On September 15, 2008 the supposedly safe, perpetually prosperous world of post-industrial capitalism blew itself up when Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The iconic Wall Street investment bank was forced into this act of extremis when the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in the United States turned the securitized mortgage backed debt obligations engineered by the wizards on Wall Street into toxic assets, in the process extinguishing most of the storied investment banks in the United States, including Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch. In those previous cases, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke cobbled together a pseudo rescue, whereby these two firms were absorbed by JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America respectively, with massive financial aid and guarantees against bad debt generously provided courtesy of the American taxpayer. However, when Lehman Brothers stood on the precipice, the economic policymakers in Washington were confronted by the issue of moral hazard, and the growing public distaste with the concept of “too big too fail,” the justification previously issued by Paulson and Bernanke to prop up failing Wall Street firms.
The U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve made a decision to allow Lehman Brothers to fold, assuming its demise would not pose a systemic risk to the global financial system. Shortly afterwards, AIG was also on the verge of bankruptcy, due solely to the exposure of its Credit Default Swap operation spearheaded from its London office. Treasury Secretary Paulson stated that AIG was so large a factor in the global financial system, its business liquidation could not be allowed to occur, regardless of the subsidies required to keep it afloat. Through the middle of 2009, the U.S. government would inject in excess of $180 billion dollars into AIG.
The calculation made by Bernanke and Paulson that Lehman Brothers was expendable, especially in light of the measures taken to save AIG, Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns, not to mention Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, was destined to be proved fatally flawed, and in rapid order. As with so much else about the Fed and Treasury Department in terms of assessing the systemic impact of the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and its related financial derivatives, they badly underestimated the destructive forces that had been unleashed upon the global financial system by the collapse of Lehman Brothers. When Lehman Brothers imploded, its debris virtually froze the entire global interbank lending mechanism, and brought the flow of credit to a virtual standstill.
An immediate consequence of the disintegration of Lehman Brothers was the accelerating rise in the LIBOR and Ted Spreads, reflecting frozen global credit markets saturated with counterparty risk aversion. Money market funds were being depleted at a dangerously rapid pace, and economic indicators across the globe were heading south at a pace that soon became a free fall. The possibility of another Great Depression was openly being talked about, as it became abundantly clear that Lehman Brothers and its derivatives were far more embedded with the global financial system than the supposedly smart men of finance and economics who ran the Treasury and Federal Reserve had led themselves and the public to believe.
The rest was history. Paulson and Bernanke, in a state of panic, compelled a terrorized Congress to borrow $700 billion and hand it over to Treasury, supposedly to buy up toxic assets polluting the balance sheets of the nation’s banks, under the auspices of a program that came to be known as TARP. Once Paulson got his money, he changed direction, choosing to inject the TARP funds directly into the banks, as opposed to buying toxic assets. The Fed engaged in an unprecedented degree of monetary measures, becoming the lender to Wall Street and corporate America of last resort.
The collapse of Lehman Brothers undoubtedly was a major factor in the November 2008 presidential election, which witnessed the historic triumph of Barack Obama. The new president maintained many of the policies put in place by Paulson after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, reappointed Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman, and brought in a $787 billion economic stimulus package, also based on borrowed money, to help reverse the worst recession the United States has endured since the Great Depression.
One year after Lehman Brothers disintegrated, the entire world is in the grips of the most severe synchronized global recession since World War II. We are told, however, that things could have been much worse, if the “brilliant” policymakers who had initially misjudged the extent of the economic and financial crisis had not taken such radical steps, all of which have involved an unprecedented level of public debt, and the bailouts generously awarded to the most reckless Wall Street firms. Also, one year afterwards, the extravagant executive bonuses are still being sprinkled on the Wall Street crowd, at levels that rival pre-meltdown levels.
Unquestionably, the demise of Lehman Brothers was a seminal point in global financial and economic history. I do not believe, however, we have witnessed the full consequences of its collapse. I fear that the worst is yet to come.