How Capital Markets Transform Financial Flows
Financial capital markets have the power to repackage money as it moves from those who supply financial capital to those who demand it. Banks accept checking account deposits and turn them into long-term loans to companies. Individual firms sell shares of stock and issue bonds to raise capital. Firms make and sell an astonishing array of goods and services, but an investor can receive a return on the company’s decisions by buying stock in that company. Stocks and bonds are sold and resold by financial investors to one another. Venture capitalists and angel investors search for promising small companies. Mutual funds combine the stocks and bonds—and thus, indirectly, the products and investments—of many different companies.
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In this tutorial, we discussed the basic mechanisms of financial markets. (A more advanced course in economics or finance will consider more sophisticated tools.) The fundamentals of those financial capital markets remain the same: Firms are trying to raise financial capital and households are looking for a desirable combination of rate of return, risk, and liquidity. Financial markets are society’s mechanisms for bringing together these forces of demand and supply.
The housing boom and bust in the United States, and the resulting multi-trillion-dollar decline in home equity, started with the fall of home prices starting in 2007. As home values fell, many home prices fell below the amount owed on the mortgage and owners stopped paying and defaulted on their loan. Banks found that their assets (loans) became worthless. Many financial institutions around the world had invested in mortgage-backed securities, or had purchased insurance on mortgage-backed securities. When housing prices collapsed, the value of those financial assets collapsed as well. The asset side of the banks’ balance sheets dropped, causing bank failures and bank runs. Around the globe, financial institutions were bankrupted or nearly so. The result was a large decrease in lending and borrowing, referred to as a freezing up of available credit. When credit dries up, the economy is on its knees. The crisis was not limited to the United States. Iceland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, and Greece all had similar housing boom and bust cycles, and similar credit freezes.
If businesses cannot access financial capital, they cannot make physical capital investments. Those investments ultimately lead to job creation. So when credit dried up, businesses invested less, and they ultimately laid off millions of workers. This caused incomes to drop, which caused demand to drop. In turn businesses sold less, so they laid off more workers. Compounding these events, as economic conditions worsened, financial institutions were even less likely to make loans.
To make matters even worse, as businesses sold less, their expected future profit decreased, and this led to a drop in stock prices. Combining all these effects led to major decreases in incomes, demand, consumption, and employment, and to the Great Recession, which in the United States officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009. During this time, the unemployment rate rose from 5% to a peak of 10.1%. Four years after the recession officially ended, unemployment was still stubbornly high, at 7.6%, and 11.8 million people were still unemployed.
As the world’s leading consumer, if the United States goes into recession, it usually drags other countries down with it. The Great Recession was no exception. With few exceptions, U.S. trading partners also entered into recessions of their own, of varying lengths, or suffered slower economic growth. Like the United States, many European countries also gave direct financial assistance, so-called bailouts, to the institutions that make up their financial markets. There was good reason to do this. Financial markets bridge the gap between demanders and suppliers of financial capital. These institutions and markets need to function in order for an economy to invest in new financial capital.
However, much of this bailout money was borrowed, and this borrowed money contributed to another crisis in Europe. Because of the impact on their budgets of the financial crisis and the resulting bailouts, many countries found themselves with unsustainably high deficits. They chose to undertake austerity measures, large decreases in government spending and large tax increases, in order to reduce their deficits. Greece, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal have all had to undertake relatively severe austerity measures. The ramifications of this crisis have spread; the viability of the euro has even been called into question.