The Journal of Economic Literature is really a great service to economists. It is a journal that publishes up-to-date literature reviews and ideas for future research in many small subfields that would otherwise be impenetrable. A recent issue published two articles trying to help us non-macro and finance guys catch up on the “facts” of the 2007 financial crisis. The first is Gorton and Metrick, “Getting up to Speed on the Global Financial Crisis: A One Weekend Reader’s Guide,” and the second is Andrew Lo’s “Reading About the Financial Crisis: A Twenty-One Book Review.”
There is a lot of popular confusion about what caused the financial crisis, what amplified it, and what the responses have been. Roughly, we can all agree that first there was a massive rise in house prices, not only in the US; second, there was new, enormous pools of institutional investments looking for safe returns, with many of these pools being operated by risk-averse Asian governments; third, house prices peaked in the US and elsewhere in 2006; fourth, in August 2007, problems with mortgage-related bonds led to interbank repo funding problems, requiring massive liquidity help from central banks; fifth, in September 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, leading a money market fund to “break the buck” and causing massive flight away from assets related to investment banks or assets not explicitly backed by strong governments; sixth, a sovereign debt problem has arisen in a number of periphery countries since, particularly in Europe.
Looking through the summaries provided in these two reading lists, I only see four really firm additional facts. First, as Andrew Lo has pointed out many times, leverage at investment banks was not terribly high by global standards. Second, arguments that the crisis was caused by investment banks packaging worthless securities and then fooling buyers, while containing a grain of truth, does not explain the crisis: indeed, the bigger problem was how many of these worthless securities were still on bank’s own balance sheets in 2008, explicitly or implicitly through CDOs and other instruments. Third, rising total leverage across an economy as a whole is strongly related to banking crises, a point made best in Reinhart and Rogoff’s work, but also in a new AER by Schularick and Taylor. Fourth, the crisis in the financial sector transmitted to the real economy principally via restrictions on credit to real economy firms. Campello, Graham and Harvey, in a 2010 JFE, used a large-scale 2008 survey of global CFOs to show how firms who were credit constrained before the financial crisis were much more likely to have to cut back on hiring and investment spending, regardless of their profitability or the usefulness of their investment opportunities. That is, savings fled to safety because of the uncertain health of banking intermediaries, which led banks to cut back commercial lending, which led to a recession in the real economy.
What’s interesting is how little the mortgage market, per se, had to do with the crisis. I was at the Fed before the crisis, and remember coauthoring in early 2007 an internal memo about the economic effects of a downturn in the housing sector. The bubble in housing prices was obvious to (almost) everyone at the Fed. But the size of the mortgage market (in terms of wealth) and the construction and home-improvement sector (in terms of employment) was simply not that big; certainly, the massive stock losses after the dot-com bubble had more real effects because of declines in total wealth. I can only imagine that everyone on Wall Street also knew this. What was unexpected was the way in which these particular losses in wealth harmed the financial health of banks; in particular, the location of losses because of the huge number of novel derivatives was really opaque. And we know, both then because of the very-popular-at-the-Fed theoretical work of Diamond and Dybvig, and now because of the empirical work of Reinhart and Rogoff, that bank runs, whether in the proper or in the “shadow” banking system, have real effects that are very difficult to contain.
If you’ve got some free time this weekend, particularly if you’re not a macroeconomist, it’s worth looking through the references in the Lo and Gorton/Metrick papers.