What Caused the 2008 Global Financial Crisis?

4 Underlying Causes

Causes of 2008 financial crisis
A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) June 30, 2005 in New York City. As expected, the Federal Reserve Thursday raised its federal funds rate target by a quarter-percentage-point to 3.25 percent from 3 percent. This is its ninth increase in a row. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The financial crisis was primarily caused by deregulation in the financial industry. That permitted banks to engage in hedge fund trading with derivatives. Banks then demanded more mortgages to support the profitable sale of these derivatives. They created interest-only loans that became affordable to subprime borrowers.

In 2004, the Federal Reserve raised the fed funds rate just as the interest rates on these new mortgages reset.

Housing prices started falling as supply outpaced demand. That trapped homeowners who couldn't afford the payments, but couldn't sell their house. When the values of the derivatives crumbled, banks stopped lending to each other. That created the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession.

Deregulation

In 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The repeal allowed banks to use deposits to invest in derivatives. Bank lobbyists said they needed this change to compete with foreign firms. They promised to only invest in low risk securities to protect their customers.

The following year, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act exempted credit default swaps and other derivatives from regulations. This federal legislation overruled the state laws that had formerly prohibited this as gambling. It specifically exempted trading in energy derivatives.

Who wrote and advocated for passage of both bills?

Texas Senator Phil Gramm, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. He listened to lobbyists from energy company Enron. His wife, who had formerly held the post of Chairwoman of the Commodities Future Trading Commission, was an Enron board member. Enron was a major contributor to Senator Gramm’s campaigns.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers also lobbied for the bill’s passage.

Enron wanted to engage in derivatives trading using its online futures exchanges. Enron argued that foreign derivatives exchanges were giving overseas firms an unfair competitive advantage.  (Source: Eric Lipton, “Gramm and the ‘Enron Loophole,” New York Times, November 14, 2008.)

Big banks had the resources to become sophisticated at the use of these complicated derivatives. The banks with the most complicated financial products made the most money. That enabled them to buy out smaller, safer banks. By 2008, many of these major banks became too big to fail.

Securitization

How did securitization work? First, hedge funds and others sold mortgage-backed securitiescollateralized debt obligations and other derivatives. A mortgage-backed security is a financial product whose price is based on the value of the mortgages that are used for collateral. Once you get a mortgage from a bank, it sells it to a hedge fund on the secondary market.

The hedge fund then bundles your mortgage with a lot of other similar mortgages. They used computer models to figure out what the bundle is worth based on several factors.

These included the monthly payments, total amount owed, the likelihood you will repay, and future home prices. The hedge fund then sells the mortgage-backed security to investors.

Since the bank sold your mortgage, it can make new loans with the money it received. It may still collect your payments, but it sends them along to the hedge fund, who sends it to their investors. Of course, everyone takes a cut along the way, which is one reason they were so popular. It was basically risk-free for the bank and the hedge fund.

The investors took all the risk of default. But they didn't worry about the risk because they had insurance, called credit default swaps.  These were sold by solid insurance companies liked AIG. Thanks to this insurance, investors snapped up the derivatives. In time, everyone owned them, including pension funds, large banks, hedge funds and even individual investors.

Some of the biggest owners were Bear Stearns, Citibank and Lehman Brothers.

A derivative backed by the combination of both real estate and insurance was very profitable. As the demand for these derivatives grew, so did the banks' demand for more and more mortgages to back the securities. To meet this demand, banks and mortgage brokers offered home loans to just about anyone. Banks offered subprime mortgages because they made so much money from the derivatives, rather than the loans themselves.

The Growth of Subprime Mortgages

In 1989, the Financial Institutions Reform Recovery and Enforcement Act increased enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act. This Act sought to eliminate bank “redlining” of poor neighborhoods. That practice had contributed to the growth of ghettos in the 1970s. Regulators now publicly ranked banks as to how well they “greenlined” neighborhoods.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reassured banks that they would securitize these subprime loans. That was the “pull” factor complementing the “push” factor of the CRA.  (Source: John Carney, “The Phony Time-Gap Alibi for the Community Reinvestment Act,” Business Insider, June 26, 2009.)

The Fed Raised Rates on Subprime Borrowers

Banks, hit hard by the the 2001 recession, welcomed the new derivative products.  In December 2001, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan lowered the fed funds rate to 1.75 percent. The Fed lowered it again in November 2002 to 1.24 percent.

That also lowered interest rates on adjustable-rate mortgages. The payments were cheaper because their interest rates were based on short-term Treasury bill yields, which are based on the fed funds rate. But that lowered banks' incomes, which are based on loan interest rates.

Many homeowners who couldn't afford conventional mortgages were delighted to be approved for these interest-only loans. As a result, the percent of subprime mortgages doubled, from 10 percent to 20 percent, of all mortgages between 2001 and 2006.  By 2007, it had grown into a $1.3 trillion industry. The creation of mortgage-backed securities and the secondary market ended the 2001 recession. (Source: Mara Der Hovanesian and Matthew Goldstein, "The Mortgage Mess Spreads," BusinessWeek, March 7, 2007.)

It also created an asset bubble in real estate in 2005. The demand for mortgages drove up demand for housing, which homebuilders tried to meet. With such cheap loans, many people bought homes as investments to sell as prices kept rising. 

Many of those with adjustable-rate loans didn't realize the rates would reset in three to five years. In 2004, the Fed started raising rates. By the end of the year, the fed funds rate was 2.25 percent. By the end of 2005, it was 4.25 percent. By June 2006, the rate was 5.25 percent. Homeowners were hit with payments they couldn't afford. For more, see Past Fed Funds Rate.

Housing prices started falling after they reached a peak in October 2005. By July 2007, they were down 4 percent. That was enough to prevent mortgage-holders from selling homes they could no longer make payments on. The Fed's rate increase couldn't have come at a worse time for these new homeowners. The housing market bubble turned to a bust. That created the banking crisis in 2007, which spread to Wall Street in 2008.

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