Financial Crisis for Beginners

We believe that everyone should be able to understand how the financial crisis came about, what it means for all of us, and what our options are for getting out of it. Unfortunately, the vast majority of all writing about the crisis – including this blog – assumes some familiarity with the world of mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and so on. You’ve probably heard dozens of journalists use these terms without explaining what they mean. If you’re confused, this page is for you. Over time, we will be adding more explanations and more links to external sources, so check back for updates. (Some of the explanations on this page are simplified and not 100% accurate; their goal is to explain the key concepts to a general audience.)


Articles on this page

Separate posts

Planet Money collaboration


  • This American Life, The Giant Pool of Money (May 2008; 59 min.): If you don’t understand what happened in the housing and mortgage industries in the last decade, this is absolutely the best (and most fun) place to start.
  • This American Life, Another Frightening Show About the Economy (October 2008, 59 min.): This one aired on October 4-5 (right after the Paulson plan passed). It explains the basics of the commercial paper market and credit default swaps. However, I don’t agree with the last section on the “stock injection plan;” such a plan is not unequivocally better than an asset purchase plan – it depends on the prices paid in both cases.
  • This American Life, Bad Bank (February 2009; 59 min.): Featuring our own Simon Johnson.
  • NPR Planet Money podcast (subscribe to the feed or listen online): This is a daily, online radio show (usually 10-25 min.). I don’t always agree with everything their guests say, but they manage to be informative, accessible, and entertaining all at once.
  • NPR Morning Edition on reverse auctions: The Planet Money people explain what a reverse auction is and how it might work as part of the Treasury plan to buy troubled assets.
  • Planet Money episode on how to track the credit crisis, with Vinny Catalano (his blog is here). Explains Treasury bills, LIBOR, and why they matter.
  • Fresh Air interview with Paul Krugman, 10/21/08. Despite being a Nobel Prize winner and a noted polemicist, Krugman does a great job answering some basic questions clearly for non-economist listeners.
  • Simon Johnson on Planet Money (12/17/08) talking about the Federal Reserve and the Federal funds rate. The segment begins about 2 minutes in.
  • Fresh Air interview with Simon Johnson (3/3/09), mainly talking about the banking crisis and nationalization.


  • Paddy Hirsch of Marketplace has a great explanation of CDOs and secondary CDOs (Oct. 2008; 6 min.). Note that it does presume a little familiarity (but nothing you won’t get from the first episode of This American Life or the explanation below).
  • Khan Academy YouTube videos on math, physics, banking, and the financial crisis.

Other web sites

Securitization, CDOs, and banking capital

(I wrote this in August, in another context, for people without a financial background to explain what was going on. Note that it does not describe what has happened since August, which is that we have a liquidity crisis/crisis of confidence as well.)

Even general news accounts presuppose an understanding of terms like “securitization,” “CDO,” and writedown.” So I thought I would provide my own translation.

Historically local banks took deposits from savings account customers and lent money to homebuyers. They paid 1% for the savings accounts and collected 6% on the mortgages, and the spread (5 percentage points in this case) was more than enough to compensate for any homebuyers who couldn’t pay their mortgages. (The numbers are illustrative only.)

Then, as any explanation of the subprime crisis says, banks started reselling and securitizing mortgages. But what does it mean to resell (let alone securitize) a mortgage?

To understand this, you have to look at it from the bank’s point of view. To them, a mortgage is a product. This product gives them a monthly stream of payments – about $1,000 per month for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage on a loan amount of $150,000 (numbers are very approximate), but that stream is not guaranteed; the homebuyer might not be able to pay (in which case they might have to renegotiate or foreclose, both of which are costly), or might pay the whole thing early. The price they pay for this product (this stream of payments) is just the loan amount; from their perspective, they are “buying” the stream of payments by paying you the loan amount. The lower the interest rate you get, the higher the price they are paying for your payments.

If Bank A resells your mortgage to Bank B, Bank B buys your payment stream from Bank A in exchange for a lump sum of money. Under stable market conditions, the lump sum that B gives A will be about the same as the lump sum you received from A (in which case A only makes money from various fees). You can also think of this as Bank B loaning you the money for your house, with Bank A acting as an intermediary.

Now, in practice, Bank B (or C, or D, …) is often an investment bank. And Bank B often securitizes your mortgage. This means they take your mortgage and combine it with many (thousands of) similar mortgages. If the mortgages are similar according to certain objective criteria – creditworthiness of borrowers, loan-to-value ratios, etc. – they can be treated as homogeneous. (Something similar happened with corn in the 19th century; certain standards were established for different grades of corn, and from that point bushels of corn from different farms didn’t have to be separately shipped and inspected by buyers, but could be poured together into huge vats.) Now you have a pool of, say, 10,000 mortgages, with about $10 million in payments coming in from borrowers every month. That pool as a whole has a price – the amount someone would pay to get all of those payment streams of that riskiness. In a securitization, the investment bank divides the pool up into many small slices – say 1,000 in this case. Each slice can be bought and sold separately, and each slice entitles the buyer to 1/1,000th of the payments streaming into that pool.

The price of these slices is based on current assumptions about the riskiness of those payments – the riskier those payments are perceived to be, the lower the price anyone will pay for a slice of them. The problem is that at the time those mortgages were securitized, the buyers assumed that housing prices could only go up, and therefore the payments were not very risky; when housing prices began to fall, many more borrowers became delinquent than had been expected. As a result, if you own a slice of that pool, you still own 1/1,000th of the payments coming in, but your expectations of how many payments will come in are much lower than they were when you bought the slice.

(A collaterized debt obligation is a securitization where the slices are not created equal. Some slices are entitled to the first payments that come in each month, and hence are the safest; some slices only get the last payments that come in each month, so when people start defaulting, those are the slides that lose money first.)

This brings us to writedowns and, eventually, to the subject of banking capital. Let’s say you are an investment bank and you paid $1 million for a slice of a securities offering (a pool). You put that on your books as an asset (in the world of finance, a stream of payments coming to you is an asset) valued at $1 million. However, a year later, that slice is only worth $200,000 (you know this because other people selling similar slices of similar pools are only getting 20 cents on the dollar). You generally have to mark your holding to market (account for its current market value), which means now that asset is valued at $200,000 on your balance sheet. This is an $800,000 writedown, and it counts as a loss on your income (profit and loss) statement. And that is what has been going on over the last year, to the tune of over $100 billion at publicly traded banks alone.

The next problem is that, over the last two decades, most of our banks have become giant proprietary trading rooms, meaning that they buy and sell securities for profit. Let’s say you start a bank with $10 million of your own money. That’s your “capital.” You go out and borrow $90 million from other people, typically by selling bonds, which are promises to pay back the money at some interest rate. Then you take the $100 million and buy some stuff (like slices of mortgage pools), which pays you a higher interest rate than you are paying on your bonds. Suddenly you are making money hand over fist. But then let’s say that housing prices start falling, securitized subprime mortgages start plummeting in value, and your $100 million in assets are now only worth $80 million. Since the value of your debt ($90 million) hasn’t changed, you are technically insolvent at this point, because your losses exceed your capital; put another way, the money coming in from your slices of mortgage pools isn’t enough to pay your bondholders.

According to some observers, this is where Fannie and Freddie were until they were bailed out by the U.S. government; by certain accounting rules, they had negative capital.

Stock market vs. credit market

There is a discussion in my 10/6/08 post that may be helpful.

Crises of confidence and bank runs

The discussion above describes how a bank can become technically insolvent – that is, their assets become worth less than their liabilities. However, since the Lehman bankruptcy on September 15, the crisis has moved into a new phase. In this phase, financial institutions are facing liquidity runs, or bank runs, whether or not they are solvent. How can this happen?

To understand this, first you have to understand the time dimension of assets and liabilities. A 30-year mortgage, for a bank, is a long-term asset. They will get a mortgage payment every month for 30 years and, most importantly, they can’t call in the loan before then; that is, they can’t demand that the homeowner pay it back. Bank assets have different maturities, or durations, but a lot of them are medium and long term. On the other side, banks have liabilities with different maturities. For example, deposits (savings accounts) can be withdrawn at any time, so their maturity is essentially instant. Banks also issue bonds: in exchange for some money up front, the bank typically has to pay the bondholder (lender) a fixed monthly payment for some period of time, and then pay back the face value at the end of that period. Banks also engage in many more exotic forms of financing, such as repo agreements, where the bank sells a security to a counterparty for $99 and promises to buy it back for $100 some time later.

The general point, though, is that banks tend to borrow short and lend long. In the classic case, the bank takes money from depositors and loans it out as mortgages. The bank may start out with $10 in capital and $90 in deposits. Then it may lend $80 as mortgages, leaving it $20 in cash. This means it has a leverage ratio (assets to capital) of 10, since it has $100 in assets ($80 in mortgages plus $20 in cash) and $10 in capital. It also has $20 in cash for $90 in deposits, which is a high reserve ratio. But do you see the problem? If every depositor tries to withdraw his money at the same time, the bank can’t call in its mortgages, and there won’t be enough cash for everyone. Now why would this happen, since it is unlikely that everyone will need his cash at the same time? It happens if each depositor starts worrying that his or money might not be safe, and that every other depositor will try to withdraw money, then everyone tries to withdraw his money at the same time.

In ordinary times, bank runs don’t happen. First, the FDIC insures all deposit accounts up to $100,000 per account holder, precisely to prevent this kind of panic. However, in a real bank many of the liabilities are not deposit accounts and hence are not insured. Second, banks can ordinarily borrow money “against” their assets; that is, a bank with $100 in good mortgages can borrow almost $100 from another bank – or, under certain conditions, from the Federal Reserve – by pledging those mortgages as collateral. If the bank’s assets are securities – mortgage-backed securities or CDOs, for example – they can also be used to raise short-term money.

These are no ordinary times, however. The fundamental problem is that all players in the financial system have realized that a bank that is solvent (assets > liabilities) can still be subject to a bank run. Once that happens, Bank A doesn’t want to lend money to Bank B for two reasons: first, Bank A wants to hold onto its cash in case it becomes the target of a bank run; and second, Bank A is afraid that Bank B could be the target of a bank run, and hence is afraid that if it lends to Bank B it won’t get its money back. Like all such panics, of course, this becomes self-fulfilling: because banks don’t want to lend, banks can’t get short-term credit, which makes them vulnerable.

This hits home when a bank has to “roll over” its short-term liabilities. Remember, banks borrow short and lend long. So periodically – almost continuously, in fact – banks have to pay off and replace their short-term liabilities (or just agree with the lender to extend the loan another 30 or 90 days). And even though depositors are insured, all the other liabilities are not insured. The bank run happens when none of the short-term lenders want to extend their loans, and no one else is willing to offer a short-term loan.

In short, this is what has been going on during the last few weeks. The key characteristic of such a crisis is that banks can be hit by bank runs – and go bankrupt – even if their assets are worth more than their liabilities. The Fed has vastly expanded the amount of money it is willing to lend to banks and the range of collateral it is willing to take in an effort to provide the short-term funding banks need to fend off bank runs. In the longer term, though, the Fed is a relatively small player combined to the entire market for short-term credit, and the problem will not go away completely until that market is working properly again.

Credit Default Swaps

I’ve had a couple of requests for an explanation of credit default swaps. I’m not sure I can improve on the discussion in the second This American Life episode in our Radio shows section, but I’ll give it a shot.

A credit default swap (CDS) is a form of insurance on a bond or a bond-like security. A bond is an instrument by which companies raise money. A company, say GE, issues a bond with a face value of $100 and a coupon of, say, 6%. This means that if you hold the bond, they will send you $6 per year (6% of $100) until the bond matures (say in 10 years); at they point, they will pay you $100 (the face value). To buy that bond, you pay them about $100. If you pay exactly $100, the yield is 6% ($6 divided by $100). If you pay less, the yield is more than 6%. How much the bond actually sells for depends on how risky you think GE is (the chances that they will go bankrupt and won’t pay you) and on what interest rates you can get for other, similarly-risky bonds in the market. Bond-like securities, like CDOs, are similar in these basic respects.

When you buy a bond, you are taking on two types of risk: (a) interest rate risk and (b) default risk. Interest rate risk is the risk that interest rates in general will go up. If interest rates go up, the value of your bond goes down (bonds are traded in the secondary market), because you are still only getting $6 per year. Default risk is the risk that the bond issuer goes bankrupt and doesn’t pay you back. A CDS is called a “swap” because you are swapping the default risk – but not the interest rate risk – to another party, the insurer. The bond holder pays an insurance premium – typically quoted in basis points, or one-hundredths of a percentage point, per year – to the insurer. In exchange, the insurer promises to pay off the bond if the issuer goes bankrupt and fails to pay it off. At the time the CDS goes into effect, the expected value of the premium payments (a small amount every year) should exactly equal the expected value of the insurance payments (a large amount, but only if the issuer defaults).

This sounds pretty simple, right? So how did CDS become a dirty word? There are two main wrinkles to be aware of.

First, in order to buy a CDS (I call the bondholder in the above example the “buyer,” and the insurer the “seller”), you don’t actually have to own the bond in question. These are over-the-counter derivative contracts, which means they are individually negotiated between buyers and sellers. As a result, CDS became the tool of choice for betting on the likelihood of a company going bankrupt. If you thought the chances of company A going bankrupt were higher than everyone else thought they were, you would buy a CDS on company A. Three months later, when everyone else realized company A was in trouble, the market prices for CDS would have gone up, and you could either sell your CDS to someone else at the higher price, or you could sell a new CDS at the higher price. (In the latter case, you still have your original contract, and you write a new contract with a new buyer.) As a result, there are a lot of CDS out there; estimates are generally around $60 trillion, which means the total face value of the bonds insured is $60 trillion.

Second, CDS are not regulated, and in fact there was a measure inserted into an appropriations bill in December 2000 that blocked any agency from regulating them. Traditional insurance, by contrast, is highly regulated. Insurers have to maintain specific capital levels based on the amount of insurance they have sold; certain percentages of their assets have to be investments of specified quality levels; and, for personal insurance and workers’ compensation at least, private insurance companies are generally backed up by state guarantee funds, which charge a percentage of all insurance premiums and, in exchange, pay off claims for bankrupt insurers. The CDS market had none of that, so a bank could sell as many CDS as it wanted and invest the money in anything it wanted.

So, 2008 rolled around, and bonds started going bad. There were CDS not just for traditional corporate debt, but also for mortgage-backed securities, CDOs, and secondary CDOs. During the boom, when everyone was optimistic, CDS for these exotic products were cheap; when they started failing, the price of CDS shot up, and anyone who had sold these swaps was looking at losses on them. So CDS were one way that losses on subprime mortgages triggered writedowns at other financial institutions. This only got worse as banks, such as Bear Stearns and Lehman, started failing, and people who had sold CDS on their debt faced even larger losses. So the most basic problem with CDS is that the insurers selling them (and many of the companies selling them were not insurance companies) sold them at excessively low prices, and now they are facing major losses.

Second, you have the risk that the insurance companies won’t be able to pay. If a financial institution – say, AIG – sold a lot of CDS based on the debt of a particular company – say, Lehman – there is a risk that it won’t be able to honor all of those swap contracts. In that case, their counterparties – other banks – may be looking at losses they thought they were insured against. If Bank B bought a CDS from Bank C on the debt of Company X, and Company X defaults, Bank B thinks it has a payment coming to it from Bank C; but if Bank C doesn’t have the cash, Bank B won’t get its payment. Even worse, let’s say Bank B bought a CDS from Bank C, and then sold a different one to Bank A. Bank B thinks it is perfectly hedged, and Bank A thinks it has a payment coming. But if Bank C can’t pay out, Bank B may not be able to pay Bank A – and these chains can go on and on and on. So CDS are one of the things that create uncertainty in the banking sector; a bank may look healthy, but it may be counting on CDS payouts from other banks that you can’t see, so you can’t be sure it’s healthy, so you won’t lend to it.

The cumulative effect of CDS is to spread risk, which sounds good, but to spread risk in unpredictable and invisible ways. One of the major reasons why the government refused to let AIG fail – one day after letting Lehman fail – was that AIG was a large net seller of CDS, and if it had defaulted on those swaps no one could predict what the implications would be for the rest of the financial sector. At this point in the financial crisis, it would be a mistake to blame the whole thing on CDS, but they have had the effect of amplifying and spreading uncertainty in ways that have reduced confidence in the financial sector.

Bank recapitalization

If you read the section on securitization above, you know a little bit about what a bank balance sheet looks like. There are assets (things you have that are worth money and that you theoretically could sell for cash) and liabilities (money you owe other people), and hopefully your assets are more than your liabilities. The difference is your “stockholder’s equity.” So your assets equal your liabilities plus your equity.

Think about it this way: in order to buy assets (or loan money, which creates assets), a bank needs to get cash from somewhere. It has two ways of raising cash. First, it can borrow money and promise to pay it back: those are liabilities. Second, it can sell ownership shares in itself. If you buy those shares, the bank does not say it will give you your money back; it says that you are entitled to some percentage of the bank as a whole. This is what it means to own stock in a company.

If times are good, the assets grow in value while the liabilities stay constant, so stockholder’s equity goes up. Roughly speaking, this means that if the bank sold all its assets and paid off all its liabilities, there would be more money left for the stockholders than they put in. Of course, if times are bad, stockholder’s equity goes down. If it goes down too far, assets are not much more than liabilities, and the bank risks becoming insolvent.

In this case, raising more money through loans (liabilities) does not really help, because it just increases the leverage ratio. (If I have $100 in assets and I owe $99, then borrowing $10 just means I have $110 in assets and I owe $109.) Instead, banks need to increase their stockholder’s equity by selling more shares in themselves. This is a recapitalization. To simplify things a little, this means that they sell more ownership shares in themselves in exchange for cash; that cash makes stockholder’s capital go up, and the bank has more cash, yet it doesn’t have more debts. The downside is that the current shareholders have been diluted. If a bank has $5 billion in stockholder’s equity and it raises $5 billion by selling shares, the old shareholders now only own half of the bank, which may make them unhappy.

The above is a simple example. In practice, new capital is usually added in the form of preferred shares, which are somewhere between ordinary (common) stock and debt, but closer to stock. Preferred shares often pay a dividend, like a bond, meaning that the new investor gets a fixed amount of money each year; preferred shares also often are convertible to common stock under some terms, meaning that the investor can trade them in for common stock (if the common stock increases in value, you would want to do this). But if the bank goes bankrupt, preferred shareholders get their money back only after the bondholders, so preferred stock is a good deal more risky (for the investor) than bonds. Conversely, if a bank raises money by selling preferred stock, lenders will consider the bank safer (because it has more cash) and will be more likely to lend to it. In all the recapitalizations you are seeing these days, whether the investor is Warren Buffett, Mitsubishi UFJ, the UK government, or the US government, you will see some version of this structure.

Where did all the money go?

This is a fairly common question. If banks are taking losses by writing down hundreds of billions of dollars, is someone else gaining hundreds of billions of dollars? Or is money just vanishing? Planet Money took a stab at this with Satyajit Das, but I thought I could help clarify it with a simple example.

Let’s say the economy has just three people: Developer Danny, Homebuyer Harry, and Banker Bonnie. At time zero, Developer Danny has $200,000, Homebuyer Harry has $40,000, and Banker Bonnie has $360,000, so there is a total of $600,000 in the world. Developer Danny sees that the housing market is hot, so he spends his $200,000 buying land and building a house that has a market price of $400,000. He then sells the house to Homebuyer Harry. Harry makes a 10% down payment of $40,000 and borrows $360,000 from Banker Bonnie.

Now, in time one, Danny has $400,000 in his pocket, up from $200,000. He has that $200,000 profit because he has created that much value – he took stuff that was only worth $200,000 and he made it worth $400,000. Good for him. Harry has a $400,000 house and a $360,000 mortgage, so his net worth is $40,000; Bonnie has a $360,000 mortgage asset. There are $800,000 in the world now, thanks to Danny. Danny has $400,000 he can use to build more houses or buy expensive sports cars; Harry can get a home equity loan to renovate his kitchen, because he has positive equity; and Bonnie can get more loans against her $360,000 asset.

Then, in time two, housing prices crash, so the house is only worth $300,000. Let’s say Harry had an Option ARM mortgage and he can’t make his payments, so Bonnie forecloses on him. Now Harry has nothing; Bonnie has a house that is only worth $300,000; and Danny still has $400,000. There are only $700,000 in the world. Harry can’t spend money, because he doesn’t have any; even after Bonnie resells the house, she doesn’t have as much lending capacity as she used to. (Even if Harry did make his payments, Bonnie’s mortgage would still be worth $360,000 to her, but Harry would have negative equity for a long time, so there would still only be $700,000 in the world.)

What happened? The fact that housing prices went up meant that there was more money. (Imagine the house already existed, and someone bought it for $200,000 and later sold it for $400,000.) But there wasn’t actually more stuff – as the price goes up or down, a house is still a house. As prices come down, there is less money to go around. What makes it particularly painful is the phenomenon of leverage. Because people, and banks, are able to borrow considerably more than their net worth, falls in asset prices are magnified. This can create a vicious cycle. For a highly leveraged financial institution, losses in one asset category can force you to raise cash by selling other assets, causing their prices to go down. For a homeowner, if you hadn’t borrowed money, the fall in the value of your home wouldn’t necessarily affect your consumption. But if your consumption is based on your ability to borrow, then a small fall in your house’s value can cause a large drop in your discretionary income.

There are many variations of my little example – for example, imagine that Bonnie sold half of the mortgage to Hedge Fund Helen; or imagine that Danny invested his money in Hedge Fund Helen, so he gets hurt, too – but I think this demonstrates the basic principle.

Note: I stopped adding new Beginners articles to this page and started adding them as new posts. Links to these posts are available at the top of this page, or you can find them by clicking on the Classroom category to the right.

301 thoughts on “Financial Crisis for Beginners

  1. Just happened to catch Simon Johnson on a panel discussion over the weekend on C-Span–the guy’s brilliant! Saw him this morning on C-Span and he’s the only person out there that’s able to explain this mess we’re in accurately! I was delighted to hear about the Blog and will stay tuned (daily)!!!

    Thank you for putting this together and for ALL the continued hard work that so many have done to make this available to the public! I WILL be telling everyone I know to find this site and READ IT!!!!

    Kindest Regards,
    Allyson Roebuck
    Birmingham, AL

  2. Awesome page!

    I also heard of this page on C-SPAN this morning, unfortunately i missed all but the last few minutes of Simon Johnson.

    thanks for taking the time to explain this to us lay folk. until now i really had no clue what going on with the “financial crisis,” this really helps make sense of it.

  3. I likewise saw Simon Johnson this morning and appreciate his ability to explain these complicated issues. I would however like to hear his comments on how the labor market will affect our economic destiny given that we have chased our manufacturing base out of this country via political trades, environmental regulations, insurance and tax requirements and now rely on China alone for up to forty percent of our consumables.

    L. Shull
    South Carolina

  4. I was very impressed with Simon Johnson when I saw him on C-Span (one of the panel members) participating in a discussion at The Brookings Institute.

    Tuning in to C-Span today, I was glad to hear of this site from Simon. For those of us without a financial background, it is an excellent place for clear and concise information regarding the current financial situation.

    Thank you for making this available to the general public!! Thank you C-Span for your terrific programming!! I too will be sharing this site with everyone I know.

  5. I cannot thank you enough for making a feared subject understandable. I am printing your lessons to give to friends and my high school and college age grandchildren and am certain they will make the future much easier for them.

  6. I saw Simon Johnson on C-Span this morning. I too cannot thank him enough for this site!

    S. Frazier
    Chicago, IL

  7. Hi

    Two days back,Fed did announce pumping $300bln. If it is this easy for Fed to pump in money, why go through Treasury route. I understand that Banks have reserve commitments to Fed which allows Fed to be flexible on pumping money as well as playing with the interest rate for allowing banks to borrow additional money.
    With the above said, I don’t seem to get a clear understanding as to how much Fed can pump in and if it has this flexibility, why did Treasury come into picture for the bail out ?

    Appreciate your help to clarify on the basic question.


  8. Simon Johnson on C-span (heard him on radio Tuesday morning) can connect and clarify the “dots” as well as anyone I’ve heard. This kind of precise analysis is required for everyone. It can mitigate fear and also create political/intellectual will needed to solve problems concerning future market insecurities and responsibilities.

  9. I’m another who saw Simon Johnson on C-span. I enjoyed his comments and found them very enlightening. Almost 50 years ago I got a MBA in finance and banking but left the field to practice law. What a delight it would be to have Simon as a professor. Thank you so much for the website and I’m circulating the address to all my friends.

  10. It would be great if you could post a thorough explanation of credit default swaps, including the thinking behind selling insurance products to people who didn’t own the insured asset (ie., providing a purely speculative, risk-amplifying vehicle rather than a hedge-based, risk-reducing insurance vehicle). This is what apparently has created/maginfied the disaster. Maybe the answer is “because they could, and there was no one there to stop them, and they got filthy rich doing it.” I understand that the head of the small financial products division at AIG that sold these things made a quarter of a billion dollars in compensation over a few years and continues to draw a million-dollar-a-month consulting fee.

  11. Thanks for the explanation on bank runs and how asset vs liability issue has caused to the current problem. To paint an analogy, if i consider a bank as a corporate company, is it like saying that they don’t generate enough cash flow to satisfy their current liabilities even though their hard own assets like real estate, long term investments etc are still available, but cannot be liquidated fast enough ?

  12. Babu, that’s a reasonably close analogy. Say you have an ordinary (non-financial) company with no long-term debt. In ordinary times it has illiquid assets (like factories) and it has a lot of short-term obligations (like payroll – by the end of the month, when your employees have worked for you all month, that is an obligation). It meets those short-term obligations from operating cash flow, or from short-term borrowing (like commercial paper).

    A bank has illiquid assets and short-term obligations. The difference is that a bank is never able to meet its short-term obligations solely from operating cash flow. Instead, it counts on two things: (a) all depositors will not take out their money at the same time; and (b) whenever it has a batch of short-term loans to pay off, it can replace them with new short-term loans. Ordinarily this is no problem, because bank assets are relatively easy to borrow against, so there is no need to actually liquidate them. Today’s problem is that no one wants to lend money with those assets as collateral.

    Many “real” companies are actually somewhere in between these two models. Non-financial companies do take on a lot of debt (by issuing bonds) and periodically they do have to replace those bonds, which they can’t do just using operating cash flow. In that sense they are in a similar situation to the banks.

  13. I understand CDS but I would be interested in data on which firms have them and what their levels of exposure actually are (e.g., assuming worst case scenarios such as that every hedge is defective due to counterparty risk). Perhaps it is all “invisible” so no one knows. But some data is out there – e.g., that the total level of CDS outstanding is $60T, or that AIG was a larger net seller of CDS than Lehman. Where is the information coming from and how can I get more?

  14. Finally, someone who can explain this complex problem we’re facing in relatively easy-to-understand terms! I will definitely be giving out this link as it sums up the situation bettern than I am able.

  15. OK, I’m starting to get some of it…but why are banks still paying such low rates to depositors to attract capital? If my money was all earning only 0.35% (as is one small savings account), I’d be encouraged to take it out and simply hold it in my mattress and consider the 0.35% as cheap insurance for quick and easy access.

    Conversely, some internet-based FDIC insured banks are paying 3% and higher. I also just opened a 5.5% CD for 55 months at a NCUA-insured Credit Union.

    It seems to me that the banks would be all paying similar rates…and that those rates would be much higher than they are. Can someone explain the disparity???

  16. My guess is that banks pay low rates because they can get away with it. Many people do not shop around aggressively for higher deposit rates. They put their extra cash at the bank near their house, or at the bank they’ve always used, or the one where they got their mortgage, or the one where they got a toaster for free. Bank accounts are somewhat sticky – especially checking accounts – because of direct deposit and direct debit.

    There are people who shop around, of course. I am one of them, and I follow the Bank Deals blog ( to see where the highest rates are. So I suspect this is just a case of market segmentation – some banks offer high rates to pick off the switchers, others offer low rates to pick up the rest. Most people are not switchers, so most banks offer low rates.

    As an aside, often the banks offering the highest CD rates are the ones in the biggest trouble (they need the cash, so they offer the high rates). IndyMac was offering high rates before they failed, and Wachovia was offering high rates before they failed/were acquired/however we want to describe what happened.

  17. I’m not aware of a centralized source of good CDS data. (You can get prices on Bloomberg, but Rich above is interesting in finding out who owns what.) Most of the numbers I know I pick up from the news or from emails that trickle through to me. If any other readers know good sources, please let us all know.

  18. Thanks for the info James. I still think the rates should rise if they are as cash-starved as they claim.

    One more aside: What happens to my 5yr, 6% CD if the institution fails? I know to keep within FDIC/NCUA limits, but when they close the institution and send my account to a new institution, will they be required to continue to honor the rate and time of my CD…or do they get to, in essence, “call” it and convert it to a nothing account? Thanks…

  19. I’m not certain if they have to honor the terms of the CD. Certainly you will get interest up to the day of the bank failure. However, in practice I think it is highly likely that the bank (either your bank, under the direction of the FDIC, or the acquiring bank) will honor the terms, for the basic reason that the value of the bank is largely based on its customer relationships. My CD at IndyMac was continued with no change.

  20. Thank you for your explaining about the recapitalizations.
    I would like to refer you to ” Energy Conservation Concept” included in points(M & N)of my manuscript of ” Executive methods for solving of the problem”
    as follows:

    Point M) To apply physic’s conservation laws and equilibrium theory for solving of the problems.

    Point N) Look at the problem from different angles, directions and states so that we should be able to change our views 180 degree against our first approach without any fanaticism, it means a flexibility in our analyzes. It can be caused appearance of innovation and creative power.


  21. Concerning CDS you said that “estimates are generally around $60 trillion, which means the total face value of the bonds insured is $60 trillion.” But I thought that many of the CDS contracts are bought by people who don’t own the bonds but are betting that the bond issuer will fail. The so called “naked contracts”. So wouldn’t the total face value of the bonds be much less than $60 trillion? Can you explain? Thanks.

  22. You are correct that many of the people buying CDS don’t own the underlying bonds. That $60 trillion number is “as if” all those people owned the bonds. There are fewer than $60 trillion of bonds that are the basis for CDS. But as far as the CDS are concerned, the fact that the bonds may not exist is irrelevant.

  23. It seems to me that CDS’s were a good way for these financial institutions to avoid marking to market their securitized mortgage assets (and other things as well). How come the Feds haven’t called for a full disclosure of these counterparty risk agreements so they know exactly what they’re dealing with and the size of the problem? Are they afraid of what they’ll find? It seems to me that waiting for the contracts to fail is NOT the best way to assess the situation.

  24. All of you have done an excellent job explaining what happened and why.
    I feel it all happened because in our endeavour for faster growth and even faster money, we all forgot the basic tenet “First Save,then Spend”.
    In the past maybe thirty years new theories propagating spending,spending and spending have been taught and imbibed into the psyche of the ordinary citizen.
    Reversing this thinking may take time.But this is probably the only solution (of course on a very long term)
    Please HELP to ensure that such problems do not occur in future

  25. For anyone having trouble getting financed through this banking crisis, there will be a small business workshop on Wednesday, November 19th at 7:00 p.m. at Dave and Buster’s restaurant in Homestead, PA. Business Builders is hosting the event and is providing free appetizers for those attending. The workshop will cover a range of topics, including how to identify the perfect client and apply for small business loans and get approved. Not only that, you’ll have the opportunity to share ideas with other local business people.

    For more information about this and other business seminars, call Derek Banas at 412-848-3229 or log on to and click “Free Seminars.”

  26. Hi,

    Just a quick correction on the simple “$600 world” scenario at the top of the page. Answer to the question “where did all the money go” is not correct. “Money” (think of dollars, not land or house value) did not change in the scenario. Developer Dan gave $200k to some land owner and housing parts supplier. That $200k is still in the world. So at time 2, there is $600k in the world not $700k. Actual dollars do not change. Asset values can go up and down, though as illustrated. So when someone asks the question “where did all the money go?” be careful to define “money”. True money, or cash, doesn’t go anywhere, just shifts from pocket to pocket.

  27. the possibility you americans have for deducting the nominal interest from your annual income (up to 1 million dolar in debt) push the householder for refinancing their houses more and more while spending the NEW money on consumption without control…

    this is because some law approve in 1913 gave you that taxes exemption… put those amounts in a 30 year loan and you can see what will happend…

    without a change in that law new bublles will come.

    lets see

  28. A very lucid explanation of the current financial turmoil around the world. I’m glad that Professor Johnson started this blog. Although I’m new to this blog, I found many answers to which I had been craving for months.
    Here’s small part of my story. It was the Fall of 2003 when I was a freshmen at college in VA. My uncle and aunt were thinking of buying their house finding out that it is a profit if you buy now. After their first purchase, it followed that their friends had started purchasing houses in the same mentality. Some had 2 houses while others have more than a couple. At that point, I thought for a while that, humm.. is housing really a means of ‘making money’? My aunt even encouraged me to be a co-owner of the house, but I never entered into that. I knew that it will burst just like the recent dotcom but didn’t know when. Lately, I found out that those people have all either defaulted their home mortgages or foreclosed their homes. What went wrong to that hype?? Yet it looked so promising during that time is completely a debacle.

  29. Justin: You’re right; it depends on your definition of “money.” Money is certainly not the same thing as cash. If that were the case, then your checking account would not be money, because your bank doesn’t have enough cash to cash out you and all its other depositors at the same time. This can be a complicated topic, but for the purposes of my example it’s probably more accurate to use the term “wealth” instead of “money.”

  30. This is another response to Brad (I know the question was a while ago). Banks offer low rates on deposits because they use the difference between what they pay on deposits vs. collect on loans (plus fees, etc) to pay for all their operational expenses and in essence post their net profits. Banks that essentially “buy” money by offering higher rates on deposits can easily run into issues if they are also offering low loan rates. This eats into their bottom line and can scare shareholders causing further drops in equity, increased leverage, etc.

    Credit Unions typically can offer higher deposit rates and lower loan rates because their shareholders are their members, so whether their profit is $5 or $5MM, it won’t change the basis of their equity, which is, in essence, fixed at the price of membership multiplied the number of members.

    In order to please the shareholder/members of a credit union, you give them good rates. But for the shareholders of a bank, you give them good profits.

  31. Please reconsider the example given in the third paragraph under “Crisis of confidence and bank runs.” Receiving a deposit of $100 and loaning $80 does not create capital of $20. It merely changes the asset composition from $100 of cash (received via the deposit) to $20 of cash and $80 of loan.

  32. In continuation to Maddy’s example and relating to Justin’s explanation of “true money”, it tends to make me believe that the money was actually distributed back into the economy when say, either the developer danny spent his extra cash or gave it to the land owners and suppliers who in turn went ahead and spent it elsewhere. This implies that the money is circulating in the economy but its just not with the banks that either hedged on those mortgages or sold CDS on those. The only reason the rest of the economy is coming to a halt is because these banks are not lending to anyone let alone each other as they should, being the “source” of money for all businesses, small to big, and hence prompting the government to pump in money. James, can you correct me if I am wrong?

  33. Depression Depression Depression aaaaaaaa
    HEEEEELP :( :( :(
    I hate winter! I want summer!

  34. Walter: Thanks for catching that. I can’t believe I made that mistake. That comes from writing fast and not re-reading.

  35. Somesh: The fact that banks are not lending certainly doesn’t help, but it isn’t the whole problem. With housing values falling, you would be bound to see some reduction in consumer spending; the classic example is the homeowner who can’t get a home equity loan to remodel his kitchen. Falling stock prices have the same effect. There is also the possibility that Americans woke up and decided they had too much debt; while I don’t buy the idea that this was inevitable, or it was inevitable at this moment, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Because all of these effects compound each other, it’s hard to identify a single moving cause.

  36. I’m not certain, but I don’t see any reason why anything here would not apply to the UK, with the exception of the post on the Federal Reserve.

  37. Is there any information anywhere that can detail the various responses to the sub prime crisis that have been made by policymakers around the world? Or even what should be done in response to those reasons that have caused it?

  38. Thinking out loud about the bailout and uncertainty of credit default swaps…

    I’m not a lawyer or an economist, but after this weeks 20 billion injection in AIG and the US government acting as a backstop on up to $306 billion of the bank’s troubled assets, I was wondering has anyone ever consider the round about way to regulate the betting in CDS contracts bought by a party that does not have skin in the game by imposing a 100% tax on the proceeds. Seems to me since US congress has the power to create tax laws, why not use that existing ability to target CDS profits kinda like a laser guided smart bomb?

    I figure a change in tax rules would not render the CDS null and void, but it would make the effective payout zero by any third party speculating on a bank, financial institution or auto company. Wouldn’t removing the uncertainty were removed about CDS contracts held by third parties, this would help lubricate the credit markets, and thus halt the downward spiral of the real economy.

    I’ve been listening to some of your comentary on NPR, and was hoping ya might answer if this CDS solution is a valid idea in future segment of econonomist houscalls.

  39. Ben Balanag: I don’t think that nullifying CDS contracts, one way or another, is a good idea. See this comment I wrote on another post:

  40. I very much love summer :)
    Someone very much loves winter :(
    I Wish to know whom more :)
    For what you love winter?
    For what you love summer? Let’s argue :)

  41. As one who likes to consider himself accountable for ones own actions, I find it amazing that in all the media discussion and on this site purported to ‘explain’ the crisis there is no discussion of the macroeconomic conditions that put this in motion. One would think the crisis began with the financial collapse this summer. Somewhat like the view that late stage cancer started with the diagnosis.

    If one is to understand and prevent this in the future it must first be diagnosed properly. Certainly the collapse highlighted greed and incompetence, but the bets that collapsed were based on beliefs that US consumers would continue to pay their mounting debts (based on ever increasing housing prices). Kind of like the logic that internet firm stocks can justify stratosperic prices even if they don’t now and will not have in the forseable future any profits.

    The real beginning of this mess began in the early 90’s when US consumer spending declined from a steady 8-9% of disposable income and consumer debt rose dramatically to ~130% of disposible income. For close to 20 years most American consumers have been living $100,000 lifestyles on $60,000 incomes. This was encouraged by everyone from our politicians (even the very ones now proclaiming surprise that this could happen) who consistently encourage the Fannies to loan money to those who can’t afford it, to the firms who profited from the ~20 years or deficit spending.

    Without understanding fundamentals like this one can’t clearly see the path forward. Calls for lending to get back to where it was ignores the fact the average american consumer is already overburdened with debt. Hopes that a bailout of auto-industry and their union employees whose compensation is 50%+ more than the average american ignore the fundamental cost disadvantage they have vs their counterparts. Japanese companies have made cars (and money) in the US for over 25 years. Providing money to the US automakers now will only delay the inevitable and provide taxpayer support to private equity firms (who are prudent enough not to invest more in their progeny) and the unions (who democrats are beholding to). The Detroit titans will be back at the trough because they have fundamentally unsound cost structures and legacy costs. Their unions (seeing the writing on the wall) are hoping they can get the US public (who is on average paid much less well) will bail them out of their imprudent deals obtained through collusion with auto management (i.e., I’ll demand less in pay now for the promise of unrealistic riches in the future). Politicians understand this logic as they are forever ignoring fixing Social Security or other problems so as to be able to promise new goodies to constituents now (witness the promises many public sector unions have wrangled from them for future benefits. New York City won’t be the only one struggling to pay for these and basic services in the coming years.).

    To some degree bailouts might be necessary to stabilize a financial system or ‘cushion the transition’ to a less materialistic US lifestyle, but unless one recognizes the US consumer debt burden and diagnoses the problem appropriately the proper plans and actions will never be taken. A focus on the financial market excesses is very appropriate, but while it might be the visible factor that precipitated our problem, it is the American consumer and their politicians desire to live beyond their means that is the fundamental trigger of all this.

  42. A million (or should I say a trillion) thanks for publishing the web site and the 2 web casts, I´m learning a lot and they are very interesting. Thank God you´re speaking to the US government, I just hope they are listening!

  43. What is the logic behind $700 billions? Why not $800 or $600 billions? I haven’t seen any news on how this figure was arrived. Only thing I heard was that ‘it (bailout package) has to be big’.

  44. You mention that the estimates as to CDS are generally around $60 trillion and CDS is what has amplified the current problem. In such a scenario, $700 billion as a bailout package appears to be ridiculously insufficient – even considering that it did not let AIG to fail: afterall the US Govt. is the majority stakeholder in AIG now and thereby the owner of the CDS problems too! Is the US government being overly optimistic in its assesment of the problem?

  45. Subbu: Those are sort of apples and oranges. $60 trillion is the estimated face value of the CDS outstanding, meaning that if every single insured bond defaulted, $60 trillion would have to change hands. But, assuming that every insurer had enough cash to settle, there would be no net loss of money; CDS settlement is a zero-sum game. The problem with CDS is that if some of the insurers don’t have enough cash on hand, that creates counterparty risk, and uncertainty, and fear. $700 billion is new capital for financial institutions to try to remove the fear of them running out of money.

    That said, those institutions can take losses on many things other than CDS, and many of those things are not zero-sum. For example, when mortgage-backed securities fall in value, everyone holding them loses money, and may need new capital to compensate. So the real question is whether $700 billion is enough relative to the cumulative asset writedowns being taken by banks. My guess is no, but it is the right order of magnitude.

  46. >>when housing prices began to fall, many more borrowers became delinquent than had been expected.<<

    I have read a version of this many many times, but don’t entirely understand. There is no necessary relationship between the decline in prices and delinquency, is there? Individuals’ cash flows/incomes didn’t change because their houses’ values dropped, so theoretically they could have just kept paying their mortgage (although with great bitterness), right? So what is the relationship between falling prices and delinquency? Is it that the buyers thought they could sell the house for a good profit before their rates adjusted upward, or before their inability to pay at the current rate caught up with them? Thank you! Fantastic site!

  47. ricky: The link is that many borrowers probably didn’t expect to be able to pay the mortgages out of their current income, especially when the adjustable rates reset upward; or, at least, the lenders didn’t expect them to be able to pay. The assumption was that housing prices would keep going up, which gives the borrower two options: (1) sell the house to pay off the mortgage and pocket a small profit; or (2) refinance when the interest rate resets. When housing prices go down instead of up, both of those become impossible.

  48. I had an ex employee ask me for a loan so he could buy a house. The loan brokers were prepared to give him a loan that was greater than his monthly pay check. Q:”Francisco – how in the world will you pay” A: “We plan to stop paying our other bills for a few months and the house will go up so much that we will be able to refinance or sell it!” I sat him and his wife down, explained the facts of life. Their eyes got bigger and bigger. Q: “So you don’t recommend ..? ”
    The problem is that many people who were not sophisticated enough to understand what they were doing trusted their real estate salespeople and the loan brokers who backed them up.
    Listen to the This American Life radio show from a year ago (listed at top of the article). It’s an eye opener.

  49. можно ли похудеть если постоянно втягивать животюлия началова диета веспилюлидля похудения золотой лотоскарнитин похудетькак похудеть на 3 кг за 2 неделидиета при дискинизии желчновыводящих путей10 дневная диета для похуданиясамая вкусная диета для похудениякак быстро похудеть по рекомендации маргариты королевойдиета во время беременности после беременностипластыри от курения и похудениябьянка похуделакак быстро похудеть в лицекремлёвская диета диета аткинса таблица продуктовкак правельно питаться что бы быстро похудетьприкольные стихи про диетудиета рост 168 вес 60правильное питание перед тренировкойдиета аткинса углеводность продуктовстудия-центр похудения шеметова аллы владимировны

  50. There is ONLY ONE WAY for the American people to solve their $$$ crisis:
    By a sovereign act of Congress, DECLARE WAR on the Federal Reserve Bandits and outlaw their system.
    The Federal Reserve (a group of private bankers) has continually been given the right to print US $$$. Then the American people, through their elected government, has been borrowing said $$$ at crippling interest rates. Simply put, this is ‘banditry’.
    Why did the US government not originally have US government print said $$$ at no interest rate to the people? This unnecessary paying of interest to the private sector has accumulated to a totally unmanageable level. SOLUTION: Ban the bandits and simply write off the accrued debt plus interest as an act of war. War, not on any sovereign nation, but War on the private bankers that seduced USA when they set up that evil system so many years ago.
    The Federal Reserve was set up as a tap (of interest) to siphon off the wealth of the American people into the coffers of the so-called elitists who owned the banks behind the Federal Reserve.

  51. America is controlled by the 3 privately owned states (district of columbia, the city of london, and the vatican.) Each has it’s own flag, pays no taxes and has it’s own laws.

    All 3 are part of an interlocking “ONE” called “City Of The Empire” Or “Black Sun”.

    When you pay taxes it goes to The Bank Of London and straight to the vatican. These 3 privately owned tiny nation states are owned by 13 families that rule the entire planet militarily, financially, and spiritually. Without a doubt.

    They control the markets, the religions, the media, and they rob you of your wealth. Wake up.

  52. I think people are starting to realize how important being financially prepared and aware is. I’ve been studying up on different ways to be safe and wrote a blog post with several good books I’d found @ Thanks for the info!

  53. Thank you for your assistance with this tutorial section and with the other sections of Baseline. As a sideline, but in the tutorial mode, would you be willing to write a blog entry or a section here that reacts to a recent paper by Alpert, Hockett, and Roubini entitled The Way Forward?

    It seems to be written with a perspective and appeal to the general reader that fits with Baseline’s point of view, but if I’m wrong, I’d like to know.

  54. In your section on bank recapitalization, it seems that you have not addressed the potential balance sheet impacts of raising fees, borrowing money at the discount window at near-0% interest rates, or trading on the “house account”, all of which have been hugely, well, impactful, lately .

  55. It’s perfect time to make a few plans for the long run and it is time to be happy. I have learn this submit and if I may just I want to counsel you few interesting things or tips. Perhaps you could write next articles relating to this article. I want to learn even more issues approximately it!

  56. I’m now not certain the place you’re getting your info, but great topic. I must spend some time studying more or working out more. Thanks for great info I used to be looking for this info for my mission.

  57. Somebody essentially lend a hand to make seriously posts I might state. This is the very first time I frequented your website page and thus far? I surprised with the analysis you made to make this particular publish extraordinary. Wonderful task!

  58. Thanks for any other informative blog. The place else may just I get that type of information written in such a perfect way? I’ve a mission that I’m simply now operating on, and I have been on the look out for such information.

  59. Thanks for helping me make heads an tails out of this whole situation. It’s been pretty tough dealing with and figuring it all out -lol- you’ve totally helped.

  60. Global Debt Crisis

    The greatest private fraud of human history.
    Who are the great fraudsters who are becoming the murderers of the human kind? How does the economy “illness” threaten Democracy and the freedom of people?
    By knowing what happened in indebted Greece, where loan sharks created “bubbles” and the current inhuman debt, one can understand the inhuman plan in total …understand where this plan started just to bring all states at the same end …understand how this type of plans are established…


  61. Thanks so much Mr. Johnson. We really need your help to get people “literate” on this situation!

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  72. I am interested in everyone’s professional and unbiased interpretation of Schumpeter’s definition of creative destruction and its correct usage. While, many people seem to use the term to mean deficient risk analysis, I’ve interpreted Schumpeter’s definition to mean (my paraphrase) the creation of a “ new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization.” (Schumpeter, 1942) As I have interpreted, it is a force in capitalistic society where one “innovation”, service, business, or technology, is destroyed and a new innovation, service, business, and technology emerges that meets the external pressures that facilitate it.
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  73. I saw this recently and felt it echoed some of the sentiments here. Interesting 3-min film that pays homage to gangster movies but shows the financial crisis and its causes. Fun way to learn. Thoughts??

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  79. Hi – I have a problem understanding the segment “Where did all the money go” – if you include the original landowner, who is paid 200.000 in all the timepoints, the total sum of money stays at 600.000 at all time points. So the real winner of the example (and of the crisis) would be the people who sold with large profits during the high conjuncture..

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