Three Lessons of the Lehman Brothers Collapse

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James Leynse / Corbis

Employees of Lehman Brothers exit the company headquarters in midtown Manhattan on the day that the company filed for bankruptcy

A year ago today, the venerable investment-banking firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection after the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department pointedly refused to bail the company out, and no other Wall Street outfit was willing to step into the breach. It was the largest bankruptcy ever in the U.S., but the really big news was what happened afterward. First came a financial panic that threatened to shatter the global capitalist order, then came an unprecedented, and unprecedentedly expensive, effort by governments on both sides of the Atlantic to patch things up.

You already knew all this, of course. It happened just last year, and in recent days the news media have engaged in an orgy of commemoration and explanation of the Lehman collapse and its aftermath. So here's the $64 trillion question: What, if anything, have we learned from the experience?

Three main lessons present themselves. First, our complex financial system is awfully fragile. Second, government action is capable of keeping a financial panic from snowballing into a complete economic disaster along the lines of the Great Depression. Third, the government has — in large part because of its success in averting disaster — found it difficult to take any actions that would make the financial system less fragile in the future. That would, apparently, be too much government intervention.

First, the fragility. Allowing Lehman to fail — cited often as the government's biggest boo-boo — started a chain reaction. There was a run on money-market funds after one big money-market fund revealed that it owned a lot of suddenly worthless Lehman debt. London-based hedge funds that relied on Lehman for day-to-day financing found themselves unable to do business because their accounts with Lehman's U.K. subsidiary were frozen. Similar dislocations played out around the world. Before long, financial institutions were paralyzed by fear. They simply didn't trust each other anymore, and didn't want to lend to each other. The financial system proved too fragile to handle the stress.

That brings us to lesson No. 2. In the early 1930s, powerful voices at the Treasury and Federal Reserve argued that the deep pain of financial crisis was a necessary economic corrective. "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate," Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon advised President Herbert Hoover. "It will purge the rottenness out of the system." Late last year, you could hear a few people arguing this case on CNBC and even on the floor of the House of Representatives. But after Lehman's failure, no one at Treasury or the Fed talked that way. Instead, the consensus among the policymakers who mattered, in the U.S. and overseas, was that the panic had to be stopped at any cost.

The cost was a bailout that placed trillions of taxpayer dollars at risk. It was expensive, it was messy, it was unfair. It struck many people as downright un-American. But it worked. "I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system," is how President George W. Bush described it last December.

Mission accomplished — so far, at least. In the face of a financial shock worse than the Crash of 1929, massive government intervention averted a second Great Depression. Yes, we've still ended up in the worst economic downturn the U.S. has seen since. But while there are surely lots of potholes and wrong turns ahead, there's ample evidence that the economy — both in the U.S. and worldwide — is in the early stages of a rebound. And we have decisions made by government officials to thank for that.

Then again, decisions made by Congress, the Bush and Clinton administrations and federal regulators in the years before the crisis also played a key role in allowing things to get so bad. From ill-considered deregulation of banking and derivatives to over-the-top encouragement of home ownership, Washington's fingerprints were all over the crisis. Almost nothing has been done so far to right these wrongs, or otherwise rein in the excesses of the financial system. Which brings us to lesson No. 3: It's really hard for a democracy to make big changes in the absence of crisis.

President Barack Obama did warn in his speech to Wall Street on Monday that "normalcy cannot breed complacency." But normalcy is breeding complacency — perhaps because complacency is normal. Consider the financial reforms that the Obama Administration wants to push through Congress before year-end — creating a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, giving the Federal Reserve the job of systemic risk regulator, and establishing a "resolution regime" to wind down troubled nonbank financial institutions (like Lehman) and complex bank holding companies in an orderly fashion. Steps in the right direction? Probably. Truly major reforms? Not so much.

In the months after Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, Congress legislated a complete transformation of Wall Street and the banking sector with the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the segregation of commercial banks from Wall Street. It's not obvious that we need such a drastic overhaul now, but still, the contrasts with 1930s are stark. Ironic, too. By following their belief that financial markets should work out their own problems, Andrew Mellon and his kindred spirits at the Fed triggered a financial collapse that more or less ensured major, permanent government participation in the financial sector. By intervening aggressively, Hank Paulson and his kindred spirits at the Fed haven't quite ensured a continuation of the status quo — some reforms will come, and banks and their regulators will tread more gingerly for at least a few years — but they do seem to have headed off a re-enactment of the New Deal.