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Keywords:

  • global financial crisis
  • E00;
  • E44;
  • F30

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. A Brief Chronology
  4. 2. Underlying Causes
  5. 3. The Initial Economic Impact
  6. 4. Policy responses
  7. 5. Looking ahead
  8. References

The global financial crisis has been one of the most significant economic shocks in the post-war period. At its core, the crisis originated in credit markets in developed countries – centred particularly in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe – but the fallout has had a significant effect on activity in every country and region. As the crisis intensified, there was a large swing in the appetite of world financial markets for risk, and in their capacity to accept risk. The result was a shift from the easy credit conditions that had prevailed for some years to a situation of tight credit and in some cases dysfunctional markets. This was accompanied by a loss of consumer and business confidence, with significant effects on global activity. This article focuses on the main causes of the crisis, how it has affected the world economy, and how governments and central banks have responded.


1. A Brief Chronology2

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. A Brief Chronology
  4. 2. Underlying Causes
  5. 3. The Initial Economic Impact
  6. 4. Policy responses
  7. 5. Looking ahead
  8. References

As is now well known, the immediate background to the crisis was the emergence of problems in the US market for sub-prime housing loans in the first half of 2007. Sub-prime loans, in US terminology, are loans that do not meet standard criteria for good credit quality, such as a sound credit history on the part of the borrower, good income documentation and/or a conservative loan-to-valuation ratio. Sub-prime lending became very significant in the United States from around the middle part of this decade; by 2006, these loans were around one-fifth of new housing lending and an estimated 15 per cent of the stock of housing loans outstanding in the United States.

An important feature of this period was the securitization of sub-prime and other loans by their original lenders and their subsequent sale to other investors. This occurred partly through conventional mortgage-backed securities but also, increasingly, through more complex products such as collateralised debt obligations (or CDOs), which came to play an important part in the spreading of the crisis. CDOs work by layering the claims in a pool of mortgages into tranches, with the most senior tranches provided the most protection against potential losses. That structure enabled some of these securities to gain high credit ratings even when the average quality of the underlying loans was poor. In combination with their relatively high yields, these features made them attractive to investors. What was not well-understood, however, was that the layering structure could result in substantial losses, even to the senior tranches, in the event of a generalised downturn in the US housing market, which is what subsequently occurred.

When these problems first became apparent, in the first half of 2007, the effects seemed to be confined largely to the US financial sector. The first significant impacts on global markets began in August 2007. It was at that time that the major French bank BNP-Paribas announced the suspension of three of its funds that were investing in US mortgage securities. That announcement drew attention to the fact that a number of European banks, or off-balance-sheet vehicles associated with them, had invested heavily in these securities and could therefore be exposed to significant losses. Further, uncertainty about the size and location of these exposures, along with the general opaqueness of many of these securities, meant that financial institutions in general suffered a serious loss of investor confidence. The result was that risk spreads in global credit markets widened markedly, and banks found it more difficult, and more expensive, to obtain funding through financial markets. These developments placed already strained institutions under further pressure.

In the months that followed, the crisis widened as more information about the scale of losses was revealed. Some of the more significant developments were the run on the British bank Northern Rock in September 2007, which led to its nationalisation; a string of large-scale losses announced by major banks and investment banks in the United States and Europe shortly thereafter; and the rescue of Bear Stearns in March 2008. The latter appeared for a while to mark a turning point, and for a few months market conditions began to settle down and credit spreads to narrow, although they remained well above their pre-crisis levels.

However, the crisis intensified sharply in September 2008, particularly following the failure of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers, which was the first time in the crisis that losses were incurred by creditors of a major financial institution. The Lehman collapse followed the effective nationalisation of the two US federal mortgage agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – that together had more than $5 trillion in mortgages under management or guarantee – a week earlier. These events were followed in quick succession by the nationalisation of the world’s largest insurance company American International Group (AIG) along with a string of other announcements of the failure or near-failure of financial institutions in the United States and Europe. Uncertainty about the nature, scope and passage of the various proposed rescue packages through this period added to the general turmoil.

These events sparked a severe loss of confidence, not just in the financial sector, but also across households and businesses. In the weeks that followed the Lehman Brothers’ collapse, world equity markets experienced extreme volatility, with prices falling in net terms to eventually reach levels around 50 per cent below their earlier peaks. It was also during this period that governments around the world moved to guarantee deposits and in some cases wholesale borrowing by their banks, in conjunction with a series of other measures designed to support their financial systems. The crisis also spread quickly to other vulnerable countries; towards the end of 2008, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced stabilisation packages for Iceland, Pakistan and several Eastern European countries.

2. Underlying Causes

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. A Brief Chronology
  4. 2. Underlying Causes
  5. 3. The Initial Economic Impact
  6. 4. Policy responses
  7. 5. Looking ahead
  8. References

This brief chronology gives an idea of how the crisis happened in a mechanical sense, but does not address the deeper question of its underlying causes. This issue has been extensively debated over the past year – and no doubt will continue to be so for many years ahead – and hence our understanding of the roles and importance of each of the various factors is still developing. Nonetheless, at this stage the explanations have centred around three broad sets of factors, and it is probably fair to say that each played a significant role.

The first set of factors stresses aspects that have in fact been common to past financial bubbles, in particular the combination of cheap credit that increased demand for debt along with a general increase in the appetite for risk by potential lenders. Central to this line of explanation is the low interest rate structure that prevailed in the major economies for much of the early part of this decade. The United States, the euro area and Japan all ran unusually low interest rates during the period. While the specific reasons for doing so vary amongst this group, and are still subject to considerable debate, they were partly related to cyclical economic conditions in those economies and, at a deeper level, to the large global savings imbalances that emerged around the turn of this decade. However, whatever the ultimate driving factor behind the low interest rates of that period, the low cost of funds contributed to an increasing demand for debt, especially by households.

This environment was also one in which perceptions of risk were declining, in part for sound reasons associated with strong economic growth, falling unemployment and rising house prices. More generally, the low interest environment encouraged a ‘search for yield’ in financial markets, in which investors sought to increase returns by taking on more risk. This led to a significant compression of risk spreads across a range of credit markets around the world. While a financial crisis was not inevitable in these circumstances, history suggests that this situation was conducive to a kind of financial cycle that can quickly get out of hand.

The second set of explanations focuses on features of the financial system that encouraged the particular types of risk-taking that were prevalent on this occasion, and which made this financial cycle different from earlier crises. Included in this confluence of events were the growth of the originate-and-distribute model in mortgage lending, the increasing use of structured securities such as CDOs, weaknesses in risk controls on those activities, and the unhelpful role played by credit-rating agencies in ensuring these products were marketable. Over time, conflicts of interest by loan generators and rating agencies became more prominent in a climate that was characterised by high optimism and rising leverage. The wide-spread sale of these products, both in the United States and abroad, set up the conditions for international transmission of the crisis once their values started to decline. This in turn led to a major reappraisal of attitudes to risk and willingness to lend. These effects were exacerbated by the efforts of financial firms to quickly reduce the level of their leverage and exposures to risk, which contributed to an evaporation of liquidity in many markets.

The third (and related) factor concerns the ineffectiveness of regulatory regimes in containing the growth of financial risk-taking in the major countries. To give one example, the growth of the originate-and-distribute model can be seen in part as a response to capital adequacy regulations that gave banks an incentive to economise on capital by shifting their activities into off-balance-sheet vehicles. In this way, a set of regulations intended to contain a certain type of risk actually had the effect of shifting risk into unregulated vehicles, where it was not well controlled. While there is still much to consider in this area, it is apparent in retrospect that regulatory gaps had opened up in a number of areas as monitoring lagged the pace and complexity of financial innovation. This failure may have been exacerbated by the climate at the time, which was generally to encourage home-ownership rates and reduce regulation.

3. The Initial Economic Impact

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. A Brief Chronology
  4. 2. Underlying Causes
  5. 3. The Initial Economic Impact
  6. 4. Policy responses
  7. 5. Looking ahead
  8. References

The pace of global activity had already been softening before the most intense phase of the financial crisis began in September 2008. The large run up in home construction and dwelling prices in the United States had started to turn by mid-2006 – partly in response to rising policy rates – and this was dampening the overall growth of the US economy. The pace of activity had also started to soften for much the same reason in the United Kingdom. However, other parts of the world continued to look resilient through the first half of 2008. China and the other emerging economies in Asia and elsewhere mostly kept growing at a firm pace during that period, and world commodity prices were still close to their peaks.

However, with the deterioration in financial conditions following the Lehman Brothers’ collapse in September, the level of activity in the major economies took a sharp turn for the worse. In the climate of extreme uncertainty, business and consumer confidence collapsed. Households responded by cutting discretionary spending, especially demand for manufactured goods. The result was an exceptionally sharp fall in global industrial production towards the end of 2008, and significant contractions in GDP in most of the major economies. The downturn in the G7 economies intensified during the December quarter – especially in Japan – and spread to other parts of the world, including Asia, Latin America and eastern Europe. Some countries in east Asia saw GDP declines of more than 5 per cent in the December quarter. While the Chinese and Indian economies continued to expand through this period, their rates of growth were significantly reduced.

Two aspects stand out as quite remarkable about this sequence of events. One is the abrupt nature of the deterioration in global activity. A useful way of summarising these developments is to examine the evolution of official forecasts. As late as mid-2008, the IMF forecast for world growth in 2009 was almost 4 per cent, or close to its medium-term average pace. Revised forecasts released in January 2009 were cut back to growth of ½ per cent, and this forecast was later reduced again to around negative 1½ per cent (Figure 1). A downward revision to the world outlook by more than 5 percentage points in both G7 and global growth in just a few months is unprecedented in the period in which these kinds of forecasts have been regularly constructed. If realised, the forecasts would amount to the weakest year for the global economy in the post-war period.3

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Figure 1.  2009 IMF GDP Forecasts*. Source: IMF

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Another notable feature is the highly synchronised nature of the recession. One way to illustrate this is to look at the proportion of Australia’s trading partners growing at a pace significantly below trend. The four-year period up to 2007 was itself unusual, in that none of Australia’s major trading partners fell into that category during that time. By contrast, growth in virtually all trading partners will be well-below-trend in 2009 if current forecasts are realised (Figure 2). Furthermore, the current cycle is expected to be more highly synchronised than the three global recessions in the early 1980s, the early 1990s and in 2001.

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Figure 2.  Trading Partners with Well-below Trend Growth.*Sources: CEIC; RBA; Thomson Reuters

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Several reasons have been proposed to explain this sudden and synchronised deterioration in global macroeconomic conditions. The first, which was already touched on above, was the widespread loss of confidence in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the associated period of exceptional turmoil in global financial markets. This deterioration was clearly seen in survey-based measures of business and consumer confidence in the major economies (Figure 3). It is plausible that improvements in communication and the more rapid transmission of economic news contributed to making this swing in confidence more highly synchronised than in earlier major cycles. As a consequence of the deterioration in confidence, along with the decline in housing and equity wealth and rising unemployment, households around the world made a rapid re-evaluation of their spending plans, cutting back in particular on discretionary spending. Private consumption fell sharply in the industrialised and emerging market economies in late 2008. One very clear example was a sharp drop in the demand for cars, with sales in the major economies falling from their early 2008 levels by around 25 per cent (Figure 4). Similarly, business investment contracted in a number of countries in late 2008/early 2009.

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Figure 3.  Selected Major Economies – Activity and Sentiment Indicators.*Sources: IMF; RBA; Thomson Reuters

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Figure 4.  Car Sales in Major Developed Economies.*Sources: RBA; Thomson Reuters

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A second factor, also related to the Lehman Brothers’ collapse, was the further tightening of credit standards by lenders in the major economies and a marked additional increase in the price of risk (Figure 5). This manifested itself, amongst other things, in disruptions to trade credit and insurance, and in a tightening of lending for consumer and business spending. Reflecting these developments, the pace of credit growth fell sharply in a range of countries in late 2008 or early 2009, although part of this is likely to have reflected a pull back in demand for credit. Adverse feedback loops appeared to be operating during this period as a weakening economy undermined asset prices, which further diminished confidence and the capacity of banks to lend.

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Figure 5.  Credit Standards for Residential Mortgages.*Sources: Bank of England; Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System; European Central Bank

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Third, these effects seem to have been transmitted quickly around the world – especially to Asia – through the trade channel as businesses cut back on production in response to reduced orders (Figure 6). Falls in exports and production were particularly pronounced for certain manufactured goods such as cars, steel and electronics, and industrial production declined by exceptionally large magnitudes in countries where these types of goods are a large share in total production. More generally, firms around the world sought to economise on inventories in response to weaker expected demand and reduced availability of working capital. This effect appears to have been amplified by internal cyclical dynamics in some countries. In China, for example, the economy had for some time been growing at a faster-than-trend pace, and the authorities had already taken steps to rein in growth during 2007 and the first half of 2008, long before China’s economy was affected by the decline in global trade as the rest of the world slowed.

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Figure 6.  World Industrial Production and Exports. Sources: CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, IMF; RBA; Thomson Reuters

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Finally, part of the slowdown in the pace of global activity reflected the inevitable pullback in some sectors that had become overextended. The most obvious of these were the housing and financial sectors in the major countries, although the point could also be extended to the high levels of household debt in many countries in advance of the crisis. Inevitably, the reallocation of resources within the economy following such adjustments has taken some time to run its course.

4. Policy responses

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. A Brief Chronology
  4. 2. Underlying Causes
  5. 3. The Initial Economic Impact
  6. 4. Policy responses
  7. 5. Looking ahead
  8. References

While the financial crisis had a significant negative effect on the level of global activity, a number of forces have been working in the opposite direction and can be expected to support recovery over time. The most important have been the wide ranging set of monetary, fiscal and other policy measures. These can be considered under two broad headings: those directed at the immediate issues of repairing damaged credit markets and restoring growth in demand and activity; and those directed at the medium-term agenda of reducing the risk of similar crises in the future.

In regard to the immediate issues, authorities in all the major economies took a range of steps to provide direct assistance to their financial sectors to offset the effective tightening of financial conditions faced by the private sector. These measures took several forms including central bank facilities to improve access to liquidity, targeted facilities to unclog credit in particular financial markets, direct injections of capital into financial institutions and the provision of various forms of government guarantees. In the United States there were significant measures to remove bad assets from the balance sheets of affected financial institutions and to purchase longer dated securities in order to support mortgage and private credit markets.4 Significant steps have also been taken internationally to provide official funds to emerging and developing countries in the period ahead, notably through initiatives of multilateral organisations such as the IMF.

Early signs were that these steps were contributing to an improvement in the functioning of financial markets. The extreme volatility that followed the Lehman Brothers’ collapse began to ease in early 2009, and the availability of government guarantees enabled a recovery in bond issuance by banks around the world. This helped to put banks in a position where they could be more confident of their long-term funding. Nonetheless, these efforts are likely to take some time to be fully effective. In the interim, credit spreads have remained high and lending to date has still been hampered by the cumulative erosion of asset prices and its accompanying pressure on balance sheets.

In addition, interest rates in major and emerging-market countries were cut sharply as the crisis unfolded. In some major countries, policy rates were reduced to close to zero and central banks moved to quantitative easing approaches to provide additional stimulus to particular markets and to the economy more generally. The pass-through of these reductions in policy rates to lower private household and business sector rates was larger in some countries than in others. In Australia, the extent and speed of pass-through was relatively large, reflecting the comparative strength of the financial system which largely abstained from the purchase of high-risk securities and easing of lending standards seen elsewhere. This experience was in marked contrast to other countries, where banks were more heavily affected by financial strains, resulting in a much more limited capacity to pass interest rate cuts through to borrowers (Figure 7).

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Figure 7.  Policy Rates and Housing Loan Rates. Sources: RBA; Thomson Reuters; National Data

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Fiscal policy has also provided a substantial stimulus. Many countries, including all the large countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and China, announced major packages to support demand in 2009 and 2010. In total, discretionary fiscal measures announced since late 2008 provided for a stimulus of up to 2 per cent of world GDP in 2009, as governments have stepped in to fill part of the contraction in private spending (Table 1). This support has taken the form of direct financial assistance to households, tax reductions for businesses and direct spending by governments, such as for infrastructure projects. This is in addition to the effects of the automatic fiscal stabilisers – such as the typical reduction in the level of taxes paid by the private sector during downturns and the increase in unemployment benefit spending – which in some countries have also been very substantial.

Table 1.   Discretionary Fiscal Easing in Selected Economies Per cent of GDP
 Estimated easing in 2009
  1. Based on IMF staff estimates as on March 2009.

United States2.0
United Kingdom1.4
Germany1.5
Japan1.4
China3.2
South Korea2.3
India0.6
Australia2.1

In regard to the medium-term agenda, considerable work has been underway on reforming financial regulatory policies. At a broad level, this work addresses an old issue: where (and how) to strike the balance between adequate government regulation that protects the economic system and allowing market innovation, in this case with respect to the financial sector. The overarching issue is the need to better contain financial risk taking, and to do so in a way that remains effective as the financial system evolves. Experience from the present crisis suggests that regulations aimed at containing risk-taking can result in risk being pushed out to the unregulated part of the system. It is also in the nature of markets that they will tend to innovate around regulations, and the nature of risk-taking will inevitably keep changing as financial systems get more sophisticated. This highlights the need for regulatory frameworks to be adaptable to changing circumstances. While there is still much to be considered in this area, better risk management techniques could include aspects such as requiring banks to hold more liquidity and capital ans to adjust capital requirements over the course of the cycle, along with enhanced stress-testing models, greater transparency of financial products and ensuring appropriate incentives for rating agencies. Because of the interdependency among financial systems, it makes sense for these issues to be tackled cooperatively at a global level. Considerable work is being done on this front by the major international bodies, including the Financial Stability Forum and the G20, and Australia is playing an active part in this discussion.

5. Looking ahead

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. A Brief Chronology
  4. 2. Underlying Causes
  5. 3. The Initial Economic Impact
  6. 4. Policy responses
  7. 5. Looking ahead
  8. References

The six-month period that followed the Lehman Brothers’ collapse in September 2008 was one of intense financial turmoil and sharp contraction in demand and activity around the world. It resulted in a global recession that has clearly been the most severe of the post-war period.

At this stage, it is not possible to make confident predictions about the trajectory of an eventual recovery. At a general level, though, it is important to keep in mind that the normal cyclical dynamics of the global economy can eventually be expected to run their course. For example, the de-stocking that typically occurs in the early stages of an economic downturn is essentially a limited phenomenon as it only needs to occur once. Similarly, where over-building has occurred, while it takes some time to work off the accumulated over-supply, eventually the growth of underlying demand will reassert itself. Furthermore, during a generalised loss of confidence, a range of markets including those for equities, housing and commodities can often overshoot fundamentals on the downside. However, at some point, investors can be expected to start recognising buying opportunities.

Equally important, significant policies were put in place to moderate the effects of the financial strains and to support growth in demand and activity. The success of these measures will of course depend on ongoing efforts to repair damaged financial institutions in the United States and elsewhere.

At the time of writing (April 2009), there have been some signs of improved conditions in some economies, although they are still tentative. In the United States, the pace of decline in activity appears now to be moderating, and there have also been indicators of improvement in the Chinese economy. It is encouraging that both equities and commodity prices have been more stable in the early part of this year after the sharp falls that occurred in the December quarter. Most forecasters see a return to positive global growth in 2010. While the speed and strength of eventual recovery remain uncertain, Australia is fortunate to have come into this period in better shape than most, with sound financial institutions, and with more scope than most for macroeconomic policies to respond as events continue to unfold.

Footnotes

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. A Brief Chronology
  4. 2. Underlying Causes
  5. 3. The Initial Economic Impact
  6. 4. Policy responses
  7. 5. Looking ahead
  8. References
  • Claesens, S., Rose, M. and Terrones, M. (2008), What Happens during Recessions, Crunches and Busts?, IMF Working Paper No 274, December.
  • Kohn, D. (2009), Policies to Bring Us out of the Financial Crisis and Recession, Address to the Forum on Great Decisions in the Economic Crisis, College of Wooster, Ohio, April.
  • Reinhart, C. and Rogoff, K. (2008), Banking Crises: An Equal Opportunity Menace, NBER Working Paper No. 14587, December.