Too Little, Too Late?
January 27, 2011 Leave a comment
At long last, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission released its final report today on the causes of the great financial crisis of 2008. Unfortunately, the report probably raises more questions than answers due to the fact that the commission was split on the true cause of the crisis. The Democrat majority provided their view that the crisis was ultimately caused by greedy Wall Street bankers coupled with a lax regulatory system. On the other hand, the Republican minority of three panel members portrayed the following more complicated series of causes in their dissenting view.
- Credit bubble. Starting in the late 1990s, China, other large developing countries, and the big oil-producing nations built up large capital surpluses. They loaned these savings to the United States and Europe, causing interest rates to fall. Credit spreads narrowed, meaning that the cost of borrowing to finance risky investments declined. A credit bubble formed in the United States and Europe, the most notable manifestation of which was increased investment in high-risk mortgages. U.S. monetary policy may have contributed to the credit bubble but did not cause it.
- Housing bubble. Beginning in the late 1990s and accelerating in the 2000s, there was a large and sustained housing bubble in the United States. The bubble was characterized both by national increases in house prices well above the historical trend and by rapid regional boom-and-bust cycles in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. Many factors contributed to the housing bubble, the bursting of which created enormous losses for homeowners and investors.
- Nontraditional mortgages. Tightening credit spreads, overly optimistic assumptions about U.S. housing prices, and flaws in primary and secondary mortgage markets led to poor origination practices and combined to increase the flow of credit to U.S. housing finance. Fueled by cheap credit, firms like Countrywide, Washington Mutual, Ameriquest, and HSBC Finance originated vast numbers of high-risk, nontraditional mortgages that were in some cases deceptive, in many cases confusing, and often beyond borrowers’ ability to repay. At the same time, many homebuyers and homeowners did not live up to their responsibilities to understand the terms of their mortgages and to make prudent financial decisions. These factors further amplified the housing bubble.
- Credit ratings and securitization. Failures in credit rating and securitization transformed bad mortgages into toxic financial assets. Securitizers lowered the credit quality of the mortgages they securitized. Credit rating agencies erroneously rated mortgage-backed securities and their derivatives as safe investments. Buyers failed to look behind the credit ratings and do their own due diligence. These factors fueled the creation of more bad mortgages.
- Financial institutions concentrated correlated risk. Managers of many large and midsize financial institutions in the United States amassed enormous concentrations of highly correlated housing risk. Some did this knowingly by betting on rising housing prices, while others paid insufficient attention to the potential risk of carrying large amounts of housing risk on their balance sheets. This enabled large but seemingly manageable mortgage losses to precipitate the collapse of large financial institutions.
- Leverage and liquidity risk. Managers of these financial firms amplified this concentrated housing risk by holding too little capital relative to the risks they were carrying on their balance sheets. Many placed their firms on a hair trigger by relying heavily on short-term financing in repo and commercial paper markets for their day-to-day liquidity. They placed solvency bets (sometimes unknowingly) that their housing investments were solid, and liquidity bets that overnight money would always be available. Both turned out to be bad bets. In several cases, failed solvency bets triggered liquidity crises, causing some of the largest financial firms to fail or nearly fail. Firms were insufficiently transparent about their housing risk, creating uncertainty in markets that made it difficult for some to access additional capital and liquidity when needed.
- Risk of contagion. The risk of contagion was an essential cause of the crisis. In some cases, the financial system was vulnerable because policymakers were afraid of a large firm’s sudden and disorderly failure triggering balance sheet losses in its counterparties. These institutions were deemed too big and interconnected to other firms through counterparty credit risk for policymakers to be willing to allow them to fail suddenly.
- Common shock. In other cases, unrelated financial institutions failed because of a common shock: they made similar failed bets on housing. Unconnected financial firms failed for the same reason and at roughly the same time because they had the same problem: large housing losses. This common shock meant that the problem was broader than a single failed bank–key large financial institutions were undercapitalized because of this common shock.
- Financial shock and panic. In quick succession in September 2008, the failures, near-failures, and restructurings of ten firms triggered a global financial panic. Confidence and trust in the financial system began to evaporate as the health of almost every large and midsize financial institution in the United States and Europe was questioned.
- Financial crisis causes economic crisis. The financial shock and panic caused a severe contraction in the real economy. The shock and panic ended in early 2009. Harm to the real economy continues through today.
In total, the report and dissenting viewpoints provide a great analysis of the risk event. However, both fail to provide a forward-looking view on how such a crisis can be avoided in the future. In addition, the results of their analysis have emerged months after the U.S. Congress finalized the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act of 2010. Unfortunately, this is too often the case when it comes to risk management exercises. Most people will spend an inordinate amount of time debating past events rather than determining strategies to prevent emerging risk events.