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The Great Recession and its Aftermath


The 2007-09 economic crisis was deep and protracted enough to become known as "the Great Recession" and was followed by what was, by some measures, a long but unusually slow recovery.

Job seekers line up to apply for positions at an American Apparel store April 2, 2009, in New York City. Weekly unemployment claims have reached a 26-year high. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

by John Weinberg, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond
About 350 members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now gather for a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol March 11, 2008, to raise awareness of home foreclosure crisis and encourage Congress to help LMI families stay in their homes. ((Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images))

Initially, the expansion of Federal Reserve credit was financed by reducing the Federal Reserve’s holdings of Treasury securities, in order to avoid an increase in bank reserves that would drive the federal funds rate below its target as banks sought to lend out their excess reserves. But in October 2008, the Federal Reserve gained the authority to pay banks interest on their excess reserves. This gave banks an incentive to hold onto their reserves rather than lending them out, thus mitigating the need for the Federal Reserve to offset its expanded lending with reductions in other assets.2

Effects on the Broader Economy

The housing sector led not only the financial crisis, but also the downturn in broader economic activity. Residential investment peaked in 2006, as did employment in residential construction. The overall economy peaked in December 2007, the month the National Bureau of Economic Research recognizes as the beginning of the recession. The decline in overall economic activity was modest at first, but it steepened sharply in the fall of 2008 as stresses in financial markets reached their climax. From peak to trough, US gross domestic product fell by 4.3 percent, making this the deepest recession since World War II. It was also the longest, lasting eighteen months. The unemployment rate more than doubled, from less than 5 percent to 10 percent. 

In response to weakening economic conditions, the FOMC lowered its target for the federal funds rate from 4.5 percent at the end of 2007 to 2 percent at the beginning of September 2008. As the financial crisis and the economic contraction intensified in the fall of 2008, the FOMC accelerated its interest rate cuts, taking the rate to its effective floor – a target range of 0 to 25 basis points – by the end of the year. In November 2008, the Federal Reserve also initiated the first in a series of large-scale asset purchase (LSAP) programs, buying mortgage-backed securities and longer-term Treasury securities. These purchases were intended to put downward pressure on long-term interest rates and improve financial conditions more broadly, thereby supporting economic activity (Bernanke 2012).

The recession ended in June 2009, but economic weakness persisted. Economic growth was only moderate – averaging about 2 percent in the first four years of the recovery – and the unemployment rate, particularly the rate of long-term unemployment, remained at historically elevated levels. In the face of this prolonged weakness, the Federal Reserve maintained an exceptionally low level for the federal funds rate target and sought new ways to provide additional monetary accommodation. These included additional LSAP programs, known more popularly as quantitative easing, or QE. The FOMC also began communicating its intentions for future policy settings more explicitly in its public statements, particularly the circumstances under which exceptionally low interest rates were likely to be appropriate. For example, in December 2012, the committee stated that it anticipates that exceptionally low interest rates would likely remain appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate was above a threshold value of 6.5 percent and inflation was expected to be no more than a half percentage point above the committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal. This strategy, known as “forward guidance,” was intended to convince the public that rates would stay low at least until certain economic conditions were met, thereby putting downward pressure on longer-term interest rates.

Effects on Financial Regulation

When the financial market turmoil had subsided, attention naturally turned to reforms to the financial sector and its supervision and regulation, motivated by a desire to avoid similar events in the future. A number of measures have been proposed or put in place to reduce the risk of financial distress. For traditional banks, there are significant increases in the amount of required capital overall, with larger increases for so-called “systemically important” institutions (Bank for International Settlements 2011a;  2011b).  Liquidity standards will for the first time formally limit the amount of banks’ maturity transformation (Bank for International Settlements 2013).  Regular stress testing will help both banks and regulators understand risks and will force banks to use earnings to build capital instead of paying dividends as conditions deteriorate (Board of Governors 2011).    

The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 also created new provisions for the treatment of large financial institutions. For example, the Financial Stability Oversight Council has the authority to designate nontraditional credit intermediaries “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” (SIFIs), which subjects them to the oversight of the Federal Reserve. The act also created the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), which allows the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to wind down certain institutions when the firm’s failure is expected to pose a great risk to the financial system. Another provision of the act requires large financial institutions to create “living wills,” which are detailed plans laying out how the institution could be resolved under US bankruptcy code without jeopardizing the rest of the financial system or requiring government support.

Like the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Inflation of the 1970s, the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession are vital areas of study for economists and policymakers. While it may be many years before the causes and consequences of these events are fully understood, the effort to untangle them is an important opportunity for the Federal Reserve and other agencies to learn lessons that can inform future policy.

  • 1

    Many of these actions were taken under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act, which at that time authorized lending to individuals, partnerships, and corporations in “unusual and exigent” circumstances and subject to other restrictions. After the amendments to Section 13(3) made by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, Federal Reserve lending under Section 13(3) is permitted only to participants in a program or facility with “broad based eligibility,” with prior approval of the secretary of the treasury, and when several other conditions are met.

  • 2

    For more on interest on reserves, see Ennis and Wolman (2010).


Bank for International Settlements. “Basel III: A global regulatory framework for more resilient banks and banking system.” Revised June 2011a.

Bank for International Settlements. “Global systemically important banks: Assessment methodology and the additional loss absorbency requirement.” July 2011b.

Bernanke, Ben, “The Global Saving Glut and the U.S. Current Account Deficit,” Speech given at the Sandridge Lecture, Virginia Association of Economists, Richmond, Va., March 10, 2005.

Bernanke, Ben,“Monetary Policy and the Housing Bubble,” Speech given at the Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association, Atlanta, Ga., January 3, 2010.

Bernanke, Ben, “Monetary Policy Since the Onset of the Crisis,” Speech given at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Symposium, Jackson Hole, Wyo., August 31, 2012.

Covitz, Daniel, Nellie Liang, and Gustavo Suarez. “The Evolution of a Financial Crisis: Collapse of the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Market.” Journal of Finance 68, no. 3 (2013): 815-48.

Ennis, Huberto, and Alexander Wolman. “Excess Reserves and the New Challenges for Monetary Policy.” Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Economic Brief  no. 10-03 (March 2010).   

Federal Reserve System, Capital Plan, 76 Fed Reg. 74631 (December 1, 2011) (codified at 12 CFR 225.8).

Taylor, John,“Housing and Monetary Policy,” NBER Working Paper 13682, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, December 2007.     

Written as of November 22, 2013. See disclaimer.