Dr Shane Oliver, Head of Investment Strategy and Economics and Chief Economist
24 August 2017
What drove the GFC
- A massive proportion of the loans (40% or so) went to people who had no ability to service them – sub-prime and low doc borrowers. Remember NINJA loans – loans to people who had no income, no job and no assets! And many were non-recourse loans – so borrowers could just hand over the house if its value fell below the debt owed on it and that was the end of their liability. Recall – jingle mail!
- This was encouraged by public policy aimed at boosting home ownership and ending discrimination in lending.
- It was made possible by a massive easing in lending standards facilitated by financial innovation that packaged up the sub-prime loans into securities, which were then given AAA ratings on the basis that while a small proportion of loans may default the risk will be offset by the broad exposure. These securities were then leveraged up and sold all over the world with fancy names like Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs) that found willing buyers looking for decent low risk (remember AAA rated!) yield at a time of low interest rates. Hedge funds investing in such products even got awards like “yield manager of the year”. But the trouble was that with the sub-prime loans moved out of the banks, there was no “bank manager” looking after them.
- This all came as banks globally were sourcing an increasing amount of the money they were lending from global money markets – which had freed them up from relying on expensive bank deposits via bricks and mortar branches.
Lessons from the GFC and its aftermath
- The economic and investment cycle is alive and well. Talk of a “great moderation” was all the rage prior to the GFC but the GFC reminded us yet again that periods of great returns are invariably followed by a fall back. If returns are too good to be true they probably are.
- High returns come with higher risk. While risk is often dormant for years, it usually returns with a vengeance as was apparent in the GFC. Backward-looking measures of volatility are no better than attempting to drive focussed only on the rear view mirror.
- While each boom bust cycle is different, markets are pushed to extremes of valuation and sentiment. The low in 2009 was characterised by ultra cheap shares and credit investments with investors highly pessimistic.
- Be sceptical of financial engineering or hard-to-understand products. The biggest losses for investors in the GFC were generally in products that relied heavily on financial engineering purporting to turn junk into AAA investments that were impossible to understand.
- Avoid too much gearing or gearing of the wrong sort. Gearing is fine when all is going well. But it will magnify losses when things reverse and can force the closure of positions at a big loss when the lenders lose their confidence and refuse to roll over maturing debt or when a margin call occurs forcing an investor to sell their position just at the time they should be adding to it.
- The importance of true diversification. While listed property trusts and hedge funds were popular alternatives to low-yielding government bonds prior to the GFC, through the crisis they ran into big trouble (in fact Australian Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) fell 79%), whereas government bonds were the star performers. REITs have cut their gearing and returned to their knitting. But “in a crisis correlations go to one – except for true safe havens”.
- Fiscal and monetary policy work. There is a role for government in putting free market economies back on track when they get into a downward spiral. While some have argued that easy money just benefitted the rich (who invest in shares), doing nothing would have likely ended with 20% plus unemployment and worse inequality.
- The return to normal from major financial crises can take time, as the blow to confidence depresses lending and borrowing and hence consumer spending and investment for years afterwards. This muscle memory eventually fades but the impact can be seen for a decade or so.
- The importance of asset allocation. The GFC provided an extreme reminder that what really matters for your investment performance is your asset mix – ie your allocation to shares, bonds, cash, property, etc. Exposure to individual shares or fund managers is second order.
- Finally, “stuff happens”. While after each economic crisis there is a desire to “make sure it never happens again”, history tells us that manias, panics and crashes are part and parcel of the process of “creative destruction” that has led to an exponential increase in material prosperity in capitalist countries. The trick is to ensure that the regulation of financial markets minimises the economic fallout that can occur when free markets go astray but doesn’t stop the dynamism necessary for economic prosperity.
Will it happen again?
Of course there will be another boom and bust…but as Mark Twain is thought to have said “history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes” so the specifics will be different next time. History is replete with bubbles and crashes and tells us it’s inevitable that they will happen again as each generation forgets and must relearn the lessons of the past. Often the seeds for each new bubble are sown in the ashes of the former. Fortunately, in the post-GFC environment seen so far there has been an absence of broad-based bubbles on the scale of the tech boom or US housing/credit boom. E-commerce stocks like Facebook and Amazon are a candidate but they have seen nowhere near the gains or infinite PEs seen in the late 1990s tech boom.
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