For much of the twentieth century, Saving and Loans (S&L) banks made mortgage loans to individual middle class families, allowing many to buy houses. In the 1970s, the combination of inflation and falling oil prices created economic conditions to place S&L banks at risk. In the early 1980s, Congress deregulated the S&L banks, allowing them to expand the kinds of investments from which they drew profits.
The deregulation was designed to open beneficial options which would allow the flagging S&L banks to save themselves. Instead, many S&L banks pursued investments in sectors they did not understand well, such as commercial real estate: they entered these sectors with large amounts of cash although they were not fully apprised of the risks. The collapse of the housing market in the mid 1980's, following an unprecedented building boom over the previous ten years, led to the failure of numerous S&L banks. As these banks were protected by federal insurance, this collapse cost the American taxpayers over $100 billion. In some of the S&L banks that failed, the bank leaders were found guilty of embezzlement and other kinds of fraud. In some cases, the burden of fraud caused otherwise viable banks to fail, and in other cases, a bank that was going to fail anyway had its life prolonged by fraud, creating additional expenses for the federal bank bailout.
Former bank regulator William Black has argued that the US government has not adequately learned important lessons from the S&L crisis. While stronger regulations for all banks are in place now, little has been done to strengthen the fraud procedures. Black has pointed out that bank fraud has the opportunity to thrive whenever regulation or oversight is loosened, and systemic occurrences of bank fraud pose a major risk to the well-being of the economy. While individuals may resist fraud because of their own ethics, this is not sufficient to protect the economy as a whole. Congressmen, responding to Black's charges, argue that the SEC has in place strict guidelines for what constitutes bank fraud, and that both SEC investigators and congressmen themselves are well-poised to detect even individual instances of fraud, to say nothing of widespread fraud. Black points out that SEC investigators do not have criminologist training: while they understand the rules well, they are not familiar with all the methods used to subvert or violate them. Furthermore, congressmen, under certain conditions, can turn a blind eye to bank fraud. For example, in the 1980s, the so-called "Keating five" senators accepted cash contributions from Charles Keating, the head of a S&L bank, and in return gave Mr. Keating undue protection which allowed him to continue his fraud.