As D.C. deregulates banking again, research on what went wrong on the eve of the Great Recession gains urgency.
In the classic mystery novel, a detective gathers the main characters together and slyly interrogates each one until the lies unravel, the truth becomes clear and the murderer is unmasked.
The economic crime of our young century was the financial panic that exploded a decade ago, bringing the world to the brink of a second Great Depression and leaving a recession so severe that only recently have we returned to anything resembling normal.
It didn’t take Hercule Poirot to sleuth an abundant number of suspects: A historic housing boom, loose Federal Reserve credit, individuals taking on too much debt, incentives for bankers to take on too much risk, and lapdog regulators.
The emphasis on causes can be highly partisan, befitting our Cold Civil War. Some conservatives blame federal pressure on banks to give home loans to minorities (the facts don’t support this contention). Some liberals see the imbalances that brought the crisis as closely tied to increasing inequality, a repeat of the 1920s and the disaster that followed (this pure cause-and-effect is also unlikely).
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But as we mark the 10th anniversary of the pivotal year in the crisis — which also saw Seattle lose its status as a major banking center with the collapse of Washington Mutual — the search for clues and a deeper understanding of what happened continues.
For example, a new working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research by Mark Gertler and Simon Gilchrist of New York University seeks to tie together a variety of studies on the crash, contraction and Great Recession.
Although the study is highly wonkish, the title is straightforward: What Happened: Financial Factors in The Great Recession.
Gertler and Gilchrist argue that the historic housing boom of the 2000s was caused by “a secular (long-term) decline in long-term interest rates, a relaxation of lending standards, and widespread optimism about future increases in house prices.”
Their research also supports something that was suspected in 2008, the rising importance of the shadow-banking system. These are financial intermediaries ranging from insurance companies to real-estate financiers and many other specialists representing tens of trillions of dollars. The catch: They aren’t regulated like banks.
The study says, “Increased securitization of mortgages permitted greater separation of the origination function of mortgage lending from the funding role.” Partial translation: The shadows were doing more banking, and on the eve of the financial panic regulators had no sense of the complexity or size of the danger.
Meanwhile, the housing boom enormously increased bank profits, but also their vulnerability to a sudden downturn.
The latter was even more true for household finances. Around 2005, house flipping was a hobby for even homeowners of modest means. The conventional wisdom was that house prices could only keep going up. When prices collapsed, many overextended homeowners and speculators were ruined.
“The financial crisis spread like a cancer from the shadow banking sector, which funded mainly securitized assets, to the commercial banking sector,” the authors write.
Then the collapse widened into the “real economy,” as all sorts of companies saw their financing freeze and their balance sheets weaken, while consumers pulled back. Construction employment in Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada — housing boom hotspots — plunged 40 percent.
All these “channels” — from banks and shadow banks to companies and households — fed into each other, acting as an accellerant in producing arguably the worst recession in 80 years.
Only aggressive policy responses from the Federal government and the Federal Reserve prevented another depression. Even then, those policies were flawed and incomplete. For example, many people needlessly lost their homes. Austerity prevented the sustained federal investments that would have filled the hole in demand. But these are outside the brief of the study.
So is the role of derivatives, the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the financial system, and deregulation through the 1990s, culminating in the repeal of Glass-Steagall. That was the Depression-era law that prevented commercial banks from gambling, among other protections of the common good.
This latest study is a contribution to understanding what happened in 2008. But don’t expect the argument (or even my columns on the subject) to end. Historians are still debating the relative weight of the factors behind the last century’s Great Depression.
Getting a handle on the causes of the more recent crisis carries urgency, however. We’re back to an era of laissez-faire and “industry friendly” regulation, as if 2008 never happened.
How long before a fresh reckoning arrives?