The real truth about the 2008 financial crisis | Brian S. Wesbury | TEDxCountyLineRoad


Translator: Queenie Lee
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven
I’m about to tell you some
unconventional wisdom, alright?
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.
(Laughter)
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.
And so one of the things
that I want to do
is tell you something I just did, right?
This is the picture of the S&P 500 –
the 500 largest companies
in the US stock market.
It’s a picture from 2008 all the way
through the first half of 2009.
What I just recently did is I went back,
and I read the verbatim transcripts
of all the Federal Reserve
meetings during 2008.
Now, the reason I just did this
is because they only come out
with a five-year lag.
The Fed they released little statements,
and then minutes,
and then five years later,
they give us the full transcripts
of what they’ve talked about, right?
All of those red dots,
there’s 14 of them, are a Fed meeting.
Normally, the Fed
has six or seven meetings,
but that was a crisis year, right?
And so the Fed had 14 meetings that year.
Just to put this in perspective,
it’s 18 or 20 people
sitting around a table,
and the verbatim transcripts
are each of them talking
for three or four minutes
if they go around and they vote
and they go around again; they vote.
These transcripts were 1,865 pages long,
559,000 words.
Now, I read these for you,
just so you know.
(Laughter)
And some people have a hard time,
like, what is 559,000 words?
Well, the Old Testament is 593,000 words.
I mean think about that,
we’ve built the universe,
wandered around the desert
for 40 years, 50 years,
built an ark …
There is a lot of stuff
that happened in the Old Testament.
(Laughter)
The Fed used that many words
for one year of US economic history.
Now, I could head down this road –
maybe that’s another TED talk –
because that’s one of our problems.
Nonetheless, one of the things
I want to point to
is this huge decline in the market
that happened in September
and October of 2008.
You know what happened
in September and October of 2008?
Well, first of all, the bloody weekend,
September 13th, 14th, I think it was,
when Lehman Brothers failed,
AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac,
and all of those things happened,
and the Federal Reserve started a program
called quantitative easing;
that’s where they started to buy bonds
and inject cash into the economy
in an attempt to save us.
At the same time, in fact,
just a few weeks later,
on October 8th of 2008,
Hank Paulson, the Treasury secretary,
President Bush, the Bush White House,
Congress passed TARP:
the Troubled Asset Relief Plan,
and it was 700 billion dollars
of government spending
to save our banking system, okay?
I want you to take a look
at this chart a little more closely.
Quantitative easing started right here,
TARP was passed right there.
Did it help?
In fact, the worst part of the crisis
was after TARP was passed.
The stock market fell 40%;
financial-company stocks fell 80%
after TARP was passed.
In fact, if I look at this chart
and kind of squint at it,
look at all those red dots,
I would say the more the Fed met,
the more the Fed did, the worse it got.
So, something else
must have been going on, right?
In my opinion,
the government did not save us,
and in fact, this is one
of the problems that people have
when they’re trying
to understand the economy.
You see, there’s an interesting fact
about our world, and that is
the free market – capitalism –
does not have a press agent;
the government does.
The Federal Reserve does.
In fact, there are about 2,000 books
about the financial crisis,
but there are three main ones
that have just come out.
One is by Timothy Geithner,
former Secretary of the Treasury
under President Obama.
He was the head of the New York
Federal Reserve Bank during 2008.
He’d written a book about the crisis;
who do you think he says
saved the world?
(Laughter)
Timothy Geithner, of course.
Ben Bernanke.
He doesn’t have a book out –
he has a book of speeches out –
who do you think he says
saved the world?
Ben Bernanke.
Hank Paulson has a book out,
and who do you think he says
saved the world?
Hank Paulson.
In fact, it’s not really
that they take credit themselves,
but they credit TARP
and quantitative easing and stress tests;
that’s what Timothy Geithner
takes credit for:
stress testing banks,
so that everybody can trust them, right?
This is where I want
to shift gears, just a little bit,
because what I want
to tell you is why – or explain –
is why I believe this banking crisis
turned into a true
overall economic crisis,
while if you look back in the early 1980s,
where banks had more losses
than they did in 2008,
the economy did not collapse,
and in fact started
to accelerate without TARP,
without quantitative easing.
In fact, Paul Volcker was raising
interest rates in the early 1980s,
and the economy recovered.
Here we cut interest rates to zero,
and the economy
has grown relatively slowly.
So, what caused this problem?
By the way, in those transcripts
that I said that I read,
Ben Bernanke asks his staff to go out
and find out how big the problem is,
how many subprime loans were made,
how many losses could we face,
and he has a staff
of about 200 Ph.D. economists,
and they came back
with a number of 228 billion dollars.
Now, don’t get me wrong,
I’d love 228 billion dollars, right?
But 228 billion dollars is small
compared to a 15 trillion dollar economy.
So, how did that small problem
turn into a problem
that almost took down
a 15 trillion dollar economy,
and the answer is
mark-to-market accounting.
It’s a little-known accounting rule
that most people
know nothing about, right?
It was put into place in November 2007
after being out of place,
not enforced, since 1938.
Now, let me give you a little
bit of background on an accounting.
In the 1800s, bookkeepers,
they were bookkeepers.
They weren’t the accounting
profession yet.
They were getting
more and more sophisticated,
but they usually marked
everything to market.
So, if you think about this,
if the farmland goes up in value,
if your machinery goes up in value,
if your inventory,
if loans go up in value,
you get to mark those up.
So, in good times, things look better,
but then, when you start
marking things down, things look worse.
And I believe that if you
go back to the 1800s,
this is one of the reasons why we have
very sharp dips and drops in the economy,
panics and depressions
and things like that.
In the 1930s, mark-to-market accounting
actually took lots and lots of banks out.
In fact, it was such a bad law
that the SEC at the time
told Franklin Delano Roosevelt
that he should get rid of it,
and he did in 1938.
It didn’t come back,
all the way till 2007.
So, what does mark-to-market
accounting do?
Well, let me give you a story.
Just imagine you live on the coast
of Texas, in Galveston, Texas,
and you have a $500,000 house
right in Galveston, near the beach,
and you have a $300,000 mortgage,
and there is a hurricane on the way.
And it’s only four or five hours away,
and they’ve told you
to evacuate your neighborhood,
and you’re packing up your pictures,
you’re packing up
your most important belongings,
and just before you leave the driveway,
your banker shows up.
(Laughter)
And your banker says,
“You have a $300,000
mortgage on this house,
and there’s a hurricane coming.
Your house is about to be destroyed.
We’re really, really
worried about our loan.
I know you’ve paid every payment,
but we’re going to have to
mark this house to market.”
And you’re like, “Well,
everybody’s gone, no one left.
I saw the realtor leave.
Who’s going to bid on this house?”
He said, “Don’t worry,
there’s a fire truck.
Let’s get the fireman to bid on it.
They stopped the fire truck, said,
“Hey, make a bid on this house.”
Fireman says, “There’s
a hurricane about to hit.
I’ll pay 20 grand for it,”
and the banker says, “You know what,
you owe me $300,000,
but the house is only worth $20,000
because that’s the bid.
So, if you can’t come up
with $280,000 dollars right now,
you’re going to lose your house.
You’re bankrupt.
That’s what mark-to-market accounting is.
And so in 2008, what we did is we said –
what people were doing is –
they were saying a hurricane is heading,
that no ones are worth nothing,
and so, banks couldn’t sell assets,
they wouldn’t buy assets,
and in reality, what happened
is their losses spiraled out of control,
and it turned to a $300 billion problem
into a $4 trillion problem.
Now, the amazing thing is,
right at the bottom,
March 9, 2009,
something changed the world.
There’s a little-known –
well, actually he’s not little-known,
but he’s retired now –
Congressman named Barney Frank.
His financial services committee
actually held a year,
and he brought the accountants in
and said, “We don’t think
this rule is right,”
and they changed the accounting rule.
On March 9, 2009,
they announced the hearing,
held the hearing on March 12,
changed the accounting rule on April 2,
and from that point on,
the economy has grown;
the stock market is up 200%.
And, what I’m getting to here is the fact
that I believe this crisis
was not generated by over-speculation,
well, in fact, was caused
by the Federal Reserve in the first place,
and by changing this accounting rule,
we brought about a recovery in our economy
that most people don’t understand.
What they do believe
is that the government
has caused the recovery,
especially the Federal Reserve
through quantitative easing.
I want you to think about this
for one second, and then I’ll close.
That is that what the Federal Reserve does
is they go out and buy bonds,
and when they buy bonds,
they inject cash into the banking system,
and typically, banks will
take that money and lend it out,
but in the last five years, banks haven’t.
What banks have done is they’ve begun
to sit on excess reserves.
And so, when you look at the economy today
and see how it’s growing,
what’s fascinating about this
is that this growth is actually coming
from entrepreneurship.
I want you to remember one thing,
and that is Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen
have never stayed up all night
drinking Red Bull,
eating pizza and writing Apps;
(Laughter)
they’ve never fracked a well;
they haven’t ever built a 3D printer.
And so, when you look at our economy,
what I’d like you to do is have faith
that the free market actually works,
and realize that many many times,
government, rules,
regulations and actions,
especially with interest rates,
have major impacts.
I think the understanding of 2008
that people have, the conventional wisdom,
that banks lost control
is actually the wrong thing.
I believe it’s government
that lost control,
and by fixing that rule,
we actually started
the recovery that’s underway.
Thank you very much.
(Applause)

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