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McCain Repeating Keating Era Mistakes, Regulator Warns

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As the stock market recovers from its biggest single-day drop since the crash of 1987, a former federal regulator who had a front-row view of John McCain's role in the Savings and Loan scandal says he is repeating some of the same mistakes.

William Black -- a deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation during the "Keating Five" scandal that nearly ended McCain's political career -- says the Arizona Republican's chief errors at the time were underestimating the importance of regulation and relying too heavily on slanted advice from captains of industry.

"In the S&L crisis, he took his advice from the worst [kind of] criminal. Charles Keating is the person he went to for his policy advice," Black said. "Now, he certainly is getting advice from Phil Gramm, Carly Fiorina, Rick Davis -- the whole group of economic and top political advisers are lobbyist types. He just doesn't seem to get it, ever, that the advice is going to favor their clients. Even if they just stop being lobbyists, you can't just turn that off instantly. It's their mind state that develops. ... The biggest lesson is that, when you deregulate and de-supervise, you create an environment where control fraud emerges. You hyper-inflate bubbles; you get criminalization."

Though McCain's latest TV ads tout the senator's sporadic calls for more government regulation, Black notes with interest that McCain bragged recently that he was "fundamentally a deregulator." Black, who is now an associate professor of law and economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, also said that the deregulation that McCain was until recently proud to have championed effectively took corporate cops off the beat. "Nobody calls the Houston police department and says 'I think there a problem at Enron,'" he remarked.

Black, who has long been critical of McCain's role in the Keating affair, also viewed McCain's Tuesday announcement of his support for increased FDIC insurance rates as something of a sham, calling it "just one of his many contradictions" on economic matters.

In 1991, McCain railed against raising the FDIC insurance limit from $40,000 to its current $100,000 level. "The perversity of Federal deposit insurance is exemplified by the taxpayer bailout of the savings and loan industry," McCain said, while omitting his own role in the scandal that actually precipitated the S&L crisis.

"I think it is generally acknowledged that the failure of the savings and loan industry, to a large degree, can be directly attributed to the unwarranted expansion of deposit insurance," McCain continued. "Basic coverage was increased from $40,000 to $100,000. No longer was deposit insurance for the small depositor. It became the safety blanket for large, sophisticated depositors and freewheeling bankers."

Now, as McCain echoes Barack Obama's call to raise the FDIC insurance level from $100,000 to $250,000, Black believes the idea that FDIC insurance rates ever caused the S&L crisis can finally be put to rest as being "complete bunk."

Yet, despite being a withering McCain critic, Black isn't completely sold on Obama, either. While he notes with some satisfaction that the Illinois Democrat "did at least try to do some stuff on the regulation of subprime [mortgages] a couple of years ago, he wasn't on key committees." Overall, on financial regulatory matters, Black says Obama is "really somewhat untested. I'm not sure exactly what he would do." But Black notes that the "experienced" candidate is the one most likely to be tagged with responsibility for the current mess. "McCain purports to be on the committee that dealt with everything. [Meanwhile], he did nothing on subprime mortgages for years."