THE 2008 FINANCIAL COLLAPSE: CONTEXT AND FOLLOW-UP

Here’s issue #25 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 3/25/12. The previous issue provided highlights from the movie Inside Job, a documentary on the 2008 collapse of US financial firms that caused our current recession, which I highly recommend. Here’s some context and follow-up on the 2008 financial collapse.

The 2008 collapse was the product of deregulation of the financial industry over the last 30 years that led to three financial crises, each of increasing severity. These three crises were the Savings and Loan (S&L) crisis of the late 1980s, the “dot-com” stock bubble burst of 2000-2001, and the financial collapse of 2008.

In the early 1980s, the S&Ls were deregulated and by the end of the 1980s their newly allowed risky investments brought numerous bankruptcies that cost taxpayers $124 billion. 747 out of the 3,234 S&Ls failed, contributing to the 1990–91 economic recession. [1]

Then in 2000-2001, the bubble in stock prices burst resulting in $5 trillion in losses and again contributing to a recession. This “dot-com” bubble was the result of speculation fueled by respected business publications, such as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, that encouraged the public to invest in risky companies, despite some of the companies’ disregard for basic financial and even legal principles. Not all of the companies involved were actually “dot-com” companies. Enron and WorldCom engaged in illegal accounting practices to exaggerate profits. Several companies and their executives were accused or convicted of fraud and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fined top investment firms like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch millions of dollars for misleading investors – encouraging them to buy stocks the companies knew were risky at best. In all, large financial firms paid $1.4 billion to settle possible claims and promised not to engage in misleading practices again. [2] Nonetheless, similar misleading practices occurred with mortgage-backed derivatives leading up to the 2008 collapse.

The US Senate’s investigation of the 2008 financial collapse found “that the crisis was not a natural disaster, but the result of high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; and the failure of regu-lators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.” [3] As in the S&L crisis, the regulators had been too close to the industry and had ignored problems. Moreover, two years after the 2008 crash, the FBI’s investigation had one-fourth of the resources the agency used during the S&L crisis, despite the fact that the 2008 collapse was 10 times as large. [4] While the S&L debacle led to felony convictions of over 1,000 senior S&L executives, no significant criminal charges have been filed based on the 2008 collapse. [5]

Economist Paul Krugman notes that Canada, despite a similar concentration of its financial industry in five large firms, exhibited remarkable stability while US firms were in crisis. He and others believe that this is because of stricter oversight and regulation. For example, Canada has: [6]

  • An independent Financial Consumer Agency to protect consumers from deceptive lending
  • Strong restrictions on subprime-type lending
  • Limits on the packaging of mortgages and other debt into securities to be sold to investors
  • Limits on the risks banks can take and on the reserves they have to keep to protect against losses

The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 addresses some of the causes of the 2008 collapse, although many analysts believe it is too weak to prevent another crisis. Nonetheless, Wall St. and its allies on Capitol Hill are trying to weaken the law and block its implementation. This is an example, both before and after the fact, of crony capitalism – cozy relationships between our financial corporations and our public officials in Washington, in Congress and in the Executive and Judicial branches of government, blocking meaningful regulation that is necessary to protect citizens and our economy.


[1]       Wikipedia, retrieved 3/21/12, “Savings and loan crisis,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savings_and_loan_crisis

[2]       Wikipedia, retrieved 3/21/12, “Dot-com bubble,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dot-com_bubble

[3]       Wikipedia, retrieved 3/21/12, “Late-2000s financial crisis,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late-2000s_financial_crisis

[4]      Willoughby, J., 4/13/09, “The Lessons of the Savings-and-Loan Crisis,” Barron’s

[5]       Black, W. K., 5/4/10, “Wall St. Fraud and Fiduciary Responsibilities: Can Jail Time Serve as an Adequate Deterrent for Willful Violations?” Testimony before US Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs

[6]       Krugman, P., 2/1/10, “Good and boring,” The New York Times

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