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The Great Crash of 2008
Former Deputy Treasury Secretary (1993-94) Roger C. Altman, currently CEO of Evercore Partners, had an essay in the January/February 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs titled “The Great Crash, 2008: A Geopolitical Setback for the West.” Following are a few excerpts.
“The financial and economic crash of 2008, the worst in over 75 years, is a major geopolitical setback for the United States and Europe. Over the medium term, Washington and European governments will have neither the resources nor the economic credibility to play the role in global affairs that they otherwise would have played. These weaknesses will eventually be repaired, but in the interim, they will accelerate trends that are shifting the world’s center of gravity away from the United States….
“(The) damage has put the American model of free-market capitalism under a cloud. The financial system is seen as having collapsed; and the regulatory framework, as having spectacularly failed to curb widespread abuses and corruption. Now, searching for stability, the U.S. government and some European governments have nationalized their financial sectors to a degree that contradicts the tenets of modern capitalism. Much of the world is turning a historic corner and heading into a period in which the role of the state will be larger and that of the private sector will be smaller. As it does, the United States’ global power, as well as the appeal of U.S.-style democracy, is eroding….
“Conventional wisdom attributes the crisis to the collapse of housing prices and the subprime mortgage market in the United States. This is not correct; these were themselves the consequence of another problem. The crisis’ underlying cause was the (invariably lethal) combination of very low interest rates and unprecedented levels of liquidity. The low interest rates reflected the U.S. government’s overly accommodating monetary policy after 9/11. (The U.S. Federal Reserve lowered the federal funds rate to nearly one percent in late 2001 and maintained it near that very low level for three years.) The liquidity reflected, among other factors, what Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke has called ‘the global savings glut’: the enormous financial surpluses realized by certain countries, particularly China, Singapore, and the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf. Until the mid-1990s, most emerging economies ran balance-of-payments deficits as they imported capital to finance their growth. But the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, among other things, changed this in much of Asia. After that, surpluses grew throughout the region and then were consistently recycled back to the West in the form of portfolio investments.
“Facing low yields, this mountain of liquidity naturally sought higher ones. One basic law of finance is that yields on loans are inversely proportional to credit quality: the stronger the borrower, the lower the yield, and vice versa. Huge amounts of capital thus flowed into the subprime mortgage sector and toward weak borrowers of all types in the United States, in Europe, and, to a lesser extent, around the world. For example, the annual volume of U.S. subprime and other securitized mortgages rose from a long-term average of approximately $100 billion to over $600 billion in 2005 and 2006. As with all financial bubbles, the lessons of history, including about long-term default rates on such poor credits, were ignored.
“This flood of mortgage money caused residential and commercial real estate prices to rise at unprecedented rates. Whereas the average U.S. home had appreciated at 1.4 percent annually over the 30 years before 2000, the appreciation rate roared forward at 7.6 percent annually from 2000 through mid-2006. From mid-2005 to mid-2006, amid rampant speculation in the housing market, it was 11 percent.
“But like most spikes in commodity prices, this one eventually reversed itself – and with a vengeance. Housing prices have been falling sharply for over two years, and so far there is no sign that they will bottom out….
“The damage is most visible at the household level. Americans have lost one-quarter of their net worth in just a year and a half, since June 30, 2007, and the trend continues. Americans’ largest single asset is the equity in their homes. Total home equity in the United States, which was valued at $13 trillion at its peak in 2006, had dropped to $8.8 trillion by mid-2008 and was still falling in late 2008. Total retirement assets, Americans’ second-largest household asset, dropped by 22 percent, from $10.3 trillion in 2006 to $8 trillion in mid-2008. During the same period, savings and investment assets (apart from retirement savings) lost $1.2 trillion and pension assets lost $1.3 trillion. Taken together, these losses total a staggering $8.3 trillion.
[Ed. Reminder…Altman’s figures were through mid-2008. Everything continued to tumble further from there.]
“Such large and sudden hits have shocked U.S. families. And because these have occurred amid headlines reporting failing financial institutions and huge bailouts, Americans’ fears over the safety and accessibility of their deposits are now more pervasive than they have been since 1933. This is why Americans withdrew $150 billion from money-market funds over a two-day period in September (average weekly outflows are just $5 billion).”
“The United States will remain the most powerful nation on earth for a while longer. It’s military strength alone ensures this. But the crash of 2008 has inflicted profound damage on its financial system, its economy, and its standing in the world; the crisis is an important geopolitical setback. The international acclaim that greeted Obama’s presidential victory may soften its effects, but even this enthusiasm cannot wipe those away. This is partly because the crisis has coincided with historical forces that were already shifting the world’s focus away from the United States. Over the medium term, the United States will have to operate from a smaller global platform – while others, especially China, will have a chance to rise faster.”