Obama on the Record: State of the Economy - Page 2 of 14
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Obama on the Record: State of the Economy

Now, to understand how we get there, we first need to understand how we got here.

Recessions are not uncommon. Markets and economies naturally ebb and flow, as we’ve seen many times in our history. But this recession is different. This recession was not caused by a normal downturn in the business cycle. It was caused by a perfect storm of irresponsibility and poor decision-making that stretched from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street.

As has been widely reported, it started in the housing market. During the course of the decade, the formula for buying a house changed: Instead of saving their pennies to buy their dream house, many Americans found that suddenly they could take out loans that by traditional standards their incomes just could not support. Others were tricked into signing these subprime loans by lenders who were trying to make a quick profit. The reason these loans were so readily available was that Wall Street saw big profits to be made. Investment banks would buy and package together these questionable mortgages into securities, arguing that by pooling the mortgages the risks had somehow been reduced. And credit agencies that are supposed to help investors determine the soundness of various investments stamped the securities with their safest rating when they should have been labeled “Buyer Beware.”

No one really knew what the actual value of these securities were, no one fully understood what the risks were. But since the housing market was booming and prices were rising, banks and investors just kept buying and selling them, always passing off the risk to someone else for a greater profit without having to take any of the ultimate responsibility. Banks took on more debt than they could handle.

The government-chartered companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose traditional mandate was to help support traditional mortgages, decided to get in on the action by buying and holding billions of dollars of these securities. AIG, the biggest insurer in the world that had a very traditional insurance business that was very profitable, decided to make profits suddenly by selling billions of dollars of complicated financial instruments that supposedly insured these securities. Everybody was making record profits — except the wealth created was real only on paper. And as the bubble grew, there was almost no accountability or oversight from anyone in Washington.

Then the housing bubble burst. Home prices fell. People began to default on their subprime mortgages. And the value of all those loans and securities plummeted. Banks and investors couldn’t find anyone to buy them. Greed gave way to fear. Investors pulled their money out of the market. Large financial institutions that didn’t have enough money on hand to pay off all their obligations collapsed. Other banks held on tight to their money and simply stopped lending.


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