Of the many articles I’ve read about the financial crisis, the following ten have been the most informative. Read them all, and I think you will have a very solid understanding of what is going on.
1) The Financialization of America A broad overview of how 1) insanely profitable Wall St. became in the past two decades and 2) this profitability was due to implicit government subsidization of risk. This includes the “too big to fail policy” and the “Greenspan put”.
2) The Global Pool of Money [MP3] - An hour long podcast from NPR about the selling of subprime mortgages. Hear the story of hustlers, smooth talking sales guys, fast cars, and big money. It’s like something out of a movie.
3) Triple-A Failure: The Ratings Game by Roger Lowenstein of the NYTimes. You may ask, who was buying these securities that were so obviously shoddy? Government regulations mandated that certain investors - mutual funds, insurance companies, pension funds - could only buy bonds rated as investment grade by one of the three official rating agencies - Fitch, Moody’s or S&P. But these rating agencies were for-profit companies that earned more money by giving banks higher ratings. This conflict of interest resulted in systematically underestimating risk.
4) How regulation breeds complex financial products and Why Lax Regulation Did Not Cause the Crisis by Mindles Dreck. The author works in the investment banking industry. He relates how the industry had actually seen a dramatic increase in regulation as a result of Enron and the Patriot Act. But the effect of regulation was not to make finance less risky, but rather regulations encouraged the creation of more complex financial products that outsmarted the regulators and gamed the system.
5) Fannie Mae’s Golden Goose - A Lesson in Moral Hazard - The author, Bill Burnham, has worked as a Wall St analyst, venture capitalist and hedge fund manager. In the mid-90’s he consulted with Fannie Mae for a year. He tells the story of how Fannie Mae abused its implicit government backing to make very risky loans at low interest rates.
6) Commodity Hysteria - An Overview by Nick Szabo, a former programmer, now a law school academic. He explains how the simultaneous rise in price of dozens of diverse commodities is best explained by rising inflation expectations due to the financial crisis. As inflation increases, more people buy ETF’s and commodity index funds. Additionally, producers have no incentive to pump more oil, as oil in the ground is worth more than a dollars in the pocket.
7) Record Central Bank Financing Continues by Brad Setser, an academic economist. Setser notes that foreign central banks are buying up massive amounts of American debt. Foreign countries have deemed the U.S. government too big to fail: “Sometimes I think the US should drop the façade of auctioning off Treasuries and just negotiate private placements with the People’s Bank of China and the Saudi Monetary Agency.”
8) How Stocks are like Baseball Cards by Mark Cuban. Mark Cuban is famous for selling Broadcast.com for billions during the dot com bubble. He explains how the decline of dividends has turned stocks into purely speculative collectibles, rather than ownership shares that earn the investor money.
9) How the Fed lowered the reserve ratio and caused a decade of inflation and asset booms - In 1995 the Federal reserve created special exemptions allowing banks to keep 0% reserves in many cases. This lead to an explosion of the broad money supply, and successive bubbles in the stock market and housing market.
10) Maturity transformation considered harmful: an unauthorized biography of the bank crisis by a semi-retired software engineer who has spent the past two years studying history and economics full-time. He traces the roots of the financial crisis to a fundamental flaw in our banking system that has been around for 300 years. He proposes a solution to fix things up and prevent these crises from ever happening again.