It won't go down as the defining work on the financial crisis, but a new book by Louisiana community banker Rusty Cloutier is a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to better understand the root causes of the crisis and is looking for answers on how to prevent the next one.
It's also kind of juicy. Cloutier covers mostly familiar terrain in "Big Bad Banks," but he pulls no punches. In a section he calls, "The Hall of Shame," he refers to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as a "dictator" and calls ex-Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill "the Prince of Darkness." He also questions how the likes of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers can solve the financial crisis when, he says, they were heavily involved in creating it.
Cloutier, the president and CEO of MidSouth Bank, has long been one of the banking industry's most candid voices. He's a former chairman of both the Independent Community Bankers of America and an advisory board to Fannie Mae, he has testified frequently at Congressional hearings, and he is widely quoted in the press. The New York Times magazine even profiled Cloutier last year.
You don't have to look much beyond the book's title to know that Cloutier believes the titans of Wall Street are most responsible for causing the crisis - though he levels a healthy dose of criticism at regulators, ratings agencies, government-sponsored enterprises, Congress, and several presidential administrations.
Cloutier doesn't necessarily break any new ground and he makes clear at the outset he's writing mainly for the layperson who doesn't really understand what collateralized debt obligations are or how they brought our economy to its knees.
Bankers, though, will definitely appreciate how Cloutier, in plain English, connects the current crisis to decisions made two or three decades ago, and they'll certainly enjoy some of the anecdotes, like the story of his run-in with Greenspan - in Greenspan's office - over a proposal to raise the coverage level on deposit insurance.
The strength of the book, though, is the final chapter, in which Cloutier lays out 20 recommendations for shaping the future of the industry and staving off another meltdown. Among them: Limit the size of the largest banks to $500 billion; require boards of directors to own substantial stakes in banks they govern; put more business people, not lifelong policy makers, on regulatory boards; require borrowers to put at least 20 percent down when purchasing a home; and regulate consumer lending.
Cloutier knows he doesn't have all the answers and that some of his ideas might not go over well with his colleagues in the industry. But he feels certain that as long as lawmakers are listening to the same old voices, their response to the crisis will ultimately prove to be ineffective. Perhaps he should give them all a copy of his book.