Lesson One: What Really Lies Behind the Financial Crisis?
What was the true cause of the worst financial crisis the world has seen since the Great Depression? Was it excessive greed on Wall Street? Was it mark-to-market accounting? The answer is none of the above, says Jeremy Siegel, a professor of finance at Wharton. While these factors contributed to the crisis, they do not represent its most significant cause.
Speaking in Philadelphia on January 20, Siegel, author of Stocks for the Long Run and The Future for Investors, provided a detailed analysis of the factors that fueled the worldwide financial meltdown. His talk was the inaugural lecture of a 15-session course on the financial crisis that Wharton is offering MBA and undergraduate students. Siegel's mission was to detail the factors that sparked the crisis that has caused the U.S. stock market to lose more than a third of its value in a year, while sending unemployment to its highest level since the 1980s. Siegel's lecture was on the same day that millions of Americans expressed optimism over the inauguration of President Barack Obama, even as the Dow plunged another 300 points.
Explaining his theory further, Siegel pointed out that many troubled banks and insurers continued to prosper in almost every other aspect of their businesses right up to the 2008 meltdown. The exception was the billions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities that they bought and held on to or insured even after U.S. home prices went into a free-fall more than two years ago. American International Group (AIG), the insurer that received an $85 billion federal rescue package last September, is a prime example. Some 95% of its business units were profitable when the company collapsed. "AIG has 125,000 employees," Siegel noted. "Basically, 80 of them tanked the firm. It was the New Products Division, which had an office in London and a small branch office in Connecticut. They came up with the idea of insuring mortgage-backed assets, and nobody at the top decided it wasn't a good idea. So they bet the house -- and the company went under."