By Martin Hutchinson
07/16/08 “Asia Times”
The financial crisis in the United States and worldwide entered a new phase this week, as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two huge US home-loan institutions, began what appears to be a “death spiral” similar to that which claimed Bear Stearns four months ago. Fannie and Freddie are unique institutions and will almost certainly be bailed out by the long-suffering taxpayer. However, for the first time, the specter has been raised of a general financial meltdown, such as the US managed to avoid in 1933 but Sweden succumbed to in 1991.
Sweden’s financial meltdown of 1991 involved the government guaranteeing the obligations of the entire Swedish banking system, and recapitalizing the major banks, with the sole major exception of Svenska Handelsbanken. The total cost of the rescue to Swedish taxpayers was around US$10 billion, equivalent to about $1 trillion in the context of today’s US economy. The causes of the crisis would be familiar to most Americans today: misuse of off-balance sheet securitization vehicles to invest excessively in real estate and mortgage lending.
It is thus not impossible for the entire US banking system to implode. It didn’t happen in 1933 (though about a quarter of US banks failed) because US banks in the 1920s had been relatively conservative in their lending, with many banks requiring a 50% down payment for home mortgage loans, for example. Stock margin lending got way out of control in 1928-29, but relatively few banks were involved significantly in that.
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