Back in 2008, as the financial crisis was unfolding, there was a big argument as to whether the crisis was a “liquidity crisis” or a “solvency crisis”. It’s a very important distinction. A “liquidity crisis” is when banks (or similar finance companies) are financially in the black – their assets are greater than their liabilities – but they can’t get the cash to keep paying their bills in the short term. A bank run is the classic example of a liquidity crisis – even if the bank could eventually pay everyone back, it can’t pay them back all at once, so if people get scared and all try to withdraw their money in a rush, they force the bank to collapse. A “solvency crisis”, on the other hand, is when finance companies are actually bankrupt, and no amount of short-term borrowing will change that fact.
This is difficult to unravel. The high officials talked as if it were a liquidity crisis. But one might argue that they acted as if it were a solvency crisis. The Fed could have lent to Citigroup through the discount window. Instead, they injected capital into Citigroup, via TARP.
I think that AIG suffered from a liquidity crisis, because the contractual arrangements in their credit default swaps evidently allowed their counterparties to make “collateral calls” as the underlying securities declined in market value. The way the government dealt with AIG’s liquidity crisis was to give AIG enough money to meet the collateral calls (to Goldman Sachs and others) and essentially taking away capital from AIG, so that AIG had to dismember itself in order to remain a company.
Among the many problems with sorting things out is the problem of valuing brand equity. If you think that Citigroup had brand equity, then they were not in a solvency crisis.
If you think that Freddie and Fannie had brand equity, then they suffered from a liquidity crisis, because once their borrowing costs were held down, they became profitable again.
So I don’t have a crisp answer to Noah’s question, even in hindsight.