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123 Seiten, Note: 1,0
List of Figures and Tables
List of Abbreviations
2. The current financial crisis in the US
2.1 The U.S. real estate bubble
2.1.1 Low interest rates
2.1.2 Global savings glut
2.1.3 Legislative and regulatory support
2.1.4 Credit boom
2.1.5 Speculative fever and real estate mania
2.1.6 Subprime mortgage market and lax lending standards
2.2 The background to the current financial crisis
2.2.1 Securitization and new financial instruments
2.2.2 Rating agencies
2.2.3 Poor regulation and the shadow banking system
2.2.4 Greed, wrong incentives and conflicts of interest
2.2.5 The Great Moderation and the Greenspan Put
2.2.6 The end of the Ponzi scheme: a Minsky moment
2.2.7 Forbearance during the bubble inflation
2.3 The current crisis in the U.S
2.3.1 Effects on financial markets
2.3.2 From Wall Street to Main Street
2.3.3 From the U.S. around the globe
3. The Japanese experience in the 1990s and 2000s
3.1 The bubble economy from 1987 to 1990
3.1.1 Monetary easing
3.1.2 The Japanese economic miracle and over-confidence
3.1.3 Regulation and tax incentives
3.1.4 Financial deregulation and aggressive bank behavior
3.2 Japan in the 1990s: a lost decade
3.2.1 The bubble deflates: 1991 - 1995
3.2.2 Adjustment processes after the bubble burst
3.2.3 How the government responded to the bursting asset bubble
3.2.4 The background to regulatory forbearance and wait-and-see politics
3.2.5 The banking crisis of 1995/1996
3.2.6 The birth of zombie firms and declining productivity
3.3 Japan’s emergency response to the banking crisis: 1997 - 1999
3.3.1 Fiscal policy
3.3.2 Banking crisis of 1997-1999
3.3.3 Measures to restore the financial sector
3.4 Japan’s way to recovery: 2000 - 2004
3.4.1 Introduction of a crisis framework and tighter supervision
3.4.2 Restructuring of NPLs
3.4.3 Back to growth
4. America now and Japan then: a comparison
4.1 Are Japan and the U.S. comparable?
4.2 How the U.S. responded to the crisis
4.2.1 Monetary easing
4.2.2 Credit easing
4.2.3 Deposit Insurance
4.2.4 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act and TARP
4.2.5 Economic Stimulus Act of 2008
4.2.6 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
5. What lessons can the U.S. learn from Japan’s experience?
5.1 Do not wait any longer and act
5.2 Evaluate assets and write-off losses
5.3 Monetary policy is not the sole solution
5.3.1 Monetary policy in Japan
5.3.2 The liquidity trap in Japan and America
5.4 Inflation or deflation?
5.4.1 The mechanisms of a balance sheet recession and deflation
5.4.2 The danger of deflation
5.5 Expansionary fiscal policy to fill the gap
5.6 Recapitalize the banking sector despite its unpopularity
5.7 Establish a framework for bank failures
5.8 Establish a framework for capital injections
5.9 Nationalize banks if necessary
5.10 Clean banks’ balance sheets from toxic assets
5.10.1 The failure of TARP in the U.S
5.10.2 Lessons from Japan’s asset management companies
5.10.3 Support the debtor side of banks’ balance sheets
5.10.4 Why it is so difficult to value toxic assets in America
5.11 Prepare for the second wave of the crisis
5.12 Consider the long-term consequences of piling up debt
5.13 Pay attention to banks’ size
5.14 Do not create zombie firms
5.15 Change the mindset
Figure 1. Sharp increase in real estate prices until 2006
Figure 2. Effective Federal Funds Rate (shaded areas indicate U.S. recessions)
Figure 3. Global Imbalances (current account balances as percentage of GDP)
Figure 4. Development of homeownership rates and subprime mortgage originations
Figure 5. Evolution of Equity and Borrowing in Residential Real Estate
Figure 6. Evolution of Subprime and Alt-A Mortgage Originations
Figure 7. Market Capitalization of Major Banks (in billion USD)
Figure 8. TED Spread between the 3-month LIBOR rate and the 3-month U.S. T-bill yield
Figure 9: Japan’s lost decade
Figure 10. Land Price Index for Six Metropolitan Areas
Figure 11. Japanese GDP growth 1956 - 2001
Figure 12. The Japan Premium
Figure 13. The U.S. and the Japanese real estate bubble
Figure 14. Adjusted Monetary Base (shaded areas indicate U.S. recessions)
Figure 15. Japanese money and prices (1997 = 100)
Figure 16. Rising debt of the Japanese government
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The current financial crisis, which started in the Unites States, has dominated the headlines all around the world since summer 2007 and especially after Lehman Brothers’ breakdown in September 2008. Wall Street legends like Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch or Citigroup as well as insurance and mortgage giants like AIG, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac had to either go out of business or were bailed out by the U.S. government. What started as a subprime crisis in the beginning soon turned to a global financial crisis and then changed to a worldwide recession. Governments around the world try to fix their financial system and to restore economic health.
According to The Economist, there have been “124 systemic banking crises since 1970” (2009c). While most of them took place in developing countries, there have also been banking crises in the developed world. No crisis is identical to another crisis. Still, it is “important to draw lessons from past experience to guide policymakers struggling to stabilize” financial markets (Shimizutani 2008). The current crisis in the U.S. has parallels with a range of other crisis such as the Great Depression or the U.S. Savings and Loans crisis. Rogoff and Reinhart, for instance, compared the current crisis with a wide range of other crises (2008) However, The Economist (2009d), Posen (2009), Kobayashi (2008b), Koo (2008), Krugman (2009d) and Nakamae (2008) are just few of many well-known authors who state that Japan’s experience in the 1990s is the most suitable for serving as a reference to the United States. Despite many differences between both crises, I agree with Koo who points out that the U.S. is “extremely fortunate” to have the opportunity to learn from Japan’s experiences, a country which “went through something very similar just fifteen years ago” (2008, 69). Both, Japan then and the U.S. now, experienced the bursting of an asset price bubble, declining collateral values that served for loans, shrinking bank capital and less bank lending. There are indeed many similarities in the post bubble period as well as in the aftermath of the deflated assets bubbles in both countries. According to Koo, “the Japanese lessons provide the nearest thing to a roadmap of a post-bubble economy” (2008, 70).
The objective of this paper is to explain what the U.S. can learn from Japan’s experience and to give a road map of how to respond to the unfolding events in financial markets. Japan has responded too late and implemented many half-measures that did not restore confidence in the banking industry. As a result, Japan suffered more than a decade from stagnation and deflation - a lost decade. The current head of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke studied Japan’s crisis in depth during the 1990s and 2000s and hopefully, U.S. policymakers will make good use of those lessons in order to minimize the pains of the U.S. economy.
This paper is divided into four sections. The first section provides an overview of the events that led to what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) then called the “largest financial shock since the Great Depression“ (Stewart 2008). The second part explains how the crisis in Japan unfolded and why it took so long until policy measures had a significant positive impact. The third part shortly summarizes America’s response to the crisis so far. The final part tries to answer the question what America can learn from Japan when it comes to handling its crisis.
Many different factors contributed to the current financial crisis in the United States. I have to agree with Goodhart who states that “it is difficult for a single person to put together a completely coherent story of everything that has happened [and] it may take quite a long time before a comprehensive history of this crisis can be written” (Goodhart 2008, 331). As the crisis is still going on, it is too early to completely assess what has happened. My intention therefore is to give a rather descriptive overview over often-cited ingredients to the U.S. real estate bubble as well as over the basic background mechanisms like securitization that are now unfolding and impact economies around the world.
The current global turmoil had its roots in the U.S. real estate market. During the late 1980s and 1990s, prices for homes started to increase slowly and accelerated especially after 2000 and 2001, when interest rates were lowered in order to avoid a recession after the dotcom boom.
As can be seen in figure 1, real estate prices in the U.S. went up massively due to increased real estate acquisitions. Comparing home prices in January 1987 to those during the peak in June 2006, values grew by a factor of 3.6. Between January 2000 and June 2006 alone, real estate prices went up by 126 percent as can be seen in figure 1 (Standard & Poor’s 2009).
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Figure 1. Sharp increase in real estate prices until 2006.
Source: Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, 10-city monthly nominal index US (author’s own illustration)
There are several factors that contributed to the creation of this massive bubble, which will be described below.
One driver in the ballooning of the housing bubble were historically low interest rates that gave access to cheap credit.
After the bust of the dotcom bubble in 2000 and especially after 9/11 in 2001, prime rates were decreased by the Federal Reserve in order to stimulate investments and consumption. The Fed justified low nominal interest rates of around 1 percent and negative real interest rates like in June 2003 with the fact that higher rates could lead to deflation and hinder economic growth. In retrospective, it can be said that the Federal Reserve created excess liquidity between 2001 and 2005 “which in turn became a strong contributing factor to indiscriminate proliferation of credit” (Tong and Wei 2008, 5). Taylor empirically showed that “monetary policy was too easy” and deviated unusually much from the Taylor rule so that the housing boom expanded more than it otherwise would have (Taylor 2009, 2). Please refer to figure 2 for the development of the federal funds rate.
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Figure 2. Effective Federal Funds Rate (shaded areas indicate U.S. recessions) Source: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
In 2004, the economic situation in the U.S. was supposed to be strong enough and did not need further low interest rates as incentives for consumption and investments. The Federal Reserve decided to increase prime rates starting in 2004. By 2006 “the Fed raised interest rates 17 times, increasing them from 1 to 5.25 percent“ (Guha and Hughes 2006). In the beginning, higher interest rates did not prevent the real estate bubble from growing.
In addition to low-targeted policy rates, importers to the U.S. like China or Middle East countries invested their trade revenues in the US capital market which lowered interest rates even more as more money was available for investments.
Ben Bernanke, in his effort to explain the huge current account deficit of the US during a speech in March 2005, argued that there is a “global savings glut” (2005), a term which is now often linked to the inflation of the real estate bubble in the US (see for instance Brunnermeier 2009, Krugman 2009a or Goodhart 2008). In 1996, the US current account deficit and thus the surplus of investments over savings stood at 1.5 percent of GDP, then rose and peaked at over 6 percent in 2006. Bernanke’s explanation for this increase was the “emergence of a global savings glut” in the 1990s, which he contributed partly to “the strong saving motive of rich countries with aging populations” (2005). Even more important was the developing countries’ reversal of current account positions who used to be capital net importers during the 1990s. Asian and Latin American countries experienced huge capital inflows at that time but experienced “painful financial crises including those in Mexico in 1994, in a number of East Asian countries in 1997-98, in Russia in 1998, in Brazil in 1999, and in Argentina in 2002” as they did not use those funds productively (Bernanke 2005). Bernanke argues that these countries became then net capital exporters by accumulating large foreign exchange reserves in order to mitigate the risk of repeated capital outflows and to avoid exchange rate appreciations. China, for instance had a current account surplus of 7.2 billion USD in 1996, which grew to 371.8 billion USD by 2007. In addition to that, the rising oil price made the current account surpluses of oil exporting countries such as the Middle East or Russia swell. Bernanke further argues that America was especially attractive for those investors due to the technology boom in the 1990s, the strength of its financial markets and the special position of the dollar as reserve currency. In 2007, “the US, UK, Spain and Australia—four countries with housing bubbles—absorbed 63 per cent of the world’s current account surpluses” which resulted in huge global imbalances which are illustrated in figure 3 (Wolf 2008).
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Figure 3. Global Imbalances (current account balances as percentage of GDP) Source: Levy Economic Institute. http://www.levy.org/vdoc.aspx?docid=1095
Unfortunately, the U.S. did not make productive use of the world’s surplus funds either. Instead, the increasing investments from developing countries financed a real estate and credit bubble through sustained low interest rates. But the housing market was “comprised of the poorest and least credit worth borrowers within the United States” and did burst with painful results (Rogoff and Reinhart 2008, 12). Even Bernanke admits that “the key assetprice effects of the global saving glut appear to have occurred in the market for residential investment, as low mortgage rates have supported “record levels of home construction and strong gains in housing prices” (2005). According to Krugman, the current global crisis is simply “the revenge of the glut” (2009a).
Low interest rates allowed also people with smaller incomes to afford houses, further promoted by Congress and the U.S. government. Ideally, poorer citizens would have had a unique opportunity to possess their own houses, which must seem ethical and good to everyone. But this turned out to be the trigger for the crisis, in which millions of people in all income groups lost their homes, assets, pensions and jobs.
Affordable home ownership for all ethnic groups was a key policy goal of Clinton and Bush promoted the idea of the “ownership society” by equating home ownership with wealth and security for everyone (Wood 2009 and Shiller 2008). Starting in 1992, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac where pushed by Congress “to increase their purchases of mortgages going to low and moderate income borrowers” and by 2005 the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development required that 50 percent of the portfolio of those government chartered mortgage firms shall consist of mortgages to borrowers with income below the median in their area (Roberts 2008 and Holmes 1999). Also traditional banks were encouraged to hand out more loans to low income groups through the Community Reinvestment Act which was strengthened in 1995. According to Miron, the act pressured banks into subprime lending resulting in an 80 percent increase in the value of these loans (2008). The Wall Street Journal calls the political pressure for increased homeownership without fiscal expenses “another political free lunch” (Roberts 2008). It can be said that lenders received support from the very top to sell houses to borrowers who would usually not qualify for mortgages, thereby expanding the real estate market to a whole new clientele. By 2006, the U.S. homeownership rate reached 69 percent compared to 64 percent in 1994 while the share of subprime mortgage originations sharply increased as can be seen in figure 4.
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Figure 4. Development of homeownership rates and subprime mortgage originations Note: subprime share is of the dollar value of all mortgage originations.
Source: Harvard University 2008, 4.
The IMF identified the Tax Reform Act as another facilitator for the development of the subprime mortgage market and thus the housing boom. The law which was passed in 1986 provided tax deductibility for home mortgages as opposed to other loan types which made home equity withdrawal “a preferred means of financing home improvements and personal consumption, relative to other forms of consumer loans” (Kiff and Mills 2007, 4). Stiglitz criticized that “the Bush administration was providing an open invitation to excessive borrowing and lending” (2009b). As a result, real-estate-financed borrowing through second mortgages and home equity grew much faster than credit card or personal loans (Mahon 2006). As house prices increased steadily, between 2002 and 2007 at a rate of 11 percent per year, consumer spending based on loans on rising home wealth surged as can be seen in figure 5. Homeowners were more and more leveraging their household equity.
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Figure 5. Evolution of Equity and Borrowing in Residential Real Estate Source: Cecchetti 2008, 4
Rising household debt levels were offset by rapid growth in consumer wealth based on home value appreciation keeping debt-to-wealth ratios stable. The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis therefore argued in 2003 that the debt to wealth ratio may be sustainable because “new financial products allow people to tap into that wealth [which was] largely inaccessible in the past” (Mahon 2006). The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco even compared the refinancing boom to a “structural change in the economy” as cash-out refinancing on home equity allows for smooth consumption in case of adverse economic shocks to household wealth (Krainer and Marquis 2003). These lines of argumentation demonstrate quite clearly that not only private persons overoptimistically believed in the paradigm of ever increasing home prices. Nevertheless, real incomes were actually decreasing so that consumption heavily depended on real estate price increases.
Real estate was not only bought for actually living there, but also for speculation. Investors moved their funds into houses, partly because they experienced big losses after the dotcom boom and believed that real estate was a safer investment. Shiller sees the roots of the increase in investment driven purchases of houses even earlier, in smaller home price bubbles in the 1970s and 1980s and in the stock market boom of the 1990s (2008). “We began to think of ourselves as investors. We started buying Money magazine. (...) We simply moved out of stocks [in 2000], and deeper into property ownership” (Shiller 2008). According to the Fortune magazine referring to the housing speculation in 2006, "America was awash in a stark, raving frenzy that looked every bit as crazy as dotcom stocks“ (Levenson 2006). The National Organization of Realtors’ second home study analyzed that in 2005, 27.7 percent of all houses were purchased for investment purposes (2006).
The media together with the real estate industry jumped on the bandwagon by promoting real estate acquisitions as save wealth creator. Most Americans “were busy wondering how much their neighbors had made selling their apartment” (Cassidy 2008). Flipping houses, i.e. buying a house, renovating it and selling it against huge profits, became very popular. It seems as if everyone felt save that the collaterals’ prices will keep increasing. Shiller warned already in 2005 that America is caught by an ‘irrational exuberance’ (2005) Soaring demand led to ever increasing prices, which resulted in further expectations about price rises The steady uptrend over years became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this real estate boom also had positive consequences on the real economy. The construction industry built new houses to satisfy demand. With steadily rising prices, homeowners could take further mortgages on their homes and used the money for consumption. Still, the US boom was mainly financed by debt.
Huge capital inflows and low interest rates would have offered a favorable chance to the U.S. but as Bernanke declared in his 2008 speech at the International Monetary Conference, the invested inflows were not always used wisely „as an increased appetite for risk-taking [...] stimulated some financial innovations and lending practices that proved imprudent or otherwise questionable” (Bernanke 2008).
Mortgage lenders felt encouraged to sell as many loans as possible by making it as easy as possible for borrowers to finance their houses. This was especially true for loans to subprime and Alt-A borrowers. Subprime borrowers generally have low credit scores, high debt service to income (DTI) ratios and/ or high mortgage loan-to-value (LTV) ratios. Alt-A borrowers are characterized as people who meet prime loans criteria but provide only little income documentation (Kiff and Mills 2007,). Those borrowers do not qualify for conventional prime loans but instead for mortgages with higher interest rates, including a subprime mark-up in order to compensate the lender for increased default risks (Demyanyk and Van Hemert 2008a). The IMF confirms that subprime lending, which was developed in the mid 90s substantially, supported an expansion in homeownership (Kiff and Mills 2007). The subprime mortgage market expanded from 160 to 540 billion USD between 2001 and 2004 (Duhigg 2008). By 2006, subprime loans accounted for 20 percent of the mortgage market compared to only 4.5 percent in 2004 (Arnold 2007 and Bernanke 2008). Please refer to figure 6 for the subprime mortgage market evolution.
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Figure 6. Evolution of Subprime and Alt-A Mortgage Originations
Source: Source: Kiff and Mills 2007, 4 and 6 (author’s own illustration)
Problematic in this respect was that the overall riskiness of the subprime market rose over time while the subprime markup declined which means that risk has not been properly accounted for. Demyanyk and Van Hemert show empirically, that lending standards deteriorated substantially between 2001 and 2007 while at the same time loan-to-value ratios increased and that more and more loans with low documentation were handed out. According to their research, the “subprime mortgage market [followed] a classic lending boom-bust scenario, in which unsustainable growth leads to the collapse of the market” (2008b, 5).
Risk increased because everyone wanted to make money in this blooming, profitable market. The purchase of houses was therefore often facilitated by predatory lending practices. Predatory lending means not just deceiving borrowers about loan terms, but also manipulating them through “aggressive sales tactics, or taking unfair advantage of a borrower’s lack of understanding about loan terms.“ (Department for Housing and Urban Development 2008, 3). “‘Low doc’ loans (less documentation required) evolved to ‘no docs’ and to ‘liar loans’ (borrowers were allowed and even encouraged to lie about income and other information relevant to the application process), and finally to ‘Ninja loans’ (no income, no job, no assets)” (Wray 2007, 11). Predatory lending practices included abated down payment requirements, seller-funded down payment assistance, interest-only mortgages and/ or adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) with very low initial teaser rates. This latter mortgage type includes resets of interest rates, which lead to far higher payments later on (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation 2006). The new rates are usually adjusted each month and are calculated by adding a certain margin “to some established floating rate, like the yield on one-year U.S. Treasury bills” (Knowledge@Wharton 2008). When the teaser rate period ends and the adjustable period starts, borrowers are likely to face a severe reset shock. In 2006, up to 80 percent of all ARM borrowers only paid the minimum sum each month whereas the remaining debt was added to the balance of the mortgage, “a situation known as negative amortization“ as the outstanding debt increases instead of getting smaller (Hovanesian 2006). According to the IMF, “a significant proportion of borrowers were financially overstretching via risky ‘affordability products’ [such as ARMs] with many apparently lying about their financial resources to get loans” (Kiff and Mills 2007, 7).
Hovanesian warned already in 2006 that the ARM with its flexibly adjusting interest rates “might be the riskiest and most complicated home loan product ever created [and] brought a whole new group of buyers into the housing market, extending the boom longer than it could have otherwise lasted“ (Hovanesian 2006).
In 2004, the Federal Reserve started to increase prime rates as the US economy was supposed to be strong enough. In June 2006, prime rates reached 5.2 percent and subprime borrowers faced much larger monthly payments. Many homeowners were unable to pay off their rising rates leading to home foreclosures, higher real estate supply and bankruptcies of mortgage lenders. By end 2007, foreclosures “nearly doubled to almost one million with the most rapid and dramatic increase (...) among riskier subprime loans” (Harvard University 2008, 3). Foreclosure rates of subprime ARMs were five times higher than prime ARM loans. Higher interest rates also lowered the demand for new mortgages so that home prices started to decline which in turn made mortgage lenders adjust the rates even further in order to compensate the higher risk of default payments.
As stated above, real estate prices were higher than their fundamental value, i.e. the price that people would pay if they invested with their own money (Allen and Gale 2009). A real estate bubble inflated. Krugman warned already in 2005 that “if housing prices actually started falling, we'd be looking at a very nasty scene, in which both construction and consumer spending would plunge, pushing the economy right back into recession“ (2005). And he was right: when houses lost their value, loans were no longer backed up by their collaterals leading to a chain reaction in the financial market. In the following part, I would like to explain how subprime loan defaults, which affect directly only a small part of the U.S. real estate markets, could evolve to a crisis that spread to the complete global banking system.
The underlying reason why the explosion of the US housing bubble affected not only the American real estate industry but also financial markets around the world is that banks switched to an originate-and-distribute model. In the past, mortgage lenders and banks used to hand out loans to people, who were likely to pay them back because they had to keep these loans in their accounts for a long period of time. But as loans are illiquid assets that cannot be traded or converted into cash easily, banks changed to the originate-and-distribute model by creating new financial instruments, such as securities backed up by mortgages, so that enough funds can be generated to hand out more loans and to earn more profit (Goodhart 2008 and Brunnermeier 2009). Banks’ focus shifted towards stock price growth and profit expansion achieved by trading income and receiving fees through securitization (Blundell-Wignall et al. 2009).
Securities are “claims on the principal and interest payments made by borrowers on the loans in the pool” (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission 2007). According to the IMF, subprime mortgages were mainly securitized in the form of mortgage backed securities (MBS) in which mortgages of different quality are pooled together (Kiff and Mills 2007). Subprime loan securitization peaked at 81.2 percent in 2005 (Marshall 2009). In order to raise fresh capital for new loans, more and more credit claims were securitized, then evaluated by rating agencies and sold to other banks or investors. Over 55 percent of the 10 trillion USD residential mortgage market in the U.S. have been securitized and 64 percent of these securities have been backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Acharya and Richardson 2009, 6).
Asset-backed securities like MBSs or collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) allowed on the one hand a reduction in funding costs and a diversification of risk because underlying assets are of different quality and default risk so that “under normal circumstances, the probabilities are independent of each other” (Goodhart 2008, 341). But on the other hand it is quite difficult for investors to assess the risk in detail so that investors could never really know what exactly they were paying for. Let me illustrate this with collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), one type of structured financial products that was first created in 1987 by the investment banking industry as well as with credit default swaps (CDSs).
In order to understand why and how the subprime market meltdown hit the global financial markets, it is necessary to understand the principal mechanisms of CDOs more detailed. Whereas in 2004, CDOs worth ‘only’ 157.4 billion USD were issued, new issued dramatically rose to 520.6 billion USD by 2006 (Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association 2009).
In CDOs, home loans are pooled together with car credits, consumer loans as well as with credit card claims (Spiegel Online, 2008). The diverse portfolios of underlying assets are usually acquired by a special purpose vehicle (SPV) which then divides the pool into different tranches that are then sold to a wide range of investors with a varying willingness to take risks. The equity tranche is the riskiest tranche and most commonly held by hedge funds. Compared to other tranches, it pays the highest interest but if underlying assets default, losses are first borne by this most junior tranche and only once it “is completely exhausted will defaults impair the next tranche” which is the mezzanine tranche (Kiff and Mills 2007, 5). The equity tranche was the first part which was later described as ‘toxic waste’ (Goodhart 2008, 341). The subordination principle means that the highest tranches, i.e. the senior tranches, were supposed to be “extremely secure against credit risk, [they] were rated AAA, and traded at lower spreads” (Kiff and Mills 2007, 5). As stated above, these different tranches were supposed to have a different risk-profile and that the probability of default on single underlying loans were therefore independent of each other so that credit risks could be “tranched out” (Hull 2008). Still, this is only true when overall house prices are rising or remain at least stable. When overall real estate prices fall and interest rates are rising, the “correlations rise as well as the probability of defaults themselves” which means that the probability of significant credit losses on the tranches “will rise in a non-linear, indeed possibly an exponential way” (Goodhart 2008, 342).
This is what happened in the United States in 2007 when relatively small changes in average default rates had severe impacts on the value of the different tranches. When interest rates rose and house prices deteriorated, investors finally had to realize that “securitization did not (and cannot) insulate (...) from aggregate risk” (Jones 2009, 7). Lower CDO tranches lost in value and hedge funds were the first to get hit. Two of Bear Sterns’ hedge funds which invested heavily in subprime backed securities collapsed in late June 2007. As a result, there was “growing uncertainty about how further defaults might eat into higher tranches” (Goodhart 208, 342). Wray therefore criticizes that securitization allowed the transformation of “trash into highly rated securities” that even insurance or pension funds were allowed to buy (2007, 25).
Another type of securities, which were mainly issued by insurance companies like AIG, were credit default swaps (CDS). CDSs are financial instruments initially used to ensure against default risks of debtors but they also enjoyed great popularity among speculators later, for instance as betting instruments on expectations about the future creditworthiness of single firms or whole industries. CDSs intended to provide security for all sorts of credits like loans to firms, subprime mortgages, CDOs or credit card loans. By buying these CDSs, the lender passes on the risk of default payments or a loss in value to the insurance companies or investment bank, which issued the CDS. The buyer pays a fixed premium per quarter to the CDS issuer in order to compensate for the transferred risk while the issuer in return pays the buyer a certain amount of the loan if default actually occurs. If no default occurs, the buyer of the CDS receives no additional money - just like a car insurance, which pays only in case of an accident. Default events might be insolvency, bankruptcy but also rating downgrades. AIG alone insured commercial papers amounting to 400 billion USD. (Mollenkamp et al. 2008). Unfortunately, AIG “rarely set aside the reserves they would need if the obligation ever had to be paid“ (Kelleher 2008). According to the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, the outstanding credit default swaps in the first half-year 2008 equaled tremendous 54.6 trillion USD compared to a total world GDP of ‘only’ around 54 trillion USD (International Swaps and Derivatives Association 2008). This amount exceeds “over 4 times the publicly traded corporate and mortgage U.S. debt they are supposed to insure” (Murphy 2008, 2). Roubini calls this the “biggest asset and credit bubble in human history” (2009a). This is maybe the reason why Warren Buffett described CDS as ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’ (Kelleher 2008).
Credit default swaps brought AIG and investment banks like Lehman Brothers huge losses as they could not pay off the buyers of their CDS when default occurred on grand scale after those securities were downgraded by rating agencies.
Before the U.S. real estate bubble burst, banks could unload their most toxic securities unto other players in the market. As loans leave the originating banks’ balance sheets in a securitized format, also the default risk of the underlying mortgages could be passed on to investors. That means that the originate-and-distribute model made the originating banks more risk-prone and “less concerned about the quality of credit assessment and monitoring of the borrowers’ conditions during the course of the outstanding loan” (Goodhart 2008, 334). Dell’Ariccia et al. empirically show that lending standards became lax as each link in the mortgage chain could collect profits, which were based on high trade volumes, while passing on the risk for losses so that securitization provided “lenders with incentives to extend riskier loans” (Dell’Ariccia et al. 2008, 17). This phenomenon can be best described by moral hazard. Moral hazard means that a party, who is isolated from risk may act differently than it would act if it was fully exposed to the risk. As the full consequences of its behavior are to be borne by someone else, the party has an incentive to behave riskier than it otherwise would (Wikipedia 2009a). Moral hazard in the financial crisis occurred all along the mortgage chain. First, mortgage brokers handed out loans without asking for documentation or proof of the borrowers’ ability to repay because they could push the default risk on to investors. Investment banks bought mortgages, sold them as mortgage-backed securities or sliced up different kinds of debt and repackaged them into complex securities like CDOs. Investors bought these securities and hedged against the risk of default by buying CDSs while pushing the risks further along to insurance companies like AIG. At the end of the chain, banks could feel sure that governments or central banks would bailout their losses that resulted from risk undertaken by them. In the end, central banks had to act as ‘lenders-of-last-resort’ by assuming the ultimate risk.
According to Blundell-Wignall et al., the objective of securitization is therefore not to spread risks as often mentioned but rather a way to boost revenue, the return on capital and share prices (2009). Stiglitz also sharply criticizes securitization by stating that in the resulting “capital gains based pyramid scheme, some were cashing in on the gains, leaving the future losses to others” (2008).
Rating agencies should have been neutral advisors and safeguarded transparency even though there is asymmetric information inherently in the system as described above. Their task was to rate the credit worthiness of securities in order to help buyers in assessing the associated risk.
Standard&Poor’s, Moody's, Fitch and other agencies are heavily blamed in the current discussion about the background to the crisis “for putting the entire financial system at risk and betraying the public trust“ (Mortgage News Daily 2008). They are strongly criticized for having relied on ever-increasing house prices and for having rated highly risky securities with triple A, which means that credit risk is very unlikely. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating this topic as they detected improperly managed conflicts of interest (Woellert and Kopecki 2008).
Conflicts of interest arise as rating agencies are being paid by those banks, whose products they are rating (Goodhart 2008). The better the ratings, the more sales to investors are possible. Furthermore, the banks themselves provided agencies with information about the financial instruments that had to be rated. This obviously created immense adverse- incentives. Stiglitz argues, that even without incentive problems rating agencies would not have assessed risk correctly as competition “had a perverse effect: it was a race to the bottom—a race to provide ratings that were most favorable to those being rated” (Stiglitz 2009a, 5).
In an e-mail released by lawmakers, a Standard & Poor's employee stated “Let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters“ which demonstrates quite clearly that they knew about the ‘toxic waste’ they were praising (Woellert and Kopecki 2008). The ‘house of cards faltered’ when the agencies finally had to downgrade their ratings after foreclosure and delinquency rates increased. Triple A rated securities “halved between July 2007 and March 2008, which created a major credit crisis” as new borrowers could not afford the resulting higher interest rate and investors rushed to sell their securities causing liquidity in markets for mortgage backed securities to dry up (Australian National University 2009). Consequently, investment banks and other investors had to write down their assets, which reduced their capital.
It is important to know that most mistakes that were made prior to the bubble deflation were well within existing laws and regulations. Blaming the real estate bubble for the current crisis is, according to Wray, therefore like “blaming the car for an accident” as regulators and governments should have stepped in earlier (2007, 5).
For Stiglitz, “most of the individual mistakes boil down to just one: a belief that markets are self-adjusting and that the role of government should be minimal” (2009b). The paradigm of self-regulating markets obviously dominated public perception. The U.S. authorities designed a framework, that instead of giving guidelines, allowed financial market enormous freedoms. Spehar even states that the lack of governance over the financial institutions was not just “laissez-faire” it was lawless” (2008, 14). In the following, I would like to give a short overview over the legislative environment that enabled the excesses on Wall Street.
An often cited legislative change with regard to the financial crisis is the repeal of the Glass- Steagall Act of 1933, which Stiglitz labels as “the culmination of a 300 million USD lobbying effort” by the financial industry (2009b). The Glass-Steagall Act used to separate activities of commercial banks, which take deposits from savers, from investment banks, which invest money. In 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed and replaced by the Gramm-Leach- Bliley Act. This new law enabled commercial banks to become active in fields which used to be reserved for investment banks in the past, thereby enabling “commercial lenders, like Citigroup, to trade instruments” like MBSs and CDOs (Wood 2009). According to Stiglitz, this transmitted the risk-taking culture of investments banks to ordinary banks “which should have acted in a far more prudential manner” (2009a, 7). The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act also increased the competition in the market for securities and forced investment banks “into ever more risky reliance” on trades for their own accounts by using high leverage levels to increase their return (Arner 2009, 125).
Another regulation is the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 which left “any products offered by banking institutions [unregulated] if they were sold as future contracts” like for instance CDSs (Spehar 2008, 15). Although those new financial products became so complex that even traders could not understand them fully, the trade boomed as contracts were negotiated privately over-the-counter without a central clearing house in between which oversees transactions or makes sure that losses are covered if securities default (Morrissey 2008). Especially naked CDS, i.e. “CDS contracts where neither party (...) held the underlying asset created fertile ground for speculation” and insurance companies like AIG could issue as many CDSs as they wished (Marshall 2009, 18).
Conventional banks are required to hold liquid reserves, to maintain a certain percentage of capital and to contribute to the deposit insurance system. They are part of the Federal Reserve System and are subject to many regulations (Krugman 2009d). However, there were not only ordinary, highly regulated banks. Over time, a shadow banking system evolved, consisting of investment banks, hedge funds, private equity groups, commercial paper markets, special purpose vehicles (SPVs), money market funds, auction rate securities and non-bank mortgage lenders, that “played a major role in excessive credit creation” (Tong and Wei 2008, 16). These non-bank conduits that act like banks “expanded to rival or even surpass conventional banking in importance” but neither regulation nor the deposit insurance system were extended to these new market players (Krugman 2000d, 163). Krugman argues that “anything that does what a bank does, anything that has to be rescued in crises the way banks are, should be regulated like a bank (2009d, 163). Nevertheless, this did not happen. Non-banks profited as they could pay higher returns due to more risky and more leveraged investments to their investors.
Many banks used for instance SPVs to invest in U.S. mortgages and related securities that seemed to keep the risky assets off the banks' balance sheets. As part of the unregulated non-bank system, these off-balance sheet conduits were not subject to capital requirements under the Basel accord as opposed to commercial banks. That means, that regulatory arbitrage was possible as banks could establish non-bank conduits, which held the unregulated securitized assets with a long maturity and financed them by selling asset- backed commercial papers with a short maturity of around one to three months (Goodhart 2008 and Blundell-Wignall et al. 2009). According to Acharya and Richardson, regulatory arbitrage “became the primary business of the financial sector because of the short-term profits it was generating” (2009, 13). But the resulting maturity mismatch - as long term assets were funded with short term debt - bears liquidity funding risks because “investors might suddenly stop buying asset-backed commercial paper, preventing these vehicles from rolling over their short-term debt” (Brunnermeier 2009, 80). Even though those long-term assets are not on the banks’ balance sheets, they still bear the liquidity risk as they would have to grant a credit line to their vehicles in case of trouble.
According to Goodhart, banks’ liquidity declined dramatically because their assets increasingly consisted of private sector loans like residential mortgages with high credit ratings but very low liquidity, as there is no strong secondary market (2008). They were literally “putting the management of liquidity to the central bank” (Goodhart 2008, 339). Another factor that contributed to the current financial sector problems is that the Basel accord capital requirements gave banks the opportunity to reduce the amount of capital reserves that has to be held against assets that they kept in their balance sheets by 50 percent “if these assets took the form of AAA-rated nonprime or Fannie Mae/ Freddie Mac securities, as opposed to individual mortgages” (Acharya and Richardson 2009, 1). That means that through securitization, whether held off or on a bank’s balance sheet, capital buffers could be minimized and more loans could be handed out.
The Securities and Exchange Commission created special exemptions regarding capital requirements for investment banks with assets greater than 5 billion USD in 2004. Five banks, namely Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Morgan Stanley, met those requirements and did not have to adhere any longer to the maximum debt-to-net-capital ratios of 12 to 1 (Casey Research 2008). Instead, those banks were allowed to “employ internal models to assess credit risk and corresponding capital charges” (Acharya and Richardson 2009, 10). Leverage ratios of up to 40 to 1 became common which allowed them to invest even more into risky securities as they were not required to back them up thus keeping the cost of capital low. However, when having a high leverage, relatively small changes in assets values can deplete a bank’s equity sharply. For instance, “at a 30-to- 1 leverage ratio, a mere 3 percent change in asset values wipes out one’s net worth” (Stiglitz 2009a, 4). These changes from 2004 can therefore be seen as a major reason for the size of the losses that have occurred for investment banks, of which only a few remained on the market. The same applies to commercial banks with large investment banking arms, also part of the shadow banking system, that absorbed the capital of the whole group quickly (Labaton 2008 and Blundell-Wignall et al. 2009).
The five former large U.S. investment banks had a hard landing in 2008: Bear Stearns merged with JPMorgan Chase, Merrill Lynch was taken over by the Bank of America, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and Goldman Sachs as well as Morgan Stanley became commercial banks.
One might argue that even though regulations were lax, bankers could have conducted more prudently and more ethically as they have the fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of their clients. However, conflicts of interest arose because large bonus payments, averaging 180,420 USD per Wall Street banker in 2007, depended on revenue generated and supported highly leveraged but risky transactions (Dickler 2008). ‘Greed’ induced by short- term oriented, volume-driven “perverse incentives” as well as the fact that bankers did not have to bear the consequences of their actions as they were not investing their own money have therefore been often cited by popular media but also by renowned economists as main reasons for the current mess (see for instance Stiglitz 2009a, Acharya and Richardson 2009 and Calomiris 2008).
According to the OECD, a me-too mentality emerged among investment banks for which “beating the key competition is the topic of every morning meeting at all levels” and leveraged transactions became part of the “growth at any cost mentality” (Blundell-Wignall et al. 2009, 10). ‘Jumping on the bandwagon’ became more profitable than leaning against the wave because working with high leverage means higher returns on equity, too. Even Stiglitz admits that “banks that didn’t engage in excessive leverage, and so had lower returns, were ‘punished’ by having their stock values beaten down” (2009a, 5).
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to blame only bankers. Also U.S. home owners and conventional banks leveraged their equity even though they do not necessarily receive bonus payments or need to grow at any cost.
A more high-level approach to why risk and leverage might have risen is the theory of the ‘Great Moderation’ era which preceded the current crisis. Harvard economist James Stock described this phenomenon in 2003 and stated that for the past twenty years, macroeconomic activity in terms of GDP, consumption and inflation has become less volatile due to central banks’ countercyclical actions (Stock and Watson 2003). This “Golden Age” in combination with easy access to capital and financial deregulation, made economic actors over optimistic and exuberant. They started to believe that the risk of recessions had moderated and they developed a huge appetite for risk and leverage which in turn led to even more growth (Goodhart 2007). Activities that would have been considered disproportionately risky prior to the great moderation were now supposed to have less systemic risk Overoptimistic euphoria might have also been supported by the ‘Greenspan put’, meaning that the U.S. Federal Reserve prevented severe economic collapses whenever financial markets faced serious trouble during the past 20 years (Goodhart 2007). While knowing that the Fed will not allow an economic downturn some sort of moral hazard arose as financial investments seemed to be less risky, too. According to the IMF, financial institutions became overconfident that high liquidity leverages are no real problem because the central will provide the needed liquidity in case of a crisis, “particularly against otherwise illiquid assets” (Stella 2009, 14). The IMF states that the overall market liquidity leverage, i.e. the ratio of total U.S. credit market debt outstanding to ultimate liquidity, increased from 5 to 45 between in 1951 and 2007 (Stella 2009). Prior to Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, the motto “when it’s heads I win, tails you lose” created perverse incentives” for too-big-to-fail banks to take excessive risks (Stiglitz 2009a, 7).
Barnett and Chauvet argue that lower volatility had not been the result of improved monetary policy or of the end of the business cycle like explained by Stock. Instead, “misperceptions based upon poor data were responsible for excess risk taking by financial firms and borrowers, and by regulators at central banks” (Barnett and Chauvet 2008, 1).
After Lehman’s fall in September 2008, the perceived low-risk environment changed because obviously not every bank was considered any longer as ‘too-big-to-fail’. Consequently, interbank-lending started to freeze and a sharp deleveraging process started. The Great Moderation ended and the world entered into a new era. It became clear that applied risk models did not account for a potential meltdown of the whole subprime market but were
instead “based on unrealistic assumptions” and a false sense of security (Murphy 2008, 1). When market players realized that those models had failed panic broke out. This phenomenon might be explained by Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis stating that “stable economies sow the seeds of their own destruction” which can be seen as a counterpart to Adam Smith’s theory of efficient markets (Economist 2009a). Minsky’s model of credit cycles starts with displacement, which is followed by a boom leading to euphoria and profit taking, until panic sets in. The current crisis’ fundamentals were laid when Greenspan cut interest rates to historical lows, which allowed for cheap house loans. Like in Minsky’s model, long phases of stability and positive experiences in the past resulted in eroding lending standards and overoptimistically small capital reserves. But at some point, borrowers could serve their loans only by taking new loans which required continuously rising asset prices, a classical “Ponzi pyramid scheme” (Stiglitz 2008, Cassidy 2008, Storbeck 2008 and Krugman 2009d ). Banks with high leverage ratios, but also private companies who increasingly turned to leveraged buy-outs as well as “homebuyers who took on 125% mortgages at the peak of the property boom” were classic examples of this Ponzi phase (Economist 2009a). Credit expansion stopped in 2007 when two Bear Stearns hedge funds went bankrupt and financial market participants panicked.
To sum up, it can be said that all those factors, not only the greed of single bankers or mortgage sellers, contributed to a “clear and apparent wide-spread under-pricing of risk”, to historically low differentials between risky and safe assets and to high leverage levels (Goodhart 2007). There were many mechanisms at work that formed the paradigm of our generation. The current crisis in the U.S. has been a result of different systemic failures like excessive leverage, high risk transactions, conflicts of interest and financial innovation within a macroeconomic framework that has been characterized by a global savings glut, an era of high macroeconomic stability and monetary expansion.
It might be quite easy now, after the breakout of the crisis, to list all mistakes made, all lapses and shortcomings. However, while the housing bubble inflated, no serious countermeasures were taken. There have been some early warnings about upcoming problems, but as long as profits could be made and the system was running, they were simply ignored. Obviously, almost everyone believed that house prices will keep increasing forever. Bankers, regulators, the Federal Reserve, economists, politicians or journalists all “failed to see the financial crisis brewing” (Knowledge@Wharton 2009). One reason might be that they used mathematical models that did not account for the critical importance that financial institutions have within the economy but instead focused on “players in the ‘real economy’ - producers and consumers of goods and services (Knowledge@Wharton. 2009). According to Spehar the Federal Reserve was aware of the enormous size and growth of the bubble but disregarded the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as shocks did neither show up in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) nor in output gaps (2008). According to Goodhart, “the potential crisis in financial markets was observed beforehand, but no significant action was taken”, no matter what the reasons were (2008, .340).
In the following, I would like to give a short overview over the effects on the U.S. real economy, the financial markets and the spillovers to the rest of the world.
Falling house prices, the trigger for the current economic crisis resulted in lower demand for mortgages as well as rising delinquency and foreclosure rates in February 2007 (Brunnermeier 2009). Defaults first hit the lower tranches in structured securities, which were mainly held by hedge funds, like two Bear Stearns hedge funds that collapsed in June 2007. The same month, Moody's lowered the ratings of 131 securities backed by subprime mortgages which used to receive top ratings before (Economist 2007). As a result, insurance companies and pension funds were required to sell bonds that were below a certain rating level, thus driving down prices (Pittman 2007). In August 2007, the subprime crisis started when several large banks outside the real estate and mortgage financial industry lost parts of their capital base due to defaults on subprime mortgages so that subprime loans became widely recognized as being critical to the whole financial market (Tong and Wei 2008). Further rating downgrades of MBSs worth 1.9 trillion USD followed between fall 2007 and the summer 2008 “to reflect the reassessment of their risk” (Marshall 2009, 7). If credit risk of securities in a bank’s portfolio is downgraded, capital ratios must be improved for instance by liquidating assets or issuing new stock, which in turn decreased stock prices of financial institutions.
Figure 7 impressively demonstrates how market capitalization of major international banks declined between 2007 and 2009.
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Figure 7. Market Capitalization of Major Banks (in billion USD)
Source: A.T. Kearney Strategy Lounge Presentation. A.T. Kearney. 2009. Global Financial Crisis 2008. 19 March 2009. p. 4
Large banks, especially from Europe and the U.S. faced write downs on bad loans and credit losses. In 2007 alone, the top ten global banks had already written down 75 billion USD (Wray 2007). Between the stock market all-time high in October 2007 and October 2008, stock market wealth declined by 8 trillion USD (Brunnermeier 2009).
Besides this balance sheet amplification “that works through asset prices and balance sheet constraints” another mechanism that amplified a liquidity crisis worked through “agents’ uncertainty” (Krishnamurthy 2008, 2). Investors started to mistrust other complex securities, too, and “reversed their aggressive risk-taking of the credit boom period” (Bernanke 2008). Values of a broader range of structured commercial papers that were spread across the globe sharply declined, further deteriorating banks’ balance sheets. On 9 August 2007 the “French bank BNP Paribas temporarily halted redemptions from three of its funds that held assets backed by U.S. subprime mortgage debt” which acted as a trigger to the global financial crisis (Cecchetti 2008, 13). Starting that day, banks faced uncertainty regarding further bank losses. They became “unwilling to lend to each other [and] the interbank market started to freeze“ which further magnified the negative effects (Philippon 2008). The drying up of interbank lending on 9 August 2007 can be illustrated by a skyrocketing LIBOR rate, the rate at which banks loan to each other on a short-term basis. “It became difficult, indeed almost impossible, for those who were systemic net borrowers in the wholesale markets to fund themselves, except at high, or indeed any rates at all” (Goodhart 2008, 343). Lenders flew to safety and preferred U.S. treasury bills for their funds instead of lending to other banks which resulted in a sharp increase of the TED spread between T-bill yields and interbank LIBOR rates in August 2007. The TED spread became even higher after Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy in September 2008 as can be seen in figure 8.
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Figure 8. TED Spread between the 3-month LIBOR rate and the 3-month U.S. T-bill yield. Source: Jones 2009, 8.
The Federal Reserve Bank immediately reacted by injecting 24 billion USD into the interbank market in August 2007.
Remember the shadow-banking system explained above. By financing long-term risky and relatively illiquid assets through short-term liabilities, it was “especially vulnerable” to bank runs in which depositors ask to get their money back because they feared losses as their deposits were not protected under the deposit insurance scheme (Krugman 2009d, 161). If non-bank conduits, like hedge funds, did not have enough cash, they would have to sell their assets at fire-sales prices, driving down prices of similar assets. The low liquidity of banks and their minimal capital buffers means that the finance industry would experience significant problems in case funding liquidity declines. This is exactly what happened in mid 2007. Losses on speculative assets prompted “lenders to call in their loans [and] investors [were] forced to sell even their less-speculative positions to make good on their loans” (Lahart 2008).
Bear Stearns and many other banks faced severe liquidity crises as the market value of their liabilities on their huge CDS portfolio began to rise so much that the counterparties asked for additional collaterals to secure their payment (Murphy 2008). In March 2008, the Federal Reserve backed up a 30 billion USD portfolio of Bearn Stearns and arranged a sale of the bank to JPMorgan Chase.
In September 2008, the financial markets experienced several fundamental shocks. On 8 September, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the U.S. government, on 13 September Merrill Lynch was bought by Bank of America and on 15 September Lehman Brothers, “a firm with over USD 600 billion in assets and 25,000 employees” filed for the “largest bankruptcy in US history“ (Philippon 2008). The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers was like an earthquake that led to a chain reaction in global financial markets. After Lehman’s fall, “severe counterparty risk concerns (...) paralyzed capital markets” and turned the bust of the U.S. real estate bubble into a worldwide financial crisis (Acharya and Richardson 2009, 17). The interbank lending freeze worsened.
Consequently, a liquidity crisis started. A liquidity crisis is characterized by a sharp fall in the volume of transactions in some financial markets which makes “it difficult to value certain financial assets and thereby [raises] questions about the overall value of the firms holding those assets” (Jones 2009, 8). The lemon theory as described by Akerlof, who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001 for his research on asymmetric information, helps to describe this situation (1970). When it was made known that some securities were faulty, or ‘toxic’ as they are referred to in current literature, all of them were deemed to be of low quality even if this was true only for a small percentage. There was a high uncertainty regarding the extent and distribution of ‘toxic waste’ losses among different banks and insurance companies. AIG faced a severe liquidity crisis after its credit rating was downgraded in September 2008, which means that larger reserves had to be maintained in order to cover for the higher risk. On 16 September 2008, AIG, which insured assets through CDS contracts worth more than 300 billion USD, had to be bailed out with a 85 billion USD loan from the Federal Reserve Bank in order to avoid bankruptcy (Andrews et al. 2009). With even higher losses in 2008 of around 100 billion USD, the government injected more money totaling around 180 billion USD so far.
The more financial institutions failed, the higher the market risk premia rose and the more collateral were demanded by investors. “The resulting liquidity squeeze caused [even] more defaults and further rises in market credit risk premiums in a vicious cycle” (Murphy 2008, 14).
All of the above-described chain reaction started in the U.S. housing market. When mortgages were adjusted to higher rates, ARM borrowers faced payments shocks as their monthly payments, more or less, unexpectedly climbed. They were unable to repay their loans, resulting in increasing home foreclosure rates. Furthermore, houses that were built during the boom could not be sold leading to an over-supply. In 2006, home prices stopped increasing and began to decrease in 2007. Houses that fell below their mortgage value induced their mortgagers to default and hand the house back to the lender (Goodhart 2008, 338). Rising monthly payments of those who kept their houses and the end of an era where real estate served as an ATM machine decreased homeowners’ disposable incomes thus affecting consumption. “The housing wealth effects from an engine of growth [turned] to a drag on the economy” (Harvard University 2008, 9).
What happened on Wall Street had negative effects on Main Street, too. While banks deleveraged their balance sheets, credit rationing has also affected other parts of the economy besides financial and real estate markets since mid 2008 (Blanchard 2009). Effective interest rates for private sector borrowers demanding mortgage, consumer and corporate loans were increasing while credit requirements were tightened so that the “availability of credit to the private sector [was] being cut back quite sharply” which reduced private sector demand further (Goodhart 2008, 344). As if the financial crisis was not enough, consumers and firms also suffered a supply shock in the form an oil price increase which peaked at more than 140 USD per barrel in summer when global investors “switched some of their funds into commodity futures” (Tong and Wei 2008, 19).
Still, it took until fall 2008 when also business and consumer confidence indexes in the U.S. fell dramatically. As consumers started to fear another Great Depression and experienced declines in their household wealth, they cut down demand and increased their savings. This negative aggregate demand shock aggravated as firms choose to postpone or cut back investments and employment due to growing uncertainty. Unemployment in the United States rose sharply from 4.4 percent prior to the recession, which started in December 2007 to 9.4 percent in May 2009 (Jones 2009, 2). One of the most hit industries besides banks was the automotive sector and even though General Motors and Chrysler both received loans from the Treasury, they had to declare bankruptcy.
In the course of the economic downturn, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes, savings, and pensions. The U.S. GDP is forecasted to be negative at around -2.5 percent in 2009 and no one knows when and how America can find its way back to recovery (IMF 2009).