Just over 10 years ago we were in the midst of what is now known as the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). I recall at the time a flurry of job losses from the financial services industry, Australian banks and the collapse of the American investment bank Lehman Brothers. Our country just avoided a technical recession but it felt like one for many people.
The GFC referred to a period of severe stress in the global financial markets and banking systems between mid-2007 and early 2009 as the US housing boom ended and defaults increased. Banks’ access to short-term borrowing evaporated and funding account holders withdrawals were problematic.
Why did the US housing boom impact the world economy? For many years prior to the GFC, house prices in the US grew strongly as banks and other lenders were willing to make highly profitable increasingly large volumes of risky loans to buyers. The loans were risky as the lender did not closely assess the borrower’s ability to make loan repayments. You might recall the nickname NINJA (no income, no job, no assets) loans, symbolising the lack of documentation the banks and other lenders had to provide to secure funding.
Financial innovation allowed banks and other lenders to reduce their lending risk by packaging these risky loans into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and collateralised debt obligations (CDO). In the US, over $500 billion USD in CDOs were issued in both 2006 and 2007 (source). Credit rating agencies provided these financial products with a high credit rating signalling to investors that they were low risk. The high rating allowed pension funds, governments, US and global banks to invest. Many investors borrowed large sums to purchase high yielding ‘low risk’ MBS and CDOs without understanding the complex and illiquid nature of the underlying investment.
When the US housing boom ended and defaults increased the demand and liquidity for MBS and CDOs evaporated and prices dived. MBS and CDOs could only be sold at a large loss of up to 95 percent (source).
The systematic problems started in the United States and rapidly spread across the globe. Banks and other financial institutions stopped lending as they were unable to easily assess how badly a potential borrower was impacted by the toxic debt. This credit freeze spread globally, many companies were unable to access funds and those that could, found there was a substantial increase in the cost of debt making the venture unprofitable.
In the wake of the turmoil, central banks globally lowered interest rates rapidly (in many cases to near zero) and lent large amounts of money to banks and other financial institutions that could not borrow in financial markets. Central banks also purchased financial securities to support markets.
Governments increased their spending on infrastructure to support employment throughout the economy, Australia handed taxpayers $1,000 relief money and guaranteed deposits and bank bonds. Governments also increased their oversight of financial firms that must assess more closely the risk of the loans.
The severity of the Global Financial Crisis caused a global economic slowdown that led to unprecedented government bailouts and economic stimulus globally. The support from governments and central banks paved the way to an economic recovery.
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