THE subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 is, in fact, a credit crisis — a worldwide disruption in lending and borrowing. It is only the latest in a long succession of such disturbances. Who’s to blame? The human race, first and foremost. Well-intended public policy, second. And Wall Street, third — if only for taking what generations of policy makers have so unwisely handed it.
Possibly, one lender and one borrower could do business together without harm to themselves or to the economy around them. But masses of lenders and borrowers invariably seem to come to grief, as they have today — not only in mortgages but also in a variety of other debt instruments. First, they overdo it until the signs of excess become too obvious to ignore. Then, with contrite and fearful hearts, they proceed to underdo it. Such is the “credit cycle,” the eternal migration of lenders and borrowers between the extreme points of accommodation and stringency.
Significantly, such cycles have occurred in every institutional, monetary and regulatory setting. No need for a central bank, or for newfangled mortgage securities, or for the proliferation of hedge funds to foment a panic — there have been plenty of dislocations without any of the modern-day improvements.
Late in the 1880s, long before the institution of the Federal Reserve, Eastern savers and Western borrowers teamed up to inflate the value of cropland in the Great Plains. Gimmicky mortgages — pay interest and only interest for the first two years! — and loose talk of a new era in rainfall beguiled the borrowers. High yields on Western mortgages enticed the lenders. But the climate of Kansas and Nebraska reverted to parched, and the drought-stricken debtors trudged back East or to the West Coast in wagons emblazoned, “In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted.” To the creditors went the farms.
Grant writes the excellent “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer“.