The Financial Crisis – 10 Years On

Before starting it is important to make clear that I am not an economist nor am I a financial analyst.  However, I do hold some accounting qualifications and according to experts in the field I have more than a layman’s understanding of the subject.  Finally it is important to make absolutely clear that the opinions expressed within are my own and represent conclusions that I have drawn through observation and personal research.

Ten years on from the financial crisis of 2008, which almost led to a meltdown of the entire banking system it is worth re-assessing what went wrong and the lessons learnt with the benefit of hindsight.  I am convinced, ten years after the financial world crashed around us we had caused the problems ourselves.  This was compounded by the mismanagement and lack of regulatory control of the banks who lived by the motto ‘Greed is Good’.  This article will focus on two key elements that stalled the world economy and the resulting consequences that we are still living with today.

While less significant than the second factor I am going to start with the so called ‘Credit Crunch’.  In simple terms the Credit Crunch can be described as ‘maxing out’ our credit.  Credit had been cheap and readily available for such a long time and consumers had taken advantage .  This in turn had driven the economy and provided a lot of growth.  This sounds good until the inevitable happens,  As with domestic budgeting, if there is an overspend one month the belt must be tightened the following month.  In an economic cycle there comes a point when credit has to be paid back and more borrowing becomes unsustainable.  If enough people reach this point at a similar time demand for consumer products drops, growth is inhibited and the economy slows down.

Secondly and more significantly the domestic mortgage market ran aground, creating such deficits for the banks that losses became terminal.  This was particularly acute in the U.S. and a notable casualty was Lehman Brothers.  It is a well-known truism that when America sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold.

So how did this situation evolve?  In simple terms two things happened that cumulatively compounded the same outcome.  As often happens in economic good times a property bubble was formed creating a substantial overvaluing of properties.  This was further exacerbated by irresponsible lending when mortgages were been granted at more than the (already over-inflated) value of the property.  120% mortgages were not unheard of – the justification often being to cover renovations or refurbishing of the home by the new home owner.

Then the bubble burst.  The market went through a period of readjustment and house prices depreciated.  This created a situation of negative equity for home owners.  While not ideal this is not hugely consequential if only a few hundred or even a few thousand home owners subsequently default on their mortgages, but it becomes untenable for the financial sector when a million do so.  Historically, banks would have repossessed (or foreclosed) such properties to cover any potential losses.  What made 2008 so devastating was the perfect storm of overlending in a depreciating market that meant repossessed properties all too frequently did not cover the value of their associated debts.  The banks could only offload such properties cheaply and the resulting losses took the banking sector to the brink of collapse.

How was such a situation allowed to develop?

The simple answer is greed and irresponsibility on the part of the banks.  While some have suggested that the borrower is also responsible for borrowing beyond their means ultimately it comes down to the banks’ short-sightedness, focus on shareholder dividends, profits and greed.

To use an extreme example to make my point if I lend £100,000 to somebody who is unemployed is it really their fault when they default?  Yes of course it is and to suggest otherwise would be to avoid them taking responsibility.  However, if this is true it is even more my fault for not checking on their ability to keep up with the repayments.

Again –as above – let’s deal with the simpler issue first.  I would go as far as to say that the credit crunch was self-inflicted and tantamount to self-harming.

I first came across the term, Credit Crunch as early as 2002.  From time to time the media would run a story with dire warnings that catastrophe was impending, that it would come upon us a crunch and that we needed to get ready.

Forewarned should be forearmed!  Yet nothing was done to avoid or at least alleviate the crunch when it arrived.  In principle this is the same as getting a bomb warning and then ignoring it until it blows up in our faces!

This begs the question of whether anything could have been done.  The author’s view is a resounding yes, and what is more it may have reduced the devastating impact of the collapsing property market.

While tied to the base interest rate of a country, banks are free to set their own interest rates, but are restrained by the influence of the competitive market.  I would argue that an upward massaging of the interest rates would have had three positive long term effects for the banking sector.

  • Lending would have slowed down and greater control of borrowing would have been established, lessening the impact of the credit crunch.
  • Loans would have become more profitable and the banks would have earned more for doing less.
  • Customers would have been encouraged to save more rather than spend (see also my article on retail banking), which would have given bankers greater reserves when the bottom fell out of the property market.

So if a potential solution – or at least partial solution – would have been so easy to implement why wasn’t it?  The answer is stark in its simplicity.  Nobody did anything because everybody did nothing!

If a bank had unilaterally raised its interest rates it would have become less competitive and lost out as a result.  This would have impacted not only the profitability, but the share price, shareholder dividends and confidence in the senior management of the bank.  The responsible CEO may have realised it was the right thing to do, but the cost would have been their job and reputation.

Moving on to the collapse of property prices and the sheer number of defaulting homeowners the issue on one hand is more complex, but the solution is easier.  Banks need to lend responsibly and, as in the past bear in mind, two vital factors; the value of the property and the credit score of the borrower.  After these two factors are considered the bank should never lend 100% to give some contingency in the case of a collapse in property values.  The author suggests maybe 80%.  This will protect the bank in the case of a depreciating market while building a sustainable lending model.  However greed and the lack of effective regulation took over.  The more money lent the greater the profitability for the bank – or so the theory went.

Not directly related to this issue, but the media ran stories in the years following the crisis of banks deliberately creating a situation where small businesses wouldn’t be able to keep up with any loan repayments so the banks could then after  a number of defaults move in, acquire the properties and add them or revenues from their sales to their asset registers.  They were as trustworthy a den of thieves.

The whole banking system was sick!

What makes this worse was that the banking system had a warning shot of what was coming.  Not long before the whole system collapsed Northern Rock a small British bank went under for exactly the same reasons that brought about the financial crisis.  The message was clear from Northern Rock – adapt or die!

Particularly in the UK some banks were defined as being too big to fail and the government pumped huge amounts of finance in to stop the whole system from collapsing.  According to a TV interview with Alistair Darling (then the British Chancellor), Fred Goodwin (CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland, the largest bank in Britain and one of the largest in the world) had warned that RBS was literally hours from running out of money*.  The British government agreed a bailout plan that ensured the survival of such entities.  In a similar way American tax-payer dollars were used to prop up the system.

The emphasis of governmental intervention was for the banks to continue to function, to lend and keep the economy ticking over.  Remember the now almost ubiquitous phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’?  A little known and relatively obscure British propaganda poster from World War II had a new lease of life.

What did the banks do?  They virtually shut down the system.  They used the funds to consolidate and restructure (yes this was necessary), but they didn’t use the funds to keep the system going.  This issue is also discussed in my article on Retail Banking.  The world economy juddered and stalled while the banks licked their wounds, thinking only of themselves – this had not been the purpose of the bailouts.

Although impracticable to implement it seems to the author that the children should have their toys taken away from them for being very naughty.  Maybe the National Banks shouldn’t only set the base rate, but also set interest rates for the banks that are fair for all and take greater regulatory control of the whole system.

The cost would be the removal of competition from the market as the whole system is nationalised.  This opens a door that few would dare to pass through as it would increase state control of personal finances

A cynic could say, ‘The banks are rotten to the core anyway, so what does it matter?’

© Richard Horton, Omega Support Services 2018

* As seen on BBC documentary The Bank that Almost Broke Britian

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