The Financial Crisis of 2007-2009: Understanding Its Causes,Consequences--and PossibleCures
This environment of easy credit and the upward spiral of home prices made investments in higher yielding subprime mortgages look like a new rush for gold. The Fed continued slashing interest rates, emboldened, perhaps, by continued low inflation despite lower interest rates. In June 2003, the Fed lowered interest rates to 1%, the lowest rate in 45 years. The whole financial market started resembling a candy shop where everything was selling at a huge discount and without any down payment. "Lick your candy now and pay for it later" - the entire subprime mortgage market seemed to encourage those with a sweet tooth for have-it-now investments. Unfortunately, no one was there to warn about the tummy aches that would follow. (For more reading on the subprime mortgage market, see our Subprime Mortgages special feature.)
But the bankers thought that it just wasn't enough to lend the candies lying on their shelves. They decided to repackage candy loans into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and pass on the debt to another candy shop. Hurrah! Soon a big secondary market for originating and distributing subprime loans developed. To make things merrier, in October 2004, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) relaxed the net capital requirement for five investment banks - Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), Merrill Lynch (NYSE:MER), Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) - which freed them to leverage up to 30-times or even 40-times their initial investment. Everybody was on a sugar high, feeling as if the cavities were never going to come.
The Beginning of the End
But, every good item has a bad side, and several of these factors started to emerge alongside one another. The trouble started when the interest rates started rising and home ownership reached a saturation point. From June 30, 2004, onward, the Fed started raising rates so much that by June 2006, the Federal funds rate had reached 5.25% (which remained unchanged until August 2007).
There were early signs of distress: by 2004, U.S. homeownership had peaked at 70%; no one was interested in buying or eating more candy. Then, during the last quarter of 2005, home prices started to fall, which led to a 40% decline in the U.S. Home Construction Index during 2006. Not only were new homes being affected, but many subprime borrowers now could not withstand the higher interest rates and they started defaulting on their loans.
This caused 2007 to start with bad news from multiple sources. Every month, one subprime lender or another was filing for bankruptcy. During February and March 2007, more than 25 subprime lenders filed for bankruptcy, which was enough to start the tide. In April, well-known New Century Financial also filed for bankruptcy.
Investments and the Public
Problems in the subprime market began hitting the news, raising more people's curiosity. Horror stories started to leak out.
According to 2007 news reports, financial firms and hedge funds owned more than $1 trillion in securities backed by these now-failing subprime mortgages - enough to start a global financial tsunami if more subprime borrowers started defaulting. By June, Bear Stearns stopped redemptions in two of its hedge funds and Merrill Lynch seized $800 million in assets from two Bear Stearns hedge funds. But even this large move was only a small affair in comparison to what was to happen in the months ahead.
August 2007: The Landslide Begins
It became apparent in August 2007 that the financial market could not solve the subprime crisis on its own and the problems spread beyond the United State's borders. The interbank market froze completely, largely due to prevailing fear of the unknown amidst banks. Northern Rock, a British bank, had to approach the Bank of England for emergency funding due to a liquidity problem. By that time, central banks...