Marking the Decade Since Lehman’s Collapse

Financial Services Law

At this ten-year anniversary of the Sept. 15, 2008, failure of investment banking giant Lehman Brothers, it’s time to take stock. Not of Lehman, of course. But of the lessons learned and what we have failed to learn.

Over the past decade, a host of regulatory efforts have been made to address various aspects of the financial crisis. What changes have been made? Have the efforts paid off? Could it happen again? Should some large banks be allowed to fail?

What happened

While Sept. 15, 2008, won’t live in infamy quite like Pearl Harbor, for some in the financial services industry it had the same life-changing qualities. The collapse of Lehman Brothers—or, more accurately, that Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse—was not the beginning of the global financial calamity, but it was perhaps the most enduring aspect in a series of events that generated a global banking crisis.

In the United States, we faced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Numerous financial companies went belly up, mortgage refinancing came to a virtual standstill as real estate prices collapsed, individuals faced foreclosures at record levels while their homes collectively lost nearly $10 trillion (yes, trillion) in value, and the government bailed out major banks that were thought too big to fail.

As the country struggled to regain its footing, lawmakers turned the full force of their attention on financial institutions. As a result, today financial services companies must, among other things, comply with various systemic protections of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act as well as the Volcker Rule. They are also subject to regular examination from, and must keep an eye out for enhanced regulation and enforcement from, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (CFPB), which, despite the Trump administration’s direction, remains a check on consumer lending malfeasance.

And the country survived. A 2018 report suggests that, overall, all or nearly all of that lost real estate value has been returned to American homeowners. The country is blessed with low unemployment, a booming stock market and—most recently—real signs of wage growth as companies seek to lure talent in a more competitive job market.

Already a regulated industry, banks and other financial institutions now face an unprecedented level of oversight. And this oversight continues to include an overlay of regulation from prudential regulators such as the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, state attorneys general and others. The result a decade down the road: higher capital and liquidity positions with leverage lower at big banks. Recent stress-test results have demonstrated that banks are more likely to withstand severe losses.

However, after ten years and growing stability, financial institutions are starting to push back against the increased oversight. Sympathetic to the industry, the current administration has supported regulatory relief. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed into law the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which rolled back parts of Dodd-Frank.

Further, regulators themselves appear to be taking a more hands-off approach, particularly at the CFPB, which has adopted a change in philosophy under the leadership of Acting Director Mick Mulvaney. Industry observers see more of the same from likely replacement Kathy Kraninger.

Should some banks be allowed to fail? Yes, say banking leaders, such as JPMorgan Chase boss Jamie Dimon and other finance officials around the globe. Some banks that are formally “too big to fail” from a systemic perspective have received scrutiny as a result of repeated scandals that have blemished their reputations with customers. Such bad press harms the industry itself, as it raises questions about whether such banks feel immune from attack. Only time will tell whether additional errors will be sufficient to force changes in federal legislation or lead to a more activist approach in the courts.

Why it matters

While increased regulation of the financial services industry has resulted in more stable banks, other factors may indicate instability. A record level of indebtedness in the global economy (the U.S. deficit is projected to reach $804 billion in 2018), combined with continuing low interest rates, leaves somewhat less room for the government to respond to another recession. In addition, the current political situation in the country and lack of consensus on almost all issues do not bode well if the parties need to unite to find a solution to another market shock. Likewise, shaken global alliances and a weakening of the political center will abet any crisis that may occur. Stay tuned.



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