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Earlier this week, the congressionally appointed Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) released reports detailing the ugly, complex factors that led up to the 2008 financial crisis. With the disaster past, too many people who once panicked over these issues would now rather dismiss them as yesterday's problems. But the painful moments documented in the FCIC's 500-plus-page tome, and the lessons they can teach us about the importance of good corporate governance, shouldn't be forgotten or ignored.
The blame game
The reports reveal that in 2009, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke privately dubbed the crisis "the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression." He also contended that 12 out of 13 of the most important U.S. financial institutions were on the brink of collapse at the time, apparently excluding JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) .
The commission's research also reminds us how much the government bailout of AIG (NYSE: AIG ) benefitted Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) . Goldman collected $2.9 billion in taxpayer money from that deal, plus an additional $14 billion from AIG, which Goldman then doled out to other counterparties.
In their report, the Democratic majority on the FCIC largely blames the crisis on deregulation and greedy, high-rolling financiers. But in fairness, it misses several other significant factors.
Republicans' report notes that the Democrats' findings largely gloss over the culpability of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In their efforts to provide "affordable housing," both of these agencies eventually started offering mortgages to people who, under more sensible rules, simply couldn't afford them.
Furthermore, there's one group that Republicans and Democrats alike might hesitate to blame, despite its share of culpability. The American public loved the idea that "home prices always go up." Too many people started purchasing residential real estate as an increasingly speculative "investment," doing their part to further inflate the housing bubble.
Back to the future
Deconstructing what went wrong is all well and good, but has anybody actually learned anything going forward? As financial executives jump ship with massive golden parachutes, and financial companies that would have otherwise failed enjoy taxpayer-funded bailouts, the folks who likely bear most of the blame for this mess don't seem to have taken any lessons to heart. Failure is often the best (if also the harshest) lesson and remedy for incompenent corporate management. Alas, in the years since the crisis, many Wall Street folks have demonstrated a shocking lack of shame or culpability.
Other pockets of corporate America have similarly seemed reluctant to change the practices they relished during the bubble years. Last year, the Institute for Policy Studies called out companies including Schering-Plough, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) , and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) for their "Layoff Leader CEOs." These execs pocketed millions in 2009 compensation, even as they cut tens of thousands of U.S. jobs over the same time frame.
Moving forward after looking back
Getting beyond political finger-pointing, and admitting that so many parties shared blame, might be a step in the right direction. It doesn't take rocket science to realize that the 2008 debacle required a lot of different people to all do exactly the wrong, risky things at the same time, in some nearly psychotic confederacy of greed and stupidity.
Let's try to move forward without forgetting the lessons of the past. Major failures in corporate governance lay at the heart of these systemic breakdowns. Fixing those flaws could help prevent future disasters.
Good corporate governance demands that corporate managements and boards embrace accountability for their own performance, and listen to all stakeholders when making decisions. Both such qualities have seemed dramatically lacking lately.
Shareholder-friendly policies like say-on-pay, financial clawback provisions, and independent boards help establish corporate checks and balances, keeping risky, imprudent behavior at a minimum. If we can just give the folks in the boardroom a dash of humility, and encourage more long-term strategic thinking, we could create strong foundations for the companies in which we invest.
What do you think of the FCIC report? Who's to blame for the financial crisis? Have any real lessons been learned, or is another "avoidable" calamity in the works? Air your thoughts in the comments box below.
Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on corporate governance.