What Is a Financial Crisis?

In a financial crisis, asset prices see a steep decline in value, businesses and consumers are unable to pay their debts, and financial institutions experience liquidity shortages. A financial crisis is often associated with a panic or a bank run during which investors sell off assets or withdraw money from savings accounts because they fear that the value of those assets will drop if they remain in a financial institution. Other situations that may be labeled a financial crisis include the bursting of a speculative financial bubble, a stock market crash, a sovereign default, or a currency crisis. A financial crisis may be limited to banks or spread throughout a single economy, the economy of a region, or economies worldwide.

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Financial Crisis

What Causes a Financial Crisis?

A financial crisis may have multiple causes. Generally, a crisis can occur if institutions or assets are overvalued, and can be exacerbated by irrational or herd-like investor behavior. For example, a rapid string of selloffs can result in lower asset prices, prompting individuals to dump assets or make huge savings withdrawals when a bank failure is rumored.

Key Takeaways

  • Banking panics were at the genesis of a number of financial crises of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, many of which led to recessions or depressions.
  • Stock market crashes, credit crunches, the bursting of financial bubbles, sovereign defaults, and currency crises are all examples of financial crises.
  • A financial crisis may be limited to a single country or one segment of financial services, but is more likely to spread regionally or globally.

Contributing factors to a financial crisis include systemic failures, unanticipated or uncontrollable human behavior, incentives to take too much risk, regulatory absence or failures, or contagions that amount to a virus-like spread of problems from one institution or country to the next. If left unchecked, a crisis can cause an economy to go into a recession or depression. Even when measures are taken to avert a financial crisis, they can still happen, accelerate, or deepen.

Financial Crisis Examples

Financial crises are not uncommon; they have happened for as long as the world has had currency. Some well-known financial crises include:

  • Tulip Mania (1637). More of a speculative bubble, this crisis happened when contract prices for bulbs of a new, fashionable tulip reached prices of many multiples of the annual salary of a Dutch craftsman before they collapsed, erasing many fortunes.
  • Credit Crisis of 1772. After a period of rapidly expanding credit, this crisis started in March/April in London. Alexander Fordyce, a partner in a large bank, lost a huge sum shorting shares of the East India Company and fled to France to avoid repayment. A panic led to a run on English banks that left more than 20 large banking houses either bankrupt or stopping payments to depositors and creditors. The crisis quickly spread to much of Europe. Historians draw a line from this crisis to the cause of the Boston Tea Party—unpopular tax legislation in the 13 colonies—and the resulting unrest that gave birth to the American Revolution.
  • Stock Crash of 1929. This crash, starting on Oct. 24, 1929, saw share prices collapse after a period of wild speculation and borrowing to buy shares. It led to the Great Depression, which was felt worldwide for over a dozen years. Its social impact lasted far longer. One trigger of the crash was a drastic oversupply of commodity crops, which led to a steep decline in prices. A wide range of regulations and market-managing tools were introduced as a result of the crash.
  • 1973 OPEC Oil Crisis. OPEC members started an oil embargo in October 1973 targeting countries that backed Israel in the Yom Kippur War. By the end of the embargo, a barrel of oil stood at $12, up from $3. Given that modern economies depend on oil, the higher prices and uncertainty led to the stock market crash of 1973–74, when a bear market persisted from January 1973 to December 1974 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 45% of its value.
  • Asian Crisis of 1997–1998. This crisis started in July 1997 with the collapse of the Thai baht. Lacking foreign currency, the Thai government was forced to abandon its U.S. dollar peg and let the baht float. The result was huge devaluation that spread to much of East Asia, also hitting Japan, as well as a huge rise in debt-to-GDP ratios. In its wake, the crisis led to better financial regulation and supervision.
  • The 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis. This financial crisis was the worst economic disaster since the Stock Market Crash of 1929. It started with a subprime mortgage lending crisis in 2007 and expanded into a global banking crisis with the failure of investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Huge bailouts and other measures meant to limit the spread of the damage failed and the global economy fell into recession.

The Global Financial Crisis

As the most recent and most damaging financial crisis event, the Global Financial Crisis, deserves special attention, as its causes, effects, response, and lessons are most applicable to the current financial system.

Loosened Lending Standards

The crisis was the result of a sequence of events, each with its own trigger and culminating in the near collapse of the banking system. It has been argued that the seeds of the crisis were sown as far back as the 1970s with the Community Development Act, which required banks to loosen their credit requirements for lower-income consumers, creating a market for subprime mortgages.

A financial crisis can take many forms, including a banking/credit panic or a stock market crash, but differs from a recession, which is often the result of such a crisis.

The amount of subprime mortgage debt, which was guaranteed by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, continued to expand into the early 2000s, when the Federal Reserve Board began to cut interest rates drastically to avoid a recession. The combination of loose credit requirements and cheap money spurred a housing boom, which drove speculation, pushing up housing prices and creating a real estate bubble.

Complex Financial Instruments

In the meantime, the investment banks, looking for easy profits in the wake of the dotcom bust and 2001 recession, created collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) from the mortgages purchased on the secondary market. Because subprime mortgages were bundled with prime mortgages, there was no way for investors to understand the risks associated with the product. When the market for CDOs began to heat up, the housing bubble that had been building for several years had finally burst. As housing prices fell, subprime borrowers began to default on loans that were worth more than their homes, accelerating the decline in prices.

Failures Begin, Contagion Spreads

When investors realized the CDOs were worthless due to the toxic debt they represented, they attempted to unload the obligations. However, there was no market for the CDOs. The subsequent cascade of subprime lender failures created liquidity contagion that reached the upper tiers of the banking system. Two major investment banks, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, collapsed under the weight of their exposure to subprime debt, and more than 450 banks failed over the next five years. Several of the major banks were on the brink of failure and were rescued by a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Response

The U.S. Government responded to the Financial Crisis by lowering interest rates to nearly zero, buying back mortgage and government debt, and bailing out some struggling financial institutions. With rates so low, bond yields became far less attractive to investors when compared to stocks. The government response ignited the stock market, which went on a 10-year bull run with the S&P 500 returning 250% over that time. The U.S. housing market recovered in most major cities, and the unemployment rate fell as businesses began to hire and make more investments.

New Regulations

One big upshot of the crisis was the adoption of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a massive piece of financial reform legislation passed by the Obama administration in 2010. Dodd-Frank brought wholesale changes to every aspect of the U.S. financial regulatory environment, which touched every regulatory body and every financial services business. Notably, Dodd-Frank had the following effects:

  • More comprehensive regulation of financial markets, including more oversight of derivatives, which were brought into exchanges.
  • Regulatory agencies, which had been numerous and sometimes redundant, were consolidated.
  • A new body, the Financial Stability Oversight Council, was devised to monitor systemic risk.
  • Greater investor protections were introduced, including a new consumer protection agency (the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) and standards for "plain-vanilla" products.
  • The introduction of processes and tools (such as cash infusions) meant to help with the winding down of failed financial institutions.
  • Measures meant to improve standards, accounting, and regulation of credit rating agencies.