Vanity Fair looks at what went wrong in the market. A long and interesting history of this crisis. There is currently a bull market in such analysis.
This year we have lived through something more than a financial crisis. We have witnessed the death of a planet. Call it Planet Finance. Two years ago, in 2006, the measured economic output of the entire world was worth around $48.6 trillion. The total market capitalization of the world’s stock markets was $50.6 trillion, 4 percent larger. The total value of domestic and international bonds was $67.9 trillion, 40 percent larger. Planet Finance was beginning to dwarf Planet Earth.
Planet Finance seemed to spin faster, too. Every day $3.1 trillion changed hands on foreign-exchange markets. Every month $5.8 trillion changed hands on global stock markets. And all the time new financial life-forms were evolving. The total annual issuance of mortgage-backed securities, including fancy new “collateralized debt obligations” (C.D.O.’s), rose to more than $1 trillion. The volume of “derivatives”—contracts such as options and swaps—grew even faster, so that by the end of 2006 their notional value was just over $400 trillion. Before the 1980s, such things were virtually unknown. In the space of a few years their populations exploded. On Planet Finance, the securities outnumbered the people; the transactions outnumbered the relationships.
New institutions also proliferated. In 1990 there were just 610 hedge funds, with $38.9 billion under management. At the end of 2006 there were 9,462, with $1.5 trillion under management. Private-equity partnerships also went forth and multiplied. Banks, meanwhile, set up a host of “conduits” and “structured investment vehicles” (sivs—surely the most apt acronym in financial history) to keep potentially risky assets off their balance sheets. It was as if an entire shadow banking system had come into being.
Then, beginning in the summer of 2007, Planet Finance began to self-destruct in what the International Monetary Fund soon acknowledged to be “the largest financial shock since the Great Depression.”