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Wall Street didn't cause crash of '08

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum says financial reform won't correct what caused the 2008 crash
  • Frum says China bought dollars furiously to sustain its export boom
  • Cheap credit due to China's moves helped U.S. families make up for lagging income, he says
  • Frum: Wall Street the middleman in this trade but not cause of dynamic that hurts U.S. economy

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President Bush in 2001-02, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again" and is the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- Financial reform? Not exactly. The bill before Congress does nothing to address the fundamental background causes of the crash of 2008.

Wall Street may have been the instrument of the crash. But the crash was made elsewhere: in Washington's failed policies for middle-class families -- and in China's distorted rush for economic growth.

The story is not a simple one. But I hope you will pay attention to the details. If you don't, you may find that the pocket that has been picked is your own.

As you've heard, the crash begins with the huge excess load of debt built up in the last two decades by American households. Why did Americans borrow so much? Some like to tell a story of irresponsibility: We borrowed too much because we were self-involved yuppies who just could not deny ourselves the latest flat-screen doodad for our McMansions.

Maybe that describes some people. But many millions of middle-class families plunged into debt for a very practical reason. Their incomes were not keeping pace with the cost of crucial items of the middle-class lifestyle: housing, medical care, college tuition. At the same time as housing, medical care and tuition were jumping in cost, the cost of borrowing was dropping to historic lows.

Adjusted for inflation, the typical American family earned less in 2007 than that family had earned in 2000. Meanwhile, everyday necessities such as energy were becoming more expensive: By 2007, the typical American family paid more for energy than it did for clothes and entertainment combined.

As everyday bills piled up, families borrowed to pay extraordinary bills. Mom needs nursing care? Junior got admitted to Chapel Hill? The roof needs refixing? No worries -- just cash out with a cheap refinance deal.

Video: Wall Street reform explained

In the 1950s, the total debt of all American households amounted to less than one-third the nation's gross domestic product. In 1980, household debt amounted to less than one-half. As recently as 1990, it was still under 60 percent. In 2000, it was under 70 percent. On the eve of the 2008 crash, total household debt had bulged to 96 percent of gross domestic product.

All this borrowing might look like the road to ruin. And in fact it was the road to ruin. But that's not how it looked at the time. At the time, it looked like a bargain. Between 1980 and 2008, the household debt load doubled as a share of the economy. Yet the interest cost to carry that debt rose much more modestly. In 1980, the average American family devoted about 13 percent of its disposable income to debt service; by 2008, the average family was spending about 17 percent of its disposable income to service debt.

Why was debt so cheap?

This takes us to another fundamental cause of the crisis: the growth of China.

Maybe you've heard that we bought a lot of goods from China and now we are deeply in debt to China. That's true obviously -- but the cause and effect are upside down.

China lent us a lot of money so that we would keep buying Chinese goods.

Export booms do not usually last very long. The exporting country accumulates more and more of the importing country's currency. Eventually the exporting country decides it wants to use some of that currency. It exchanges the importing country's currency for its domestic currency -- and that has the effect of making its exports more expensive. The boom bumps up against its own natural limits.

That did not happen with China. Desperately eager to create more and more jobs to employ the tens of millions of peasants flowing into China's huge cities, China not only accumulated dollars by the hundreds of billions -- it held them. Then it went into the foreign currency market to buy still more billions of dollars, sometimes $1 billion a day.

All that dollar buying prevented China's currency from going up in value, which would have increased the price of China's exports -- and that kept China's factories turning.

What do you "buy" when you buy "dollars"? There are only so many Benjamins in the world, nowhere near enough. Buying "dollars" means buying dollar-denominated debt, and far and away the biggest source of U.S. dollar debt is U.S. mortgage debt.

With China so eager to buy, U.S. bankers went to work to create mortgage paper to sell. It didn't have to be good-quality paper -- the Chinese didn't really care about that. Did you get a great deal on your refi in 2005? Thank the Central Bank of China.

American homeowners borrowed because they could not earn enough. China loaned to keep its factories turning. Money flowed in a frenzied torrent across the Pacific. And somebody had to make it all happen: Wall Street. It created the debt instruments China wanted to buy and packaged the mortgages that Main Street felt pressured to sell. With trillions of dollars changing hands, even a small percentage fee could pay a lot of people a lot of billions in fees.

No doubt some of those fee-takers did abusive things. But the whole dynamic was abusive and dangerous. And so-called financial reform is a petty distraction from that larger, more important, and more urgent dynamic: raising American incomes so Americans borrow less, and redirecting Chinese trade to the home market so that the Chinese lend less. Until we achieve those two things, any recovery will only invite the next disaster.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.