When the Wall Street evangelists started preaching "no bailout for you" before the collapse of British bank Northern Rock, they hardly knew that history would ultimately have the last laugh. With the onset of the global credit crunch and the fall of Northern Rock, August 2007 turned out to be just the starting point for big financial landslides. Since then, we have seen many big names rise, fall, and fall even more. In this article, we'll recap how the financial crisis of 2007-08 unfolded. (For further reading, see Who Is To Blame For The Subprime Crisis?, The Bright Side Of The Credit Crisis and How Will The Subprime Mess Impact You?)
Before the Beginning
Like all previous cycles of booms and busts, the seeds of the subprime meltdown were sown during unusual times. In 2001, the U.S. economy experienced a mild, short-lived recession. Although the economy nicely withstood terrorist attacks, the bust of the dotcom bubble, and accounting scandals, the fear of recession really preoccupied everybody's minds. (Keep learning about bubbles in Why Housing Market Bubbles Pop and Economic Meltdowns: Let Them Burn Or Stamp Them Out?)
To keep recession away, the Federal Reserve lowered the Federal funds rate 11 times - from 6.5% in May 2000 to 1.75% in December 2001 - creating a flood of liquidity in the economy. Cheap money, once out of the bottle, always looks to be taken for a ride. It found easy prey in restless bankers - and even more restless borrowers who had no income, no job and no assets. These subprime borrowers wanted to realize their life's dream of acquiring a home. For them, holding the hands of a willing banker was a new ray of hope. More home loans, more home buyers, more appreciation in home prices. It wasn't long before things started to move just as the cheap money wanted them to.
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 UnitedState'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 and governments around the world had started coming together to prevent further financial catastrophe.
The subprime crisis's unique issues called for both conventional and unconventional methods, which were employed by governments worldwide. In a unanimous move, central banks of several countries resorted to coordinated action to provide liquidity support to financial institutions. The idea was to put the interbank market back on its feet.
The Fed started slashing the discount rate as well as the funds rate, but bad news continued to pour in from all sides. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Indymac bank collapsed, Bear Stearns was acquired by JP Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), Merrill Lynch was sold to Bank of America, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were put under the control of the U.S. federal government.
By October 2008, the Federal funds rate and the discount rate were reduced to 1% and 1.75%, respectively. Central banks in England, China, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and the European Central Bank (ECB) also resorted to rate cuts to aid the world economy. But rate cuts and liquidity support in itself were not enough to stop such a widespread financial meltdown.
The U.S. government then came out with National Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which created a corpus of $700 billion to purchase distressed assets, especially mortgage-backed securities. Different governments came out with their own versions of bailout packages, government guarantees and outright nationalization.
Crisis of Confidence After All
The financial crisis of 2007-08 has taught us that the confidence of the financial market, once shattered, can't be quickly restored. In an interconnected world, a seeming liquidity crisis can very quickly turn into a solvency crisis for financial institutions, a balance of payment crisis for sovereign countries and a full-blown crisis of confidence for the entire world. But the silver lining is that, after every crisis in the past, markets have come out strong to forge new beginnings.
To read more about other recessions and crises, see A Review Of Past Recessions.