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The Global Economic Crisis: It’s China’s Fault! (Not to Mention a Few Leprechauns and Rainbows)

February 10, 2011

Developing countries are prospering.  Millions of homeowners are delighted to see the value of their biggest investment, their home, rising year over year.  Millions of others for whom home ownership would, in the past, have been a pipe dream, now have a path to that making that dream a reality.  People are being given the benefit of the doubt.  Optimism abounds. Pots of gold and jovial leprechauns wait at the end of shimmering rainbows.

This, essentially, is the happy scenario painted by the recent FCIC report on the financial crisis, referring to the boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Photo by amy-b. Some rights reserved.

Well, okay, the leprechauns and rainbows are an embellishment. But the rest is right there in black and white. In particular, it is a distillation of the first three of ten “causes” of the recent financial crisis laid out in the report’s Dissenting Statement by Republican committee members Keith Hennessey, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Bill Thomas.

It’s worth noting that these three causes — which more precisely speaking are (1) the availability of easy credit made possible by the surpluses of developing countries, (2) the housing bubble, and (3) the increasing occurrence of subprime mortgages — are necessary preconditions for the remaining seven.  So it is probably accurate to say that in the assessment of the FCIC (or at least its dissenting minority), these are the three root causes of the recession.  In other words, all the bad stuff can be traced back to the halcyon vision above.

We could probably even go a step further.  Following this logic, cause #1 clearly seems a necessary precondition for #2 and #3. From this perspective, we could identify cause #1 as the uber-origin of the current global economic crisis. Yes, folks, it’s all China’s fault!  An oversimplification, to be sure, of the committee’s Dissenting Statement: indeed, they explicitly state that “[i]ncreased capital flows to the United States and Europe cannot alone explain the credit bubble.”  But then again, it is not too great a leap to make, based on that list of ten, its subsequent explication, and the tacit logic behind it.  Nothing a frolicking leprechaun couldn’t handle.

Click the  “Read More” link to the right to see the dissenting committee’s list of ten.

[Excerpt from the Dissenting Statement of Commissioner Keith Hennessey, Commissioner Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Vice-Chairman Bill Thomas]

The following ten causes, global and domestic, are essential to explaining the financial and economic crisis.

I. Credit bubble. Starting in the late 1990s, China, other large developing countries, and the big oil-producing nations built up large capital surpluses.  They loaned these savings to the United States and Europe, causing interest rates to fall. Credit spreads narrowed, meaning that the cost of borrowing to finance risky investments declined. A credit bubble formed in the United States and Europe, the most notable manifestation of which was increased investment in high-risk mortgages. U.S. monetary policy may have contributed to the credit bubble but did not cause it.

II. Housing bubble. Beginning in the late 1990s and accelerating in the 2000s, there was a large and sustained housing bubble in the United States. The bubble was characterized both by national increases in house prices well above the historical trend and by rapid regional boom-and-bust cycles in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. Many factors contributed to the housing bubble, the bursting of which created enormous losses for homeowners and investors.

III. Nontraditional mortgages. Tightening credit spreads, overly optimistic assumptions about U.S. housing prices, and flaws in primary and secondary mortgage markets led to poor origination practices and combined to increase the flow of credit to U.S. housing finance. Fueled by cheap credit, firms like Countrywide, Washington Mutual, Ameriquest, and HSBC Finance originated vast numbers of high-risk, nontraditional mortgages that were in some cases deceptive, in many cases confusing, and often beyond borrowers’ ability to repay. At the same time, many homebuyers and homeowners did not live up to their responsibilities to understand the terms of their mortgage and to make prudent financial decisions. These factors further amplified the housing bubble.

IV. Credit ratings and securitization. Failures in credit rating and securitization transformed bad mortgages into toxic financial assets. Securitizers lowered the credit quality of the mortgages they securitized. Credit rating agencies erroneously rated mortgage-backed securities and their derivatives as safe investments. Buyers failed to look behind the credit ratings and do their own due diligence. These factors fueled the creation of more bad mortgages.

V. Financial institutions concentrated correlated risk. Managers of many large and midsize financial institutions in the United States amassed enormous concentrations of highly correlated housing risk. Some did this knowingly by betting on rising housing prices, while others paid insufficient attention to the potential risk of carrying large amounts of housing risk on their balance sheets. This enabled large but seemingly manageable mortgage losses to precipitate the collapse of large financial institutions.

VI. Leverage and liquidity risk. Managers of these financial firms amplified this concentrated housing risk by holding too little capital relative to the risks they were carrying on their balance sheets. Many placed their firms on a hair trigger by relying heavily on short-term financing in repo and commercial paper markets for their day-to-day liquidity. They placed solvency bets (sometimes unknowingly) that their housing investments were solid, and liquidity bets that overnight money would always be available. Both turned out to be bad bets. In several cases, failed solvency bets triggered liquidity crises, causing some of the largest financial firms to fail or nearly fail. Firms were insufficiently transparent about their housing risk, creating uncertainty in markets that made it difficult for some to access additional capital and liquidity when needed.

VII. Risk of contagion. The risk of contagion was an essential cause of the crisis. In some cases, the financial system was vulnerable because policymakers were afraid of a large firm’s sudden and disorderly failure triggering balancesheet losses in its counterparties. These institutions were deemed too big and interconnected to other firms through counterparty credit risk for policymakers to be willing to allow them to fail suddenly.

VIII. Common shock. In other cases, unrelated financial institutions failed because of a common shock: they made similar failed bets on housing. Unconnected financial firms failed for the same reason and at roughly the same time because they had the same problem: large housing losses. This common shock meant that the problem was broader than a single failed bank — key large financial institutions were undercapitalized because of this common shock.

IX. Financial shock and panic. In quick succession in September 2008, the failures, near-failures, and restructurings of ten firms triggered a global financial panic. Confidence and trust in the financial system began to evaporate as the health of almost every large and midsize financial institution in the United States and Europe was questioned.

X. Financial crisis causes economic crisis. The financial shock and panic caused a severe contraction in the real economy. The shock and panic ended in early 2009 . Harm to the real economy continues through today.

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