Easy central bank policies and lax mortgage lending were, of course, key factors. But most discussions of the crisis don’t explain the role of what’s sometimes called the shadow money market. This consists of privately-arranged loans between banks and various investors or lenders. The loans usually were for very short terms, often five days or fewer. The mortgage lenders borrowed a lot of money short-term this way, and then lent it long-term for mortgages. This article explains how the market worked and why its unwinding caused the financial crisis.
The biggest business of all was the “round tripping” of dollars between America and Europe. Funds were raised in America, which for reasons of history and the nation’s sheer scale, is the richest money market in the world. Those dollars were exported to institutions and banks in Europe, who then reinvested them in the US, very often in American mortgages. The largest inflow of funds to the US came not from the reinvestment of China’s trade surplus, but through this recycling of dollars by way of Europe’s banks. Barclays didn’t need a branch in Kansas any more than Lehman did. Both simply borrowed money in the New York money markets. From the 1990s onwards, Europe’s banks, both great and small, British, Dutch, Belgian, French, Swiss and German, made themselves into a gigantic trans-Atlantic annex of the American banking system.
All was well so long as the economy was buoyant, house and other asset prices continued to go up, money markets remained confident and the dollar moved predictably in the direction that everyone expected, that is gently downwards. If you were borrowing dollars to fund a lending business the three things that you did not want to have happen were: for your own loans to go bad; money markets to lose confidence; or for dollars to suddenly become scarce, or, what amounts to the same thing, unexpectedly expensive. While the headlines were about sub-prime, the true catastrophe of the late summer of 2007 was that all three of these assumptions were collapsing, all at once, all around the world.