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ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: How 9/11 attacks helped set stage for financial crisis

September 29, 2008

After just two tumultuous weeks of financial crisis, the blame casting already has begun in earnest. A little deeper analysis might be warranted before jumping to conclusions. I am going to indulge in the combination of my two careers-one military and one scholarly-to focus on one issue.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks focused limited Al Qaeda resources on the U.S. economy and the command-and-control systems of our military. The latter attack failed miserably (due both to the robustness of our armed forces and the courage of citizens aboard Flight 93). The former attack (economic) was exceptionally effective. The destruction of the twin towers and adjacent buildings closed our stock market for days, clobbered the information systems of dozens of critical systems, and required the full resources of virtually all the world's central banks and treasuries to control the impact.

The combined response was enormously effective, and denied Al Qaeda a victory. Had it succeeded in plunging the United States into a deep financial crisis or recession, every financial center in the world would have been subsequently targeted. Instead, the operational efforts of Al Qaeda focused on demoralizing populations by bombing subways and trains. This is a tacit admission of failure.

The strategic victory was not without cost. Among the smaller inconveniences was an extensive period of easy money. The Federal Reserve continued to keep interest rates low long after the immediate need passed. It would be imprudent to rush to judgment on Alan Greenspan for these decisions.

Subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and extensive homeland security investments, increased our public debt. This offered more reasons to accept an easy money policy by the Fed. Whatever your feelings over the efficacy of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial burden of these wars has eased the human toll.

The low interest rate led to increased demand for housing. It also put profit pressures on mortgage lenders. As we now know, this formed a noxious stew of impropriety and misjudgment-though even in the wake of the lending mess most subprime mortgage holders are proud and resilient homeowners. For all its faults, the recent housing market offered more families the step into the middle class than any government program except the GI Bill.

The recent stock market shocks have been painful for many of us. I have lost more money in the past 90 days in my retirement accounts than I made in any single year as an infantry officer in the regular army. I am not sure, though, that when I dwell on the many challenges of the past seven years and balance those financial losses with the many benefits that accompanied them, I am going to have a problem sleeping tonight.



Hicks is director of the Bureau of Business Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbr@bsu.edu.
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