I’m about to tell you some unconventional wisdom, all right? I called my talk today “The real truth about the 2008 financial crisis.” So, I guess what I ask you to do this morning is to think about what you believe what the conventional wisdom is about 2008, and I’m going to put some words in your mind or describe it this way. And that is most people believe that the free-market capitalist system, especially bankers, are greedy, they go through periods of excess speculation, and then the world collapses and the government has to come in and save us.
By the way, this is the story that was told about the Great Depression, and it is also the story that is told about the 2008 financial crisis. Now, before I get into the meat of my presentation, I want you to think about something else, and that is that the Federal Reserve controls the level of short-term interest rates in our economy. Everybody knows that today, they’re holding those interest rates at 0%, trying to get the economy moving again. What lots of people don’t remember is that back in 2001, 2002 and 2003 the Federal Reserve dropped interest rates to 1%. I want you to think about this.
Because when you make a decision to take out a loan, when you make a decision to buy a house, what is the most important ingredient of that decision? I mean, obviously, whether you have income, whether you like the house, but one of the most important ingredients of that is the level of interest rates. Alan Greenspan pushed interest rates down to 1% in 2003 and 2004. In fact, interest rates were below inflation for almost three years – below the rate of inflation.
Now, how do you think about this? So, when you’re looking at a house – can I afford this house, the payment? Obviously, those payment streams are determined by the level of interest rates, and when interest rates are low, you’re going to buy a bigger house, you’re going to buy in a better neighborhood, buy cherry cabinets and granite counter tops because you can afford it. So, let me put this into a story that I know you can understand.
And that is, when you come to a green light in your car – you’re driving along, there’s a green light – how many people in here actually have ever stopped at a green light? I’m not talking about senior moments. I’m talking about stopping at a green light, getting out of your car and walking around to the other side, just to make sure the other one really is red. Because, obviously, if it was green too, it’d be dangerous to go through that intersection.
So what happens when Alan Greenspan or the Federal Reserve holds interest rates all the way down at 1%? You get a green light. You get a green light to make a purchase that’s bigger than probably you should, and by the way, the financial system is no different than you. Bankers, they’re no different than individuals.
They would say, “Hey, with interest rates so low, leverage, borrowing doesn’t matter as much, it’s cheap. So, why don’t we lever up a little bit more? After all, it’s Alan Greenspan, the smartest man in the world, that tells us interest rates are 1%; in other words, all the lights are green.” And, so what happens when you hold interest rates down like this? You cause people to make decisions that they wouldn’t otherwise make.
Now, let me put this in a different perspective. House prices went up 8% in 2001. By 2004, 2005 they went up 14% in 2004, 15% in 2005. So you could borrow at 1%, especially with those teaser loans, and you could have a house that was appreciating at 14%: what a great deal! And, so what happened is we encouraged more people to buy homes, bigger homes than they should have at the time. We also encouraged bankers to take on more leverage, and make more risky bets than they would have if interest rates were higher. In fact, if interest rates would have been 4% or 5%, I don’t believe we would have had the housing bubble at all.
Now, let’s go back in time just a little bit, because this has happened before. The last time the Federal Reserve really held interest rates too low for too long was back in the 1970s. In the 1970s, farmers bought too much land, we drilled too many oil wells, we were betting on oil prices going up forever, and in the 1980s, when farmland prices collapsed and oil collapsed, banks collapsed too.
By the way, the entire savings and loan industry also collapsed in the 1980s because of the same reason: they made too many loans when interest rates were low, and then, when interest rates went up, they collapsed. At the same time, we made big banks make huge loans to the Latin and South America. And so, if you go back and look at the 1970s, banks expanded, they made loans to farming, housing, oil, Latin and South America, and all of those parts of the economy collapsed in the late of ’70s, early ’80s, and the banking system was in monster trouble.
In fact, the eight biggest banks in America in 1983 had no capital – zero capital – because they had lent too much to Latin and South American countries that all collapsed. And here’s my point of going back to that. That is if you go back and look at the 1980s, the problems of the 1980s – the banking problems – did not take down the entire economy. This time, they did. And so, the question is why, and we’re going to deal with that in just a minute.