Banking Panic 2007-2009 (1)
Mankind hasn't learned how to control sudden wealth, whether in families, third-world countries, or the richest nation in history. The world banking crisis of 2007 is the biggest example yet.
Ever since financial markets got jittery in August 2007, pundits generally agreed that things would not settle down before the second half of 2008. That seems to have been a safe thing to predict, but not exactly the same as confidently predicting that things will change for the better in the summer of 2008. Things could, unfortunately, get a lot worse.
Let's try to predict how history will remember these puzzling times. So far, the problem has been an American home real estate matter; America built too many houses, particularly in Florida and the West Coast. Houses were built because they could be sold, so the source of the difficulty was cheap credit for mortgages, and that was, in turn, traceable to Arabian oil prices and Far Eastern industrial progress. But never mind the cause, the event was a domestic American home mortgage issue, with the rest of the world sort of looking on. Whenever America got its mortgages straightened out, the crisis would be over. The other way history may describe things is far more ominous. Prosperity for the Middle and Far Eastern countries generated more wealth than their primitive banking systems could manage, so they exported it in the form of world inflation. America was pioneering in some innovative credit and investment streamlining, which was not entirely rationalized when it suddenly got toppled by a tsunami of world credit excess. Wall Street and Washington were the actors in stage center, but the underlying problem was a world problem, taking years to correct, and requiring heroic efforts to save it. If it could be saved. Politicians and news media will emphasize any mistakes, but a solution will depend on whether or not we get some bold successes. The second quarter of 2008 will begin to show whether we need to keep cool or blow the bugle.
To some extent, it was necessary to wait the better part of a year to see how strong our beleaguered institutions would prove to be, how many of the dubious mortgages would actually default, how many of the innovative lending practices would have to be forbidden, or revised. For example, it unnerved many people that so many "subprime" mortgages defaulted in the first year after the house was bought, suggesting that the house purchase was wildly inappropriate. On examination, however, it turned out that overzealous lenders had skipped the normal practice of insisting that money be set aside in escrow for tax and insurance payments. When tax and insurance collectors demanded immediate payment, the borrowers just skipped payments on the mortgage. Lenders will probably avoid this trap in the future, but if not, legal prohibition is fairly simple because it is so obvious. However painful this small problem may prove to be, its correction will be soon forgotten.
The international issues are much more difficult. From August 2007 to April 2008, American interest rates went steadily down; by their standards, they went down a lot. Many hot money investors took this as a sign that America was going to pay off its debts by deliberately provoking inflation; European countries have done this for centuries, even including England under Sir Stafford Cripps. That's why the gnomes of Switzerland keep vaults full of gold, and the oil moguls of OPEC have learned to keep their oil in the ground. Indian women bought more gold bracelets to jangle around, and the Australian markets went through the roof. Two governors of the Federal Reserve, including Philadelphia's own, voted against lowering interest rates "at this time". Paul Volcker, who once smashed the economy in order to smash inflation, hasn't spoken out yet, but simply trotting him out to a banquet is sufficiently vocal testimony at this stage of matters. No one has yet mentioned the hyperinflation episode of the Weimar Republic, but that episode was so catastrophic no one has to mention it in Germany or Austria; everybody remembers. As a matter of fact, the Europeans are so concerned to show the euro is strong, it is actually excessively strong and will surely be moderated. Our strongest ally in this Kabuki dance has been China, but a few rash words about Taiwan would test that severely. Are we trying to inflate away our mortgage debts -- absolutely not. Will we be able to prevent a serious recession by "stimulating" the economy -- it remains to be seen.
And finally, will war, elections, blunders or general jitteriness force us all into a general rearrangement of the currency systems of the whole world, another Bretton Woods Conference let's say? No, of course not. But it wouldn't hurt to have the graduate students in Economics departments perform a few theoretical exercises, just for the practice of it.
Originally published: Monday, March 31, 2008; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019