101.
daguelibrary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For anyone puzzling over where blame lies for the financial meltdown of the late summer of 2008, this is a book to read. The answer might be surprising. Gretchen Morgenson, the principal author, is a business and financial editor and a columnist for The New York Times. The book is a detailed account of what, who, how, and why behind the financial meltdown which nearly plunged the country into a second great depression in the waning days of the George W. Bush presidency. The general assumption of many, especially partisans with no love for President Bush, is that because it happened toward the end of his eight year presidency his policies must have been at fault. President Obama rarely lets a week go by without blaming the current economic problems on President Bush, or only slightly more subtly, ¿the situation which we inherited.¿ Yet the problem runs far deeper than blame of the Republican administration during which it occurred.The 2008 financial crisis can be traced directly to the early years of the presidency of Bill Clinton. President Clinton in 1994 proclaimed the need for more Americans to be homeowners. He set the goal of 70% of the populace living in homes they own. He relentlessly pursued that policy by causing his young secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo, to have his bureaucracy issue regulations which encouraged banks and other lending institutions to drop the standards for home mortgages. That included a virtual elimination of the 20% down payment which homeowners needed to qualify for a mortgage, and the age old wisdom enshrined in the banking industry that the homeowner¿s monthly mortgage payment should not exceed 25% of his take home pay. With a few regulation changes, and accusations that banks were engaging in ¿redlining¿ discrimination against inner city neighborhoods, the nation¿s traditional banks were quickly persuaded to make mortgage loans which a few years earlier would have resulted in a quick mortgage rejection letter. New lenders came to prominence such as Countrywide Financial, United Companies Financial, NovaStar, and Fremont Investment & Loan. They made billions of dollars on these newly minted mortgages to borrowers who traditionally could not have gotten a mortgage to buy a house. Bankers called the good mortgage prospects, prime candidates. This new class of borrowers became known as sub-prime. These sub-prime mortgages were issued by the lenders and then sold in huge blocks to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These two private corporations are ¿government-sponsored enterprises,¿ meaning that they were in 1994 private corporations, but ones which the public largely perceived to be guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. During the Clinton years Fannie Mae, the larger of the two, was run by James A. Johnson. Johnson successfully lobbied congress to see that his agency was never effectively regulated. Johnson and the executives of his organization and the lenders made millions each year in salaries and bonuses. But Fannie Mae and the many lenders which sold their mortgages to Fannie Mae were undercapitalized. They made risky loans to people who could not afford them. When these sub-prime homeowners started defaulting in large numbers, the whole house of cards came down, and voila, the financial crisis of 2008. Most of those lenders are now in bankruptcy and Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac are now under government control and bailout. Johnson and his fellow executives got off while the American taxpayers pay the bills. While all of this was unfolding the congress, mostly run by the Democrats, was asleep at the switch. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, Democrat from Connecticut, and House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, Democrat from Massachusetts are mentioned prominently in this book as being cosy with Johnson and Fannie Mae. Perhaps the ultimate insult added to injury is when these two pow
NewsieQ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Just when I thought there was nothing more I needed to know about the 2008 financial meltdown, I read Reckless Endangerment. Although there are plenty of bad apples in this book, the main baddie is probably James Johnson, the former CEO of Federal National Mortgage Association, affectionately (or not) known as Fannie Mae. I remember with no fondness the night I learned about the US government¿s taking over the reins at Fannie Mae (and Freddie Mac, its sibling company) during the financial crisis. My first thought was, ¿this can¿t be a good thing,¿ and it gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Fannie and Freddie are government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), even though they are publicly traded companies. For years and years, both entities took advantage of a widely shared perception that if they got in too much trouble the government would bail them out, while denying that vociferously. They had plenty of other advantages over other publicly traded companies ¿ and their executives used them to enrich themselves, while spinning tales that they were operating in the best interest of the country and the people they helped buy a piece of American dream¿their own homes. Well, we know how that worked out. Why we didn¿t see Mr. Johnson and some of his cronies doing a ¿perp walk¿ on national television I¿ll never understand.Heroes are few and far between in Reckless Endangerment and what¿s particularly maddening is that most of those the villains made out like bandits while the little guys took it in the shorts. It¿s easy to see why the Occupy Wall Street protestors are so pissed off. Readers will appreciate the irony that the re-regulation of Wall Street banks comes under the Dodd-Frank Act ¿ when Messrs Dodd and Frank were both relentless defenders of Fannie and Freddie until they weren¿t. This is an ugly story, beautifully told.
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willyvan More than 1 year ago
This is a splendid study of the USA’s private, but government-funded, mortgage companies known as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They were trusted to regulate themselves, which was like letting boy-racers set speed limits. The resulting bailouts have cost $187.5 billion so far. The companies have never returned any of this money - and might never do so. Their huge public funding fuelled huge executive pay, which, in these publicly chartered companies, was kept secret from the public. Fannie Mae’s chiefs left with vast bonuses and with their $24 million of legal costs paid - for defending themselves against shareholder claims. Securitisation – bundling mortgage loans together – provided huge sums of capital to lend to even the poorest borrowers. Mortgage lending companies made toxic loans to people who could never repay them. The big lie was always that the companies’ priority was the public good, in this case, the good of increasing homeownership. When the mortgage lender NovaStar collapsed, its borrowers lost, but its top two guys made $8 million, without ever being investigated. Goldman Sachs bet, very profitably, against the loans it was selling, helping itself to its clients’ money. Mortgage lending companies, banks, regulators, credit rating agencies, hedge funds, law firms, accountancy firms and Wall Street all gained. Everybody else lost. An obscure amendment, drafted by a lawyer to – who else? -Goldman Sachs, made the taxpayer liable for the debts of investment banks and insurance companies. The USA has a corporate state, run by and for corporate capital. Robert Rubin, a former head of Goldman Sachs, became Treasury Secretary. He helped to end the Glass-Steagall Act, and then became vice-chairman of Citigroup, netting $100 million in the next ten years. Senator Phil Gramm said in 1999, “We have learned that we promote economic growth and we promote stability by having competition and freedom” as the law he sponsored repealing Glass-Steagall passed Congress. In March 2007, the Federal Reserve’s Chairman, Ben Bernanke, and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, both told Congress that the subprime market problems would ‘be contained’. The authors end by forecasting that a debacle like the 2008 credit crisis will happen again, because the state decided against fixing the problem.
Wingchun More than 1 year ago
This is the definitive tome on the 2008 financial crisis. Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner name the players and point the finger of blame at the guilty and credit the few who tried to head it off.
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