2008 recession is anything but ancient history

If you think you have heard it all before about the 2008 financial meltdown, then you need to listen more closely. Enough is never enough when it comes to learning about what caused the crisis and the recession that followed.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the financial crisis that devastated Wall Street and Main Street. While the autumn leaves were falling in September 2008, months of uncertainty crystallized to spark a financial panic.

The crisis, the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression, was triggered by the bursting of a housing price bubble that had been fueled by increased risk in mortgage lending. As a result, millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes, or both.

The crisis had many causes, including too much irresponsible borrowing, foolish investments, the credit bubble that resulted from loose monetary policy, the housing bubble, national housing policies and non-traditional mortgages, relaxed mortgage lending standards, credit ratings and securitization, financial institutions’ concentrated risk, leverage and liquidity risk, 30 years of deregulation, securities firms converting from partnerships to corporations and perverse compensation incentives.

Scratch the familiar refrain of greed as a cause. Greed has been a constant in human affairs for millennia. It was not a new attribute in the lead up to the crisis.

Today the economy is strong, according to official measures. The United States Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that GDP growth reached 4.1 percent in the second quarter of 2018. Consumer confidence is high and financial markets are flirting with records. The housing market, the epicenter of the crisis, has recovered in many places. Add low unemployment and things are looking good.

Wall Street has profited every year since the recession ended in 2009. Average Wall Street compensation, consisting of salary and bonus, hit $422,000 in 2017, 13 percent higher than the previous year, according to the New York State Comptroller.

In contrast, the latest Census Bureau data shows that the median income for American employees was $59,039 in 2016. Last month the average hourly wage rose 10 cents, to $27.16, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that was the largest gain since 2009, the increase was roughly equal to inflation, which eats away at purchasing power.

The crisis strikes some people as ancient history. Others, who saw their net worth wiped out are still trying to recover. They want Old Testament justice for the financial institutions that got bailed out from their reckless behavior while ordinary people suffered and continue to tread water thanks to ongoing wage stagnation. The hope is that as it gets hard to fill jobs with the country approaching full employment, wages will go up and the average American will enjoy the recovery.

While many analysts hesitate to blame American families for contributing to the financial crisis, they did play a role, aided and abetted by bankers and mortgage brokers. To put their role in context, consider that highly risky mortgages were attractive, given that real wages in the United States had been stagnant since the early 1970s.

People came to understand the power of leverage, which had previously been available only to wealthy investors. No-down payment mortgages with adjustable rates reduced their initial costs, providing the opportunity to improve their standard of living and enjoy wealth appreciation.

The assumption was that housing prices always increase. The rising value of the house would allow them to refinance and upgrade to a fixed-rate mortgage. When the housing bubble burst, many families were ravaged.

An economy that is strong for some continues to have harmful effects on the physical and emotional health of ordinary Americans. The results are a permanent state of outraged class warfare, declining social mobility, a shrinking middle class, and widening income inequality.

There is much to be mad about and plenty of blame to go around. Wall Street was the ultimate beneficiary of the Great Recession, not Main Street.

Originally Published: September 23, 2018

Too big to jail

Sept. 15 is the 10th anniversary of Lehman Brothers declaring bankruptcy. It was a day after the global money markets seized up, turning a worldwide daisy chain of financial institutions into a ticking bomb. In the wake of the bankruptcy, it seemed likely that the United States financial system as a whole would cease to operate, a financial blackout that would render paychecks, credit cards, and ATMs useless.

Lenders, including large companies, financial institutions, and money market funds, suddenly hoarded cash in the face of growing losses and threats to their own sources of credit. They no longer knew which borrower was a good risk, so they treated all of them as bad risks.

The world experienced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s and the economy plunged into deep recession. The Federal Reserve and Treasury Department misjudged the scale of the fallout from Lehman’s bankruptcy.

The failure of Lehman Brothers started a chain reaction in financial markets, as it was the first true test of the “too big to fail” hypothesis. Whereas Bear Stearns was sold to JP Morgan in March 2008, Lehman failed to find a buyer in time. The federal government refused to provide financial assistance and the company was forced into bankruptcy. Lehman was the fourth largest investment bank, and its failure sent huge waves across global financial markets. Market volatility peaked, and for some time it seemed that no bank was safe.

Merrill Lynch, the third-largest investment bank, rushed to sell itself to Bank of America that same weekend. Even Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley felt the shock and quickly tried to raise capital. The Federal Reserve allowed those two banks to change their charters and become bank holding companies which facilitated their funding via the discount window at the Federal Reserve.

On September 16, the federal government rushed forward with an initial $85 billion in taxpayer cash to bail out AIG, the nation’s largest insurance company. The very next day the nation’s largest money market fund was forced to “break the buck”, that is, report a share value of less than a dollar. The firm’s stake in debt securities issued by Lehman Brothers, with a face value of $785, million was essentially worthless. As a result, the share value fell to 97 cents. (Gasp.)

In the biggest bank failure in United States history, federal regulators seized the assets of Washington Mutual, the sixth largest U.S. bank, on September 27. JP Morgan acquired Washington Mutual’s bank deposits, assets, and their troubled mortgage portfolio from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for $1.9 billion, making it the largest U.S. depository institution.

The crash brought together many forces: stagnant wages, widening inequality, anger about immigration and, above all, a deep distrust of elites and government. The road to recovery has been long for ordinary workers since those white-knuckle days of September 2008, resulting in a wave of nationalism, protectionism, and populism.

The ordinary American scraped by in the aftermath of the crisis, while Wall Street bankers soon returned to wealth and profitability, continuing their well-upholstered lives. The bankers were able to avoid accountability for the financial institutions they ran crashing the economy by trading trillions in fraudulent securities tied to risky or even certain-to-fail mortgages. No senior executive ever had to plea to criminal charges.

Policymakers and prosecutors took the view that prosecuting senior bank executives would cause too much collateral damage to employees, customers, other banks, and the economy. In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was “concerned that the size of some of these (financial institutions) becomes so large that it… become[s] difficult… to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that… if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.”

In short, they were too big to jail.

Originally Published: September 8, 2018