Top 10 Economic Events in 2008

How the World Changed in Just One Year

top ten economic events of 2008
Credit default swaps led to the 2008 financial crisis. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In 2008, the face of the global economy forever changed. Investment banks, the secondary credit market, and an unregulated financial market disappeared. As the free market failed, the government bought a controlling share in banks and insurance companies. The central banks around the world propped up the financial system. In September of that year, we came very close to total economic collapse. It seems we haven't recovered yet.

Here are the top ten events in 2008.

1. Fed Innovated to Replace a Failed Banking System. In 2008, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke used innovations to allow the Fed to shore up the failed financial system. In March, the Fed launched the Term Auction Facility. It made short-term loans available to cash-strapped banks who wouldn't lend to each other. In October, the Fed made $540 billion in loans to bail out money market funds. In November, the Fed agreed to buy $800 billion in mortgage-backed securities in an attempt to lower interest rates. In its role as bank of last resort, the Fed became the only bank that was still lending.

2. Bear Stearns Bailout. In March, the Federal Reserve held the first emergency weekend meeting in 30 years to try and save investment bank Bear Stearns. It was, in danger of going bankrupt thanks to bad MBS and other collateralized debt obligations. The Feds were afraid, and rightly so, that the failure of Bear Stearns would have spread to other over-leveraged investment banks.

This included Merrill Lynch, Lehman and Citigroup. In fact, that's what later happened with Lehman's bankruptcy. By the end of 2008, Citigroup also needed a bail-out, even though it was a supposedly less-risky commercial bank.

3. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae Bailout. In September 2008, mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac became government agencies again.

They held or guaranteed more than $5 trillion, or half, of the nation's mortgages. The U.S. Treasury Department bought $100 billion in preferred stock and MBS. The action came after Wall Street's panicked selling caused Fannie's and Freddie's shares to tumble. That made it impossible for these private companies to raise additional capital themselves. For more, read Costs of Fannie and Freddie Bailout.

4. Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy Triggered Global Recession. If Treasury Secretary Paulson had only known that his action would lead to a global recession. In September, he said no to government protection for Lehman's $60 billion in uncertain mortgage assets. It occurred during a weekend negotiation with potential buyers Barclay's and Bank of America. At the time, he thought the amount was too much. He was also being pressured to keep the government off the hook. Now, it seems like small potatoes. Lehman's Brothers bankruptcy panicked global bankers. That helped cause the Great Recession.

5. Fed Nationalized AIG. In September, the Federal Reserve bought shares in insurance giant AIG. Why was AIG worth saving? Because it insured credit default swaps. They insured loans and mortgages against default.

If AIG went under, so would all of these loans. Financial institutions around the world owned them. That included money market funds, pension funds and retirement accounts. In November, the Fed increased the bailout from $85 billion to $150 billion.

6. Credit Markets Froze. In September, banks withdrew $160 billion from ultra-safe money market accounts. Banks hoarded cash to write-down bad mortgages and withdrawals in bank runs. By the end of the week, banks held $190 billion in cash. That was opposed to a $2 billion reserve. Hoarding led to an increase in the benchmark LIBOR. That raised the price on $360 trillion in loans and credit card assets. The credit freeze led to a cash shortage for many businesses, such as Circuit City and the Big 3 auto companies. In response, the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to zero, reducing LIBOR.

But, banks continue to hoard cash.

7. End of Investment Banking. In November, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley became regular commercial banks. They had been two of the most successful investment banks on Wall Street. That ended an era of deregulation and high risk.

8. Stock Market Crash. By the end of 2008, the Dow was down 34 percent, closing at 8,816.62. Other indices did worse than that. The S&P 500 ended at 907.22 (a 38 percent decline), the MSCI Europe Index was down 45 percent, and the MSCI Asia Pacific Index dropped 43 percent. The Dow fell 25 percent in October alone, from 10,831 on October 1 to 8,175 on October 27. It reached its low of 7,552 on November 20, a 46 percent decline from its October 2007 high of 14,164.

9. $700 Billion Bailout. On October 3, the Senate passed the $700 billion bailout bill, now called the TARP program. The program was initially designed to purchase toxic mortgages from banks, freeing up cash for more loans. But it took too long to implement. On October 14, the Treasury used $350 billion for the Capital Repurchase Program. It bought preferred stock in major banks. That gave the government ownership. By November, the funds were also used to keep credit card companies in business. By the end of November, Citigroup also joined the bailout list. The auto industry only received part of what they asked for.

10. Obama Won Presidency. Barack Obama won the presidency on November 3, 2008. He promised to provide sorely needed hope to jumpstart the stalled economy. His proposals helped restore confidence in financial markets. He streamlined regulatory agencies, improved transparency for financial disclosure, and cracked down on manipulative trading activities. His first priority was to pump as much as $800 billion into the economy through tax relief and jobs programs. Once the crisis was resolved, Obama implemented much of his 10 point program. That included more labor and environmental controls on free trade agreements, and health care reform.

Obama surrounded himself with top-notch, respected, and experienced economic staff. He put together an Economic Advisory Board, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. He named hard-hitting Mary Schapiro as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. As Treasury SecretaryTim Geithner brought experience from both the New York Fed and the International Monetary Fund. Obama's vice-president, Joe Biden brought a great deal of fiscal policy experience to the team.