Monday, July 7, 2014

What's changed since the start of the financial crisis?

It's been seven years since the start of the financial crisis (an estimate of course as the actual start dates of these kinds of things are always a bit subjective).  We'll take the start of the crisis as being in August 2007 "when BNP Paribas terminated withdrawals from three hedge funds citing "a complete evaporation of liquidity"[1].

What has changed?  For the better?  For the worse?  Or not at all?

US National Debt:  This certainly has gotten worse.  In August 2007 it stood at:$8.9trillion but by June 2014 it had ballooned to: $17.5trillion [2].  That's almost double the amount in only seven years!  So, what did Uncle Sam spend our money on during that period?  Well, a big part of it turns out to be bailing out the banks.  As of 2011 the total amount of funds disbursed by the government to the banks was: $4.76trillion [3].  Most of the rest was due to continued government spending during a time of economic depression that lowered tax receipts.  In essence the government was hit with a double whammy by the crisis in that it had to keep spending through running deficits and it chose to bail out the major banks which were almost certainly going to otherwise fail.

Labor:  No improvement here.  Participation rate is still headed down, and the employment/population ratio which plunged during the official recession period has hardly budged at all  [4].
So, all those folks who lost their jobs don't appear to be back in the labor force.  Of course, that's only a problem for these folks if they say its a problem.  If they took early retirement or are happy to be out of the labor force then this is OK.  But, I suspect that many in this group are out of work involuntarily and would like to get a good job.  For these folks the depression continues.  In May 2014, 3.4 million were long-term unemployed and 7.3 million were involuntarily part-time employed [9]. Fortunately for the national debt, the wise people in Washington decided to end the long term unemployment benefits for many of these non-workers.  Not so good if you're on the receiving side.

Stock Market:  The S&P 500 was $1433.06 on July 30, 2007 and is trading around $1977 as of this writing on 7/1/2014.  The bailouts certainly helped the markets, particularly since the S&P500 hit a low of $683 after the crisis began.

Regulation: The main government regulatory response to the crisis was the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act which imposed some minor requirements on banks.  In addition, greater capital requirements were imposed on banks, a designation of "systematically important" was created for the biggest banks, and some form of plan for an orderly liquidation was to be created for these banks [5].  But the overall response was quite limited given the enormity of the crisis.  Nothing on the scale of the response to the Great Depression was even under consideration.  No "Pecora Commission" was created to properly investigate the causes of the crisis.  Few were brought to account for their actions.  In other words, other than an increased requirement for reserve capital, banks could pretty much go back to what they were doing before the crisis.  Though their actions will certainly come under greater scrutiny than before, and their apatite for risk is slightly diminished, at least until they can find ways of once again shifting the risk to other parties.

Trade: Once seemingly bright spot in this is that the trade deficit dropped from the pre-crisis level of $-705billion in 2007 to a low of $-383billion in 2009 and was $-476billion in 2013. Interestingly, exports actually grew over this period, with the exception of one year, from $1.65trillion in 2007 to $2.28trillion in 2013.  Total trade has expanded dramatically from $4.0trillion in 2007 to $5.0trillion in 2013[7].  So, the crisis has been good for trade.

Housing: As usual, Bill McBride has collected some great data and created some useful graphs.  The Core Logic Housing Price Index peaked at around 200 in 2006 before the crisis began, or perhaps a better description is that it is part of what tripped the crisis release mechanism, bottomed in 2011 to 2012, but has been moving up for the last several years. 
Is this good or bad?  Well, depends on which side you're on.  If you are a homeowner with a big mortgage or a seller then this is good, if you're a buyer then this is bad.  More importantly is the "rentier" aspect of home prices.  That is, what fraction of the price represents actual construction costs, and what fraction represents aspects of speculation?  That is, the price of the land and price of older buildings?  A market that is good for homeowners is one where the land is essentially free and the price of the house almost entirely represents construction costs.  The fraction of home price that is land rose from 32% in 1984 to 50% in 2006 [10], a clear indication of the speculative boom in housing, and incidentally, evidence that the Fed was quite aware of this.

Once significant improvement in the housing market is the fraction of mortgages that are seriously delinquent has dropped dramatically from the high in early 2010 and continues downward.  A simple extrapolation shows that by the beginning of 2016 this rate should be back to pre-crisis levels.  This is an indication that homeowners are getting their finances back into order.

What does this mean for the future?  What's there to prevent another crisis?  The supporters of current policies believe that the added regulation and reserve requirements are sufficient to prevent another catastrophe like the crisis we're still digging out from.  I'm less sure as many of the same risky behaviors that caused the crisis are now rearing their ugly heads once again [8].  The rules of the game determine the play.  And the rules of this game have shifted dramatically over the last few decades to allow risky financial behavior by banks, businesses, and consumers that previously was considered unacceptable.  The inevitable outcome is the ongoing financial crisis.  A return to the regulations and policies which led to decades of growth and stability is a prudent action for the future of the nation.

[7] See table on: