The nuclear meltdown that devastated Japan exactly one year ago has America's financial crisis beat hands down in terms of human tragedy. But the two disasters have some things in common.
In both crises, the precise timing was impossible to foresee but the causes were very much manmade. In both cases, collusion between the regulators in the capital and the regulated in the executive suites led to an unsavory disregard for safety.
Prior to each crisis, risk management experts conducted stress tests and assured the world that even in the worst case, the disaster-prevention systems could be trusted. Corruption and a lack of imagination about what could overwhelm those systems led to calamity. The result was mass dislocation and the end of a way of life for millions of people in each country.
In all fairness, the blame for each crisis should be spread widely. Elected officials and bureaucrats deserve plenty of it, as do industry executives. But so do the many people who willingly went along, so long as all was well.
Having lived and reported in Japan on and off over two decades, I've been a close student of its strengths and weaknesses. One thing I don't give the Japanese much credit for is openness to change. But when it comes to adapting in the wake of our respective recent national crises, the Japanese put us Americans to shame.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese people have recognized that their leaders are not to be trusted. They proved themselves no longer willing to live with the disaster-prevention systems their leaders had falsely told them were fail-safe. The Japanese have taken drastic measures, shuttering 52 of its 54 nuclear power facilities. They have drastically cut back energy consumption and stepped up use of alternative fuels.
In other words, they have not let themselves again be lulled into a false sense of security or let the crisis go to waste.
Imagine how foolish the Japanese would look if instead they'd decided to double down their bets by vastly expanding the output of their largest nuclear facilities and put even greater faith in the regulators and industry leaders who'd failed them in the first place.
That, in effect, is what we Americans have done with our financial system and too-big-to-fail banks. Instead of breaking up the giant financial institutions that pose systemic risk, we've let them get even larger. Banks and thrifts with over $100 billion in assets controlled 55% of industry assets in 2007. Last year that figure had risen to 60%, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. Assets at the four largest bank holding companies have grown from 48% to 55% of industry assets over the same period.
We have papered over our system's gaping vulnerabilities to contagion and collapse by putting greater power than ever in the hands of those who led us over a cliff in the first place and set out on the fool's errand of trying to micromanage them from Washington.
The smart thing to do would have been to split up the financial institutions that pose existential risk to the system — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac included.
America's response to the crisis reminds me of the heart-rending story of an elderly farmer near Fukushima who tried to give away cabbage from her fields, too traumatized to face the reality that her way of life was over and nobody would be eating her produce for a long time to come. Like that farmer, we've refused to face reality.
We not only wasted a crisis, but have set ourselves up for a potentially bigger one to follow.
Neil Weinberg is the editor-in-chief of American Banker. The views expressed are his own.