Background and Timeline of Events
The immediate cause or trigger of the crisis was the bursting of the United States housing bubble which peaked in approximately 2005–2006. An increase in loan incentives such as easy initial terms and a long-term trend of rising housing prices had encouraged borrowers to assume difficult mortgages in the anticipation that they would be able to quickly refinance at easier terms. Once interest rates began to rise and housing prices started to drop moderately in 2006–2007 in many parts of the U.S., borrowers' ability to refinance became more difficult. Defaults and foreclosure activity increased dramatically as easy initial terms expired, home prices failed to go up as anticipated, and ARM interest rates reset higher. Falling prices also resulted in 23% of U.S. homes worth less than the mortgage loan by September 2010, providing a financial incentive for borrowers to enter foreclosure. The ongoing foreclosure epidemic, of which subprime loans are one part, that began in late 2006 in the U.S. continues to be a key factor in the global economic crisis, because it drains wealth from consumers and erodes the financial strength of banking institutions.
In the years leading up to the crisis, the U.S. received large amounts of foreign money from fast-growing economies in Asia and oil-producing/exporting countries. This inflow of funds combined with low U.S. interest rates from 2002–2004 contributed to easy credit conditions, which fueled both housing and credit bubbles. Loans of various types (e.g., mortgage, credit card, and auto) were easy to obtain and consumers assumed an unprecedented debt load.
As part of the housing and credit booms, the amount of financial agreements called mortgage-backed securities (MBS), which derive their value from mortgage payments and housing prices, greatly increased. Such financial innovation enabled institutions and investors around the world to invest in the U.S. housing market. As housing prices declined, major global financial institutions that had borrowed and invested heavily in MBS reported significant losses. Defaults and losses on other loan types also increased significantly as the crisis expanded from the housing market to other parts of the economy. Total losses are estimated in the trillions of U.S. dollars globally.
While the housing and credit bubbles were growing, a series of factors caused the financial system to become increasingly fragile. Policymakers did not recognize the increasingly important role played by financial institutions such as investment banks and hedge funds, also known as the shadow banking system. Shadow banks were able to mask the extent of their risk taking from investors and regulators through the use of complex, off-balance sheet derivatives and securitizations.
These instruments also made it virtually impossible to reorganize financial institutions in bankruptcy, and contributed to the need for government bailouts. Some experts believe these shadow institutions had become as important as commercial (depository) banks in providing credit to the U.S. economy, but they were not subject to the same regulations. These institutions as well as certain regulated banks had also assumed significant debt burdens while providing the loans described above and did not have a financial cushion sufficient to absorb large loan defaults or MBS losses.
These losses impacted the ability of financial institutions to lend, slowing economic activity. Concerns regarding the stability of key financial institutions drove central banks to take action to provide funds to encourage lending and to restore faith in the commercial paper markets, which are integral to funding business operations. Governments also bailed out key financial institutions, assuming significant additional financial commitments.
The risks to the broader economy created by the housing market downturn and subsequent financial market crisis were primary factors in several decisions by central banks around the world to cut interest rates and governments to implement economic stimulus packages. Effects on global stock markets due to the crisis have been dramatic. Between 1 January and 11 October 2008, owners of stocks in U.S. corporations had suffered about $8 trillion in losses, as their holdings declined in value from $20 trillion to $12 trillion. Losses in other countries have averaged about 40%.
Losses in the stock markets and housing value declines place further downward pressure on consumer spending, a key economic engine. Leaders of the larger developed and emerging nations met in November 2008 and March 2009 to formulate strategies for addressing the crisis. A variety of solutions have been proposed by government officials, central bankers, economists, and business executives. In the U.S., the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was signed into law in July 2010 to address some of the causes of the crisis.
Read more about this topic: Subprime Mortgage Crisis
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