One Year After the Fall of Lehman

Our relationship with money will never be the same

LEHMAN/CAPITALOn Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It was also one year ago today that changed Wall Street, my street, and your street. Lehman’s shares cratered, falling 90%, and the broader market tumbled more than 500 points (almost 5%). It was the biggest single-day drop since the first day of trading after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Lehman was a metaphor for the nation. The company had dabbled in the subprime mortgage market, betting too much on the notion that U.S. home prices would keep rising relentlessly. Didn’t we all? One of the largest contributing factors to the 158-year-old investment banking firm’s demise was that it had over-leveraged itself. That’s finance jargon, which simply means it owed too many people (and other financial institutions) too much money. In the end, Lehman had assets worth $639 billion, but carried bank debt of $613 billion, bond debt of $155 billion, making its Chapter 11 filing the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

So much of where we are as a nation today can be traced back to last September. It was on Sept. 15, 2008, that presidential candidate Sen. John McCain ill-advisedly mused that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” even amid Wall Street’s tailspin. The statement telegraphed to many voters that McCain was either out-of-touch with the economy or too eager a cheerleader to face hard facts and lead the economy forward. Obama’s response to the financial crisis was characteristically cool and collected. By the end of September, Obama led McCain 61% to 35% among people who told pollsters they were worried about the economy’s future. We all know what happened next.

In the aftermath of Lehman’s collapse, banks tightened their lending standards, causing credit markets to seize up. Treasury and Federal Reserve officials fought to save a host of banks and financial institutions from Lehman’s fate with a $700 billion bailout. The recession, which economists say had began the previous winter, began hitting home for consumers.

One year ago this week, America’s relationship with money began a slow, painful, but necessary change for the better. Not unlike Lehman, consumers had become overleveraged too. In the years leading up to the financial crisis, consumers were spending $1.05 for every dollar they earned, unfazed by the borrowing because their assets—home values, retirement savings, and stock funds—continued to grow. The fall of Lehman signaled the end of excessive financial risk-taking for us all. By the end of the 2008, American households had lost some $11 trillion of wealth, the result of tumbling home values, diminished retirement savings, and decimated stock investments.

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