The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on November 5, 2013, during a conference entitled “Dodd-Frank: A Law Like No Other,” co-sponsored by the Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig Von Mises Lecture Series.
This had a disastrous effect on financial institutions. Since 1994, they had been required to use what was called “fair value accounting” in setting the balance sheet value of their assets and liabilities. The most significant element of fair value accounting was the requirement that assets and liabilities be marked-to-market, meaning that the balance sheet value of assets and liabilities was to reflect their current market value instead of their amortized cost or other valuation methods.
Marking-to-market worked effectively as long as there was a market for the assets in question, but it was destructive when the market collapsed in 2007. With buyers pulling away, there were only distress-level prices for private mortgage-backed securities. Although there were alternative ways for assets to be valued in the absence of market prices, auditors—worried about their potential liability if they permitted their clients to overstate assets in the midst of the financial crisis—would not allow the use of these alternatives. Accordingly, financial firms were compelled to write down significant portions of their private mortgage-backed securities assets and take losses that substantially reduced their capital positions and created worrisome declines in earnings. When Lehman Brothers, a major investment bank, declared bankruptcy, a full-scale panic ensued in which financial institutions started to hoard cash. They wouldn’t lend to one another, even overnight, for fear that they would not have immediate cash available when panicky investors or depositors came for it. This radical withdrawal of liquidity from the market was the financial crisis.
Thus, the crisis was not caused by insufficient regulation, let alone by an inherently unstable financial system. It was caused by government housing policies that forced the dominant factors in the trillion dollar housing market— Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—to reduce their underwriting standards. These lax standards then spread to the wider market, creating an enormous bubble and a financial system in which well more than half of all mortgages were subprime or otherwise weak. When the bubble deflated, these mortgages failed in unprecedented numbers, driving down housing values and the values of mortgage- backed securities on the balance sheets of financial institutions. With these institutions looking unstable and possibly insolvent, a full-scale financial panic ensued when Lehman Brothers, a large financial firm, failed.