The collapse of Lehman Brothers occurred five years ago this week. In hindsight, this investment bank’s disorderly failure proved to be the critical domino that set into motion economic and financial disruptions that are still with us today. What have we learned?
For starters, we’ve learned that some of our financial institutions have gotten too big to fail, unless we want to endure yet another financial credit crisis. We have also learned that a credit recession, unlike a normal business recession, takes much longer to work its way through the economy. Today few, if any, western economies have regained their stride. GDP growth is still far below the rate necessary to sustain full employment. What growth there is has come with a huge price tag in added debt.
These last five years have also witnessed the transfer of power from the private sector to the public sector in the ability to control and influence markets. Various central banks, wielding policy tools that were never meant to insure that stock markets moved higher or mortgage rates lower, now determine how much you make or lose on your investments on a daily basis.
It is Central bank chairmen like Ben Bernanke, Mario Draghi in the EU, and Japan’s Haruhiko Kuroda who move markets today. Even Warren Buffet is small potatoes compared to the pronouncements of our central banks. I’m not criticizing those bankers, far from it, were it not for them the financial world would be in tatters, which leads us to yet another result of the Lehman fiasco.
It is clear to me that our elected officials do not have the will or the ability to deal with this on-going financial crisis. It was, after all, our lawmakers, in league with their Wall Street campaign contributors that precipitated the credit crisis in the first place. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, for example, which allowed banks to re-enter the speculative side of finance, is just one of the many legislative mistakes made in the name of “free markets.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Not one single ranking official of any of the major institutions that precipitated the crisis has ever been indicted, let alone convicted of any wrong doing. The statute of limitations for financial fraud has now run out, guaranteeing that the perpetrators of these crimes of the century will never be brought to justice. How, readers might ask, did this happen?
You see, under our legal system you can’t be convicted of a crime unless you can prove intent. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which was charged with going after the bad guys, had to prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that these top guns intended to commit fraud. Evidently, they couldn’t or wouldn’t.
The majority of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, adopted with great fanfare over three years ago, have still not been implemented. This “never again” legislation has been effectively hamstrung by politicians on both sides of the aisle. These delays have been aided and abetted by the banking lobby (imagine that). As of September, just 40% of the provisions of this law have been finalized and integrated into law. In the meantime, several too-big-to-fail financial institutions have racked up billions in losses by transacting the same type of excessive speculative trades that triggered the sub-prime crisis.
So what have we learned?
If you lost your job and are unemployed, you’ve learned how to support a family by working part-time jobs, asking for government help or simply begging. If you kept your job, you’ve learned not to expect a raise no matter how hard you work, lest you be replaced for less money. Investors learned not to trust anyone on Wall Street, least of all their brokers.
However, if you are one of the bad guys you’ve learned that crime does pay. If you are an elected politician, you’ve learned that no matter what you promise, always protect your campaign contributors.