Ten years ago Wednesday, French bank BNP Paribas blocked withdrawals from hedge funds that specialized in U.S. mortgage debt. That Aug. 9, 2007, marked the beginning of a credit crisis that caused investment bank Lehman Brothers to collapse a year later and usher in the Great Recession of 2007-09.
“It’s true that the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. started a little earlier, in February 2007, but the money markets did not notice until that day in August,” said Alexis Stenfors, a former trader for Merrill Lynch who famously lost his company $450 million on currency bets. He is now a business professor at Britain’s University of Portsmouth.
“We realized that this problem was going to be a lot bigger than American subprime mortgages and that it was going to spread to all markets — everywhere.”
A decade after the meltdown, here’s what’s changed.
Central banks write new rules
For the first time in history starting in 2008, central banks took coordinated action to save the global financial system by slashing interest rates, recapitalizing lenders, buying up toxic assets and injecting liquidity into economies through government bond-purchase programs.
Never before had the U.S. Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Japan and others all worked together to try to ward off the threat of global recession, according to Stenfors. “They did things that people didn’t realize central banks could or would ever do on such a large scale, and they did it many times. It has completely changed the perception of these institutions,” he said.
Governments tighten bank regulations
The list of financial regulations introduced since the crisis is long. It includes, under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law in the United States, forcing banks to hold more capital to cover potential losses, restricting speculative trading and obliging lenders to separate investment and consumer divisions to curtail their ability to use their firm’s money for risky trades. The Trump’s administration wants to roll back Dodd-Frank restrictions.
In Europe, policymakers have attempted to make the region’s financial sector more resilient by enhancing the European Central Bank’s powers to supervise banks. This has included “stress testing” lenders’ balance sheets against future crises and increased transparency on complex derivatives.
Michael Lever, an expert on global regulation at the Association for Financial Markets in Europe, a lobbying group, said U.S. authorities moved quicker than their European counterparts to conduct stress tests, recapitalize banks and address problems with non-performing loans. Now, he said, “the broad objective to repair the sector has been completed.”
Incredibly low rates prevail
In Aug. 2007, the U.S. Federal Reserve’s benchmark interest rate that affects credit cards, home equity credit and other consumer loan rates stood at 5.25%. Today, despite four rates hikes since December 2015, the federal funds interest rate is in a meager range of 1% to 1.25%. In the United Kingdom, the rate is a record low 0.25%, down from 5.75% a decade ago. The European Central Bank’s benchmark rate is at zero. It was 4% in 2007. Even rates in high-growth China have come down — to 4.3% from as high as 7.5% in 2007.
These extremely low rates reflect not just the slow global recovery from the Great Recession but extraordinarily low inflation even as growth picks up. Low interest rates have helped those who have mortgages and other debts but has been painful for savers.
Federal Reserve researchers Michael Kiley and John Roberts estimated in a recent paper that a “natural” long-term interest rate is about 3%. The Fed has been reluctant to boost rates rapidly, however, because inflation continues to run well below its target of 2%.
Outlook finally brightens — a bit
Last week, the International Monetary Fund said that the economic outlook for France, Germany, Italy and Spain was brightening. Eurostat, the statistics agency for the 19 countries that use the euro currency, forecast annual eurozone growth to hit 2.1% this year, the fastest pace in a decade. The unemployment rate in Spain, one of the nations hardest hit by the financial crisis, recently saw joblessness fall below 4 million for the first time in eight years.
In the United States, stocks are trading at record levels and July’s jobs report from the Labor Department showed a 16-year low unemployment rate of 4.3%. The Bank for International Settlements, which serves central banks, noted in June that the global economy’s “near-term prospects were the best in a long time.”
That June report also identified several risk factors that could threaten these improved prospects, including a rise in inflation, weaker consumption and investment, and increased trade protectionism.
The recovery is also uneven. In Greece, which is still struggling with crushing debts, unemployment is around 25%. Brazil’s economy contracted 3.6% last year and the country is stuck in its worst recession ever. According to former trader Stenfors, China has an enormous corporate debt load, and in Scandinavia, households are burdened by worrisome levels of consumer loans.
“Regulators have made a lot changes and beefed up their capabilities, central bankers have intervened with all these extraordinary measures, but the economies are not doing that great,” Stenfors said. “Unemployment and GDP in some countries is OK, but overall — if you look at the eurozone, for instance — it’s not been a nice ride the last few years.”