Causes of the late-2000s recession

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This information is related to the causes of the late-2000s recession, also known as the Great Recession, that is happening worldwide.

The great asset bubble:[1]
  1. Central banks' gold reserves – $0.845 tn.
  2. M0 (paper money) – - $3.9 tn.
  3. traditional (fractional reserve) banking assets – $39 tn.
  4. shadow banking assets – $62 tn.
  5. other assets – $290 tn.
  6. Bail-out money (early 2009) – $1.9 tn.



[edit] Debate over origins

The central debate about the origin has been focused on the respective parts played by the public monetary policy (in the US notably) and by private financial institutions practices.

In 2003, a group of economists led by Mikhail Khazin published the book titled "Sunset of the Dollar Empire and the End of the Pax Americana" introducing the causes of the upcoming crisis. The root cause was explained to be the inevitable decrease of the accumulative US consumers' demand due to the fact that the gradually decreasing (since late 1970s) Federal Reserve's interest rate will one day reach nearly 0 (happened by 2008) and could not allow for debts' refinancing anymore.[2]

On October 15, 2008, Anthony Faiola, Ellen Nakashima, and Jill Drew wrote a lengthy article in The Washington Post titled, "What Went Wrong".[3] In their investigation, the authors claim that former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt vehemently opposed any regulation of financial instruments known as derivatives. They further claim that Greenspan actively sought to undermine the office of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, specifically under the leadership of Brooksley E. Born, when the Commission sought to initiate regulation of derivatives. Ultimately, it was the collapse of a specific kind of derivative, the mortgage-backed security, that triggered the economic crisis of 2008.

While Greenspan's role as Chairman of the Federal Reserve has been widely discussed (the main point of controversy remains the lowering of Federal funds rate at only 1% for more than a year which, according to the Austrian School of economics, allowed huge amounts of "easy" credit-based money to be injected into the financial system and thus create an unsustainable economic boom),[4][5] there is also the argument that Greenspan actions in the years 2002–2004 were actually motivated by the need to take the U.S. economy out of the early 2000s recession caused by the bursting of the dot-com bubble — although by doing so he did not help avert the crisis, but only postpone it.[6][7]

U.S. inequality from 1913-2008.

Some economists - those of the Austrian school and those predicting the recession such as Steve Keen - claim that the ultimate point of origin of the great financial crisis of 2007–2010 can be traced back to an extremely indebted US economy. The collapse of the real estate market in 2006 was the close point of origin of the crisis. The failure rates of subprime mortgages were the first symptom of a credit boom tuned to bust and of a real estate shock. But large default rates on subprime mortgages cannot account for the severity of the crisis. Rather, low-quality mortgages acted as an accelerant to the fire that spread through the entire financial system. The latter had become fragile as a result of several factors that are unique to this crisis: the transfer of assets from the balance sheets of banks to the markets, the creation of complex and opaque assets, the failure of ratings agencies to properly assess the risk of such assets, and the application of fair value accounting. To these novel factors, one must add the now standard failure of regulators and supervisors in spotting and correcting the emerging weaknesses.[8]

Robert Reich points out the amount of debt in the US economy can be traced to economic inequality, where middle class wages remain stagnant while wealth concentrates at the top, and households "pull equity from their homes and overload on debt to maintain living standards."[9]

[edit] Excessive debt levels as the cause

Foreign currency reserves and gold minus external debt based on 2010 data from CIA Factbook

In order to counter the Stock Market Crash of 2000 and the subsequent economic slowdown, the Federal Reserve eased credit availability and drove interest rates down to lows not seen in many decades. These low interest rates facilitated the growth of debt at all levels of the economy, chief among them private debt to purchase more expensive housing. High levels of debt have long been recognized as a causative factor for recessions.[10]

Any debt default has the possibility of causing the lender to also default, if the lender is itself in a weak financial condition and has too much debt. This second default in turn can lead to still further defaults through a domino effect. The chances of these followup defaults is increased at high levels of debt. Attempts to prevent this domino effect by bailing out Wall Street lenders such as AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac have had mixed success. The takeover of Bear Stearns is another example of attempts to stop the dominoes from falling.[11]

[edit] Sub-prime lending as a cause

Based on the assumption that sub-prime lending precipitated the crisis, some have argued that the Clinton Administration may be partially to blame, while others have pointed to the passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act by the 106th Congress, and over-leveraging by banks and investors eager to achieve high returns on capital.

Others take full credit for deregulating the Banking Industry. In November 1999, Phil Gramm, Republican Senator from Texas, took full credit for the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act with a Press Release from the Senate Banking and Finance Committee: "I am proud to be here because this is an important bill; it is a deregulatory bill. I believe that that is the wave of the future, and I am awfully proud to have been a part of making it a reality."

[edit] Government deregulation as a cause

In 1992, the Democratic-controlled 102nd Congress under the George H. W. Bush administration weakened regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with the goal of making available more money for the issuance of home loans. The Washington Post wrote: "Congress also wanted to free up money for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy mortgage loans and specified that the pair would be required to keep a much smaller share of their funds on hand than other financial institutions. Whereas banks that held $100 could spend $90 buying mortgage loans, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could spend $97.50 buying loans. Finally, Congress ordered that the companies be required to keep more capital as a cushion against losses if they invested in riskier securities. But the rule was never set during the Clinton administration, which came to office that winter, and was only put in place nine years later."[12]

Others have pointed to deregulation efforts as contributing to the collapse. In 1999, the Republican-controlled 106th Congress, under Bill Clinton, passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed part of the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933. This repeal has been criticized by some for having contributed to the proliferation of the complex and opaque financial instruments which are at the heart of the crisis. However, some economists object to singling out the repeal of Glass–Steagall for criticism. Brad DeLong, a former advisor to President Clinton and economist at the University of California, Berkeley and Tyler Cowen of George Mason University have both argued that the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act softened the impact of the crisis by allowing for mergers and acquisitions of collapsing banks as the crisis unfolded in late 2008.[13]

[edit] Over-leveraging, credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations as causes

Public debt as a percent of GDP (2007).
Public debt as a percent of GDP (2009/2010).

Another probable cause of the crisis—and a factor that unquestionably amplified its magnitude—was widespread miscalculation by banks and investors of the level of risk inherent in the unregulated Collateralized debt obligation and Credit Default Swap markets. Under this theory, banks and investors systematized the risk by taking advantage of low interest rates to borrow tremendous sums of money that they could only pay back if the housing market continued to increase in value.

According to an article published in Wired, the risk was further systematized by the use of David X. Li's Gaussian copula model function to rapidly price Collateralized debt obligations based on the price of related Credit Default Swaps.[14] Because it was highly tractable, it rapidly came to be used by a huge percentage of CDO and CDS investors, issuers, and rating agencies.[14] According to one article: "Then the model fell apart. Cracks started appearing early on, when financial markets began behaving in ways that users of Li's formula hadn't expected. The cracks became full-fledged canyons in 2008—when ruptures in the financial system's foundation swallowed up trillions of dollars and put the survival of the global banking system in serious peril...Li's Gaussian copula formula will go down in history as instrumental in causing the unfathomable losses that brought the world financial system to its knees."[14]

The pricing model for CDOs clearly did not reflect the level of risk they introduced into the system. It has been estimated that the "from late 2005 to the middle of 2007, around $450bn of CDO of ABS were issued, of which about one third were created from risky mortgage-backed bonds...[o]ut of that pile, around $305bn of the CDOs are now in a formal state of default, with the CDOs underwritten by Merrill Lynch accounting for the biggest pile of defaulted assets, followed by UBS and Citi."[15] The average recovery rate for high quality CDOs has been approximately 32 cents on the dollar, while the recovery rate for mezzanine CDO's has been approximately five cents for every dollar. These massive, practically unthinkable, losses have dramatically impacted the balance sheets of banks across the globe, leaving them with very little capital to continue operations.[15]

[edit] Credit creation as a cause

The Austrian School of Economics proposes that the crisis is an excellent example of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, in which credit created through the policies of central banking gives rise to an artificial boom, which is inevitably followed by a bust. This perspective argues that the monetary policy of central banks creates excessive quantities of cheap credit by setting interest rates below where they would be set by a free market. This easy availability of credit inspires a bundle of malinvestments, particularly on long term projects such as housing and capital assets, and also spurs a consumption boom as incentives to save are diminished. Thus an unsustainable boom arises, characterized by malinvestments and overconsumption.

But the created credit is not backed by any real savings nor is in response to any change in the real economy, hence, there are physically not enough resources to finance either the malinvestments or the consumption rate indefinitely. The bust occurs when investors collectively realize their mistake. This happens usually some time after interest rates rise again. The liquidation of the malinvestments and the consequent reduction in consumption throw the economy into a recession, whose severity mirrors the scale of the boom's excesses.

The Austrian School argues that the conditions previous to the crisis of the late 2000s correspond exactly to the scenario described above. The central bank of the United States, led by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, kept interest rates very low for a long period of time to blunt the recession of the early 2000s. The resulting malinvestment and over-consumption of investors and consumers prompted the development of a housing bubble that ultimately burst, precipitating the financial crisis. This crisis, together with sudden and necessary deleveraging and cutbacks by consumers, businesses and banks, led to the recession. Austrian Economists argue further that while they probably affected the nature and severity of the crisis, factors such as a lack of regulation, the Community Reinvestment Act, and entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are insufficient by themselves to explain it.[16]

A positively sloped yield curve allows Primary Dealers (such as large investment banks) in the Federal Reserve system to fund themselves with cheap short term money while lending out at higher long-term rates. This strategy is profitable so long as the yield curve remains positively sloped. However, it creates a liquidity risk if the yield curve were to become inverted and banks would have to refund themselves at expensive short term rates while losing money on longer term loans.[citation needed]

The narrowing of the yield curve from 2004 and the inversion of the yield curve during 2007 resulted (with the expected 1 to 3 year delay) in a bursting of the housing bubble and a wild gyration of commodities prices as moneys flowed out of assets like housing or stocks and sought safe haven in commodities. The price of oil rose to over $140 dollars per barrel in 2008 before plunging as the financial crisis began to take hold in late 2008.

Other observers have doubted the role that the yield curve plays in controlling the business cycle. In a May 24, 2006 story CNN Money reported: " recent comments, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke repeated the view expressed by his predecessor Alan Greenspan that an inverted yield curve is no longer a good indicator of a recession ahead."[citation needed]

[edit] Oil prices

Economist James D. Hamilton has argued that the increase in oil prices in the period of 2007 through 2008 was a significant cause of the recession. He evaluated several different approaches to estimating the impact of oil price shocks on the economy, including some methods that had previously shown a decline in the relationship between oil price shocks and the overall economy. All of these methods "support a common conclusion; had there been no increase in oil prices between 2007:Q3 and 2008:Q2, the US economy would not have been in a recession over the period 2007:Q4 through 2008:Q3."[17] Hamilton's own model, a time-series econometric forecast based on data up to 2003, showed that the decline in GDP could have been successfully predicted to almost its full extent given knowledge of the price of oil. The results imply that oil prices were entirely responsible for the recession; however, Hamilton himself acknowledged that this was probably not the case but maintained that it showed that oil price increases made a significant contribution to the downturn in economic growth.[18]

[edit] Reverse Immigration

Reverse migration of illegal immigrants from the US back to Mexico began in 2006, and this has reduced the overall population of the US.

Approximately 0.5 million dwellings have become permanently vacant as a result of a reduction in the illegal immigrant population. The greatest impact has been on the California economy, where illegal immigrants comprise approximately 1/3 of the total population. The reduced demand for housing created permanent unemployment for hundreds of thousands of building contractors, realtors, and mortgage brokers.[19][20]

Foreign investment in Mexico by businesses located in China and Venezuela have increased employment opportunities in Mexico. The number of illegal immigrants living in the US declined by 1.5 million since 2007, or about 12% of the total illegal immigrant workforce. The economic decline caused by reduced spending by illegal immigrants in the US occurred at the same time as a rise in unemployment of approximately 1 million legal US workers that provide goods and services for the illegal immigrant population. This increased the number of foreclosures and reduced automotive sales, contributing to an overall decline in value for real estate, vehicles, and other property.

Economic activity produced by illegal immigrant spending employs about 5% of the total US workforce. Illegal immigrants occupy over 3 million dwellings, or just under 4% of the total number of homes in the US. UCLA research indicates illegal immigrants produce $150 billion of economic activity equivalent to spending stimulus every year. Nearly every dollar earned by illegal immigrants is spent immediately, and the average wage for US citizens is $10.25/hour with an average of 34 hours per week, so approximately 8 million US jobs are dependent upon economic activity produced by illegal immigrant activities within the US.[21][22][23]

[edit] Other claimed causes

Many libertarians, including Congressman and former 2008 Presidential candidate Ron Paul[24] and Peter Schiff in his book Crash Proof, claim to have predicted the crisis prior to its occurrence. Schiff also made a speech in 2006 in which he predicted the failure of Fannie and Freddie.[25] They are critical of theories that the free market caused the crisis[26] and instead argue that the Federal Reserve's expansionary monetary policy and the Community Reinvestment Act are the primary causes of the crisis.[27] Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman, has said he was partially wrong to oppose regulation of the markets, and expressed "shocked disbelief" at the failure of self interest, alone, to manage risk in the markets.[28]

An empirical study by John B. Taylor concluded that the crisis was: (1) caused by excess monetary expansion; (2) prolonged by an inability to evaluate counter-party risk due to opaque financial statements; and (3) worsened by the unpredictable nature of government's response to the crisis.[29][30]

It has also been debated that the root cause of the crisis is overproduction of goods caused by globalization[31] (and especially vast investments in countries such as China and India by western multinational companies over the past 15–20 years, which greatly increased global industrial output at a reduced cost). Overproduction tends to cause deflation and signs of deflation were evident in October and November 2008, as commodity prices tumbled and the Federal Reserve was lowering its target rate to an all-time-low 0.25%.[32] On the other hand, Professor Herman Daly suggests that it is not actually an economic crisis, but rather a crisis of overgrowth beyond sustainable ecological limits.[33] This reflects a claim made in the 1972 book Limits to Growth, which stated that without major deviation from the policies followed in the 20th century, a permanent end of economic growth could be reached sometime in the first two decades of the 21st century, due to gradual depletion of natural resources.[34]

In laissez-faire capitalism, financial institutions would be risk-averse because failure would result in liquidation. But the Federal Reserve's 1984 rescue of Continental Illinois and the 1998 rescue of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund, among others, showed that institutions which failed to exercise due diligence could reasonably expect to be protected from the consequences of their mistakes. The belief that they could not be allowed to fail created a moral hazard which was a contributing factor to the late-2000s recession.[35]

[edit] References

  1. ^ Allen, Paddy (2009-01-29). "Global recession – where did all the money go?". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-04-10. 
  2. ^ "Mikhail Khazin: U.S. will soon face second Great Depression". Komsomolskaja Pravda. 2008-11-14. Retrieved 2011-07-20. 
  3. ^ "What Went Wrong". The Washington Post. 2008-10-15. Retrieved 2009-04-10. 
  4. ^ Whitney, Mike (August 6, 2007). "Stock Market Meltdown". Global Research. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  5. ^ Polleit, Thorsten (2007-12-13). "Manipulating the Interest Rate: a Recipe for Disaster". Mises Institute. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  6. ^ Pettifor, Ann (16 September 2008). "America's financial meltdown: lessons and prospects". openDemocracy. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  7. ^ Karlsson, Stefan (2004-11-08). "America's Unsustainable Boom". Mises Institute. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  8. ^ Fratianni, M. and Marchionne, F. 2009. The Role of Banks in the Subprime Financial Crisis available on SSRN:
  9. ^ "How American Income Inequality Hit Levels Not Seen Since The Depression". Retrieved 2010-10-24. 
  10. ^ Irving Fisher The Debt Deflation Theory of Great Depressions "the above named factors have played a subordinate role as compared with two dominant factors, namely over-indebtness to start with and deflation following soon after" and "I have, at present, a strong conviction that these two economic maladies, the debt disease and the price-level disease, are...more important causes then all others put together"
  11. ^ There was a real irony in the recent intervention by the Federal Reserve System to provide the money that enabled the firm of JPMorgan Chase to buy Bear Stearns before it went bankrupt. The point was to try to prevent a domino effect of panic in the financial markets that could lead to a downturn in the economy.
  12. ^ Appelbaum, Binyamin; Leonnig, Carol D.; Hilzenrath, David S. (September 14, 2008). "How Washington Failed to Rein In Fannie, Freddie". The Washington Post: pp. A1. Retrieved 2009-03-08. 
  13. ^ "Who Caused the Economic Crisis?". Retrieved 2010-01-21. 
  14. ^ a b c Salmon, Felix (2009-02-23). "Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street". Wired. Retrieved 2009-04-10. 
  15. ^ a b "The power of belief". TPM. 2009-03-02. Retrieved 2009-04-10. 
  16. ^ Short article written by Lawrence H. White and David C. Rose describing the downturn from an Austrian perspective
  17. ^ Hamilton, James D. "Oil prices and the economic recession of 2007–08." 16 June 2009.
  18. ^ Hamilton
  19. ^ "Trade Winds from the East". Inter Press Services - Emilio Godoy, Mexico City. 
  20. ^ "Mexico eager for Chinese investment". China Daily. 
  21. ^ "Labor Market Impacts of Amnesty: A Comparative Analysis of IRCA and current conditions". UCLA North American Integration and Development Center. 
  22. ^ "Raising the Floor for American Workers". The Advocates for Human Rights. 
  23. ^ "Real Earnings - 2011". US Bureau of Labor Statistics. 
  24. ^ Paul, Rep., Ron (September 10, 2003). "Fannie and Freddie". Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  25. ^ 24 september 2009 (2009-09-24). "Peter Schiff Mortgage Bankers Speech Nov/13/06". YouTube. Retrieved 2010-01-21. 
  26. ^ Reisman, George (October 24, 2008). "The Myth that Laissez Faire Is Responsible for Our Financial Crisis". Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  27. ^ "The Depression Reader". Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  28. ^ Felsenthal, Mark (2008-10-23). "Greenspan "shocked" at credit system breakdown". Reuters. Retrieved 2008-11-06. 
  29. ^ "The Financial Crisis and the Policy Responses: An Empirical Analysis of What Went Wrong" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-01-21. 
  30. ^ "How Government Created the Financial Crisis" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-01-21. 
  31. ^ Bello, Walden (18 October 2008). "Afterthoughts : A primer on the Wall Street meltdown". Focus on the Global South. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  32. ^ Willis, Bob; Schlisserman, Courtney (December 16, 2008). "U.S. Economy: Consumer Prices, Housing Starts Slide". Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  33. ^ Hagens, Nate (October 13, 2008). "Herman Daly on the Credit Crisis, Financial Assets, and Real Wealth". The Oil Drum. Retrieved 2009-01-04. 
  34. ^ Graham Turner (2008). "A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality". Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
  35. ^ Gelinas, Nicole (2009). After the Fall: Saving Capitalism from Wall Street and Washington. New York: Encounter. p. 250. ISBN 1594032610. 
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