Ten years ago this week the match that lit the financial crisis was struck, in the form of a carefully crafted news release from a big French bank. The news was that the bank was going to “temporarily suspend” three investment funds until the market for certain U.S. mortgage securities started working normally again.
You may remember the start of the financial crisis differently, perhaps with the 2008 collapse of the big investment bank Lehman Brothers. But financial economists Kermit Schoenholtz and Stephen Cecchetti just made a persuasive case on their blog that it was this little news release from August 2007 that spiked short-term interest rates for lending money to banks and completely shut down the market for financing asset-based securities deals.
By the time Lehman Brothers finally went down a little over a year later, there was a full-blown panic underway. By the end of 2009, the amount of taxpayer funds needed to stabilize the financial system, including from the Federal Reserve Bank, reached roughly $3 trillion, as tracked by CNN Money.
One thing you can tell from reading the commentary by two savvy economists is that they thought there was something new and important to say about the financial crisis even 10 years later. Another is that we should expect a lot more financial crisis anniversary articles and commentaries to appear over the next year or so. Don’t be surprised if they sound like they may not even be about the same set of events.
Schoenholtz and Cecchetti noted that MIT economist Andrew Lo had plowed through 21 books on the financial crisis and couldn’t conclude that one single story fully explained what happened. Even the official government commission, after more than 700 witnesses and 19 days of public hearings, arrived at three different conclusions.
“Apparently,” Lo had dryly observed, “it’s complicated.”
I’ve gotten through only five of the 21 books on Lo’s list, along with a couple of others, but Lo makes an awfully good point. Even drafting a simple summary paragraph as to what happened and why seems all but impossible.
For those who favor a “bad people on Wall Street did it to us” explanation, William Cohan chronicled in his book “House of Cards” the collapse of big New York investment bank Bear Stearns, which was then sold for a relative pittance in early 2008.
That turned out to be a rough year personally for Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne, as accounts surfaced of a barely attentive boss who not long before had been a billionaire. He did not fully understand the complex mortgage securities his firm handled, Cohan wrote, and therefore likely wouldn’t have been helpful in trying to right the ship even if he had decided to skip his bridge tournaments and stay at work.
The popular writer Michael Lewis, whose books often get turned into major Hollywood films, also saw the financial crisis as a case of Wall Street mismanagement.
In his book “The Big Short,” Lewis wrote about the end of the era of Wall Street that he knew firsthand — of big firms set up as partnerships. They had been owned and run by people who had to look after their own net worth as well as the wealth of their clients.
The financial crisis wouldn’t have happened had these firms not turned themselves into publicly held corporations with no real personal wealth at risk. Moreover, they had made so much money for so long that the top managers didn’t really consider the possibility that they might have been wrong this time.
To New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson and her co-author Joshua Rosner in their book “Reckless Endangerment,” the real culprits were in Washington, D.C., not New York. They were the leaders of the government-sponsored entities in the residential mortgage market like the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae.
They took the government policy of promoting broad homeownership, which may not have been a wise notion in the first place, and turned it into nothing more than an opportunity to make a lot of money for themselves with the taxpayers’ financial backing.
The result was entirely predictable. Just before Lehman Brothers finally tipped over, the day of reckoning had come for Fannie Mae and a similar company called Freddie Mac, with both taken over by the federal government and kept afloat with a massive line of credit from the Treasury.
Some of the same characters at the government-sponsored mortgage companies pop up in one of the other top books about that era from financial writers Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera. A fair summary of their book is that any financial mess this big could only have been made by what football coaches call “a total team effort.” They titled their book, based on a line from Shakespeare, “All the Devils Are Here.”
The economist Lo, after reading these books and others on a full library shelf, decided that anybody seeking to really understand this crisis needed to read them all. He seemed to suggest that meant the 21 he chose, those he didn’t and the books on the crisis not yet published.
That seems to be too much to ask for most of us, so instead we should be pulling for proposals like the plan produced last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. One provision was to insist that a financial company so big that its failure could really hurt the broader economy needed to be required to have a lot more equity capital. All of the equity would absorb losses and keep the confidence of depositors and other creditors if asset values tanked.
With enough capital, it wouldn’t matter as much if the top managers of a big financial company didn’t fully understand what was happening on their own trading floors. The CEOs could keep leaving the office early to play golf or bridge, their companies’ losses absorbed by a big capital cushion.
The rest of us in the Main Street economy could then go about our business without having to worry about them.