Image source: the Guardian

Although the government had already bailed out Bear Stearns, Fannie and Freddie earlier that year, it was September 14th, 2008 when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and the global financial panic began. That means that exactly five years ago this week, we entered the defining recession of our generation. So, I thought this would be a good time to recap this historic event and look back on the intervening years.

I remember it as if it were yesterday: looking at my computer screen and seeing a negative return on Treasury bills, which meant investors were willing to loan the Federal government money at a small loss, just to have a guarantee of their principal. That’s when I knew this was big, big trouble.

The weeks and months that followed experienced a full-on meltdown of the U.S. and the world financial system.  It was a “credit crunch” for the ages. Even global mega-corps like GE could not finance their short-term debt.  In these weeks and months, the Federal government and by extension the Federal Reserve and the Treasury department did a number of things to try to save our financial system.  The good news is that they did save it. We did not have a 1930’s-style “Great Depression.”

Image source: treasury.gov

But there were a number of actions taken in that period of time–TARP, the GM bail-out, the Stimulus Program, etc–that were very controversial. As my clients know, I believed the TARP program was unavoidable (regrettably so), because when you don’t have access to capital, you don’t have a functioning capitalist system. The good news is that the majority of the TARP program has all been paid back, with the exception of GM. 

Over the last few years there have been many books and article written on the 2008 Financial Crisis and I have read a lot of it. It’s amazing how much revisionist history there is out there! However, below is an article from the Wall Street Journal that I think is relatively fair and balanced as it discusses what happened and what has been done since. Please enjoy.

Jon Houk, CFP®

 


Financial Crisis: Lessons of the Rescue, A Drama in Five Acts

By: DAVID WESSEL

Five years after the near-collapse of the global financial system, Americans could justifiably celebrate victory. After all, the U.S. economy is growing, and, measured per capita, is back to where it was before the crisis. Unemployment is falling. Banks have regained their vigor and paid back nearly all the $245 billion taxpayers pumped into them. The stock market has recovered all the ground it lost. So has household net worth. Or Americans could rightly wonder why things are still so bad and ask if anything could be been done differently—some policy pursued, some step avoided—to have eased the prolonged economic pain. Even after four years of economic growth, there are still 11.3 million people unemployed. Employment is up but there are still 1.9 million fewer jobs than at the peak in 2008. Housing prices are rising, but one in six mortgage holders still has a loan larger than the value of the house. The income of the typical household, the one in the statistical middle of the middle, is 5% lower, adjusted for inflation, than in September 2008, according to the latest estimates. And the public is largely disgusted by the whole spectacle, much of it convinced that Wall Street got bailed out and Main Street didn’t. “To save the economy, we had to violate a core American principle: You bear a risk, you suffer the consequences,” says Neel Kashkari, who ran the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, the TARP, that funneled taxpayer money into the banks.

Enough time has passed to identify key moments in the war to save the world economy, enough time to second-guess the generals. They did prevent Great Depression 2.0 and, yes, it could have been worse. But could it have been better? Did missteps worsen the crisis, or sow seeds of the next one? MIT economist Andrew Lo points out there is still significant debate over both the causes and the cures for the crisis. “We haven’t decided as a country, as a society, to study these failures like the National Transportation Safety Board studies an airline crash to make air travel safer,” he says.

How Big Is Too Big

The first Wall Street domino to fall was Bear Stearns. J.P. Morgan Chase caught it, with government help, and many investors concluded that the government wouldn’t let any major institution fail—an assumption that would prove catastrophically wrong a few months later. To save Bear, the Federal Reserve in March 2008 put $29 billion of taxpayer money at risk to grease the deal. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has called that “the toughest choice.” That’s because it was “the first one,” he has said, the first extension of the Fed safety net to an institution that wasn’t a Fed-supervised bank. Mr. Bernanke and his fellow financial generals— Henry Paulson, then Treasury secretary, and Tim Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York—say the Bear Stearns rescue was necessary because the firm was so interconnected with the rest of the system. And, they point out, taxpayers got back all the money they put up.

Critics counter that had they let Bear go under, investors wouldn’t have lent so readily to other Wall Street firms afterward, worsening the eventual implosion. Vincent Reinhart, a former top Fed staffer, has called the decision to not let Bear Stearns fail “the worst policy mistake in a generation.” The big domino was Lehman Brothers, the investment bank dragged down by bad real-estate loans. Standing by as it went into bankruptcy in September 2008 is the most second-guessed decision of the entire crisis. “In hindsight, it is very hard to argue that it wasn’t a mistake,” says Frederic Mishkin, a Columbia University economist who left the Fed board in August 2008. At the time, though, he says, there was a case for letting Lehman fail to teach Wall Street a lesson: “Everyone knew Lehman was exploiting the fact that everyone thought the Fed would bail them out,” he says. The mantra of central bankers and other regulators, Mr. Mishkin says, is that “you want to be tough, as long as you don’t blow up the system.” The hard part, of course, is to know when to be tough and when intervene to prevent the system from blowing up. Richard Fuld, Lehman’s CEO, told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that he believed to the very end that his company could be saved with government help. He said he told Mr. Paulson, “If you would give us a bridge [loan], let’s put Lehman back together. We can wind down these positions, and we can make a lot of this ugliness go away.”

The government, of course, refused.

“We knew we were very sure the collapse of Lehman would be catastrophic,” Mr. Bernanke told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission a year after the event. The Treasury and the Fed tried to sell Lehman, but couldn’t. And though they offered different explanations at the time, Messrs. Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson today all say that they had no choice but to let it go. “I will maintain to my deathbed that we made every effort to save Lehman, but we were just unable to do so because of a lack of legal authority,” Mr. Bernanke has said. Mr. Paulson says that if the government’s financial overseers had in 2008 the powers that Congress granted them in 2010, they would have taken over Lehman. “It would have been messy, but it would have been better,” he says. The next day, with global markets in full panic, the Fed, reluctantly, bailed out American International Group, a huge insurer that had made big, losing bets on complex financial transactions known as derivative investments. All in all, the Fed and Treasury committed $182 billion to AIG. In exchange, taxpayers got the bulk of the shares in the company. Those shares have all been sold now, and by Treasury calculations, taxpayers got all their money plus another $23 billion. AIG is half the size it was before the crisis.

But the takeover provoked political backlash, especially after it was revealed that Goldman Sachs and other firms AIG made transactions with had been made whole and some AIG executives and traders who had been at the scene of the crash got big bonuses to clean it up.

Surprise Under TARP

The collapse of Lehman and all that followed led Congress, with substantial hesitation, to approve President George W. Bush’s request for $700 billion of taxpayer money for TARP to rescue the banks. The game plan Mr. Paulson outlined to Congress changed before a nickel was spent, but it did largely accomplish the government’s aims and at less ultimate cost to taxpayers than even optimists expected back in 2008. Mr. Paulson told Congress that the TARP program would be used to buy “toxic assets”—mortgages that would never be paid back in full—from the banks. It wasn’t. Instead, the Treasury bought shares in the banks to shore up their capital footings. “The severity and constantly expanding nature of the crisis meant we frequently operated on the fly,” Mr. Paulson says today. “We got TARP to do one thing that didn’t work,” he said later, “but it succeeded brilliantly in doing another.” The terms remain controversial: the willingness to let bailed-out banks continue to pay dividends, the subsequent rescues of Citigroup and Bank of America, the strings on executive compensation (criticized both as too tight and too loose), the link (or lack thereof) between getting TARP money and lending more.

A congressionally mandated oversight panel said later that TARP “provided critical support to markets at a moment of profound uncertainty,” but it left behind a “troublesome legacy” of “continuing distortions in the market, public anger toward policy makers, and a lack of full transparency and accountability.” Of the original $700 billion, about $428 billion was or will be disbursed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Much of that has been repaid. CBO puts the eventual tab to taxpayers at $21 billion. One of the biggest successes in the government’s campaign to save the banks were the much-maligned “stress tests,” initiated in early 2009 to assess the strength of 19 big banks and, crucially, to force those that flunked to raise capital. Though Europe later went through the stress-test motions, its version was neither as aggressive or demanding as the U.S. Today, Europe’s hobbled banks continue to restrain euro zone economic growth.

U.S. at the Wheel

The rescue of the U.S. auto industry, in hindsight, looks like a roaring success. Both President Bush and President Barack Obama deemed the industry too big to fail, at least at a time of financial panic. In all, taxpayers put up about $80 billion. The Treasury says they have recouped about $51 billion of that, so far. Chrysler has paid back its loans. Taxpayers almost surely will take a loss on their remaining stake in General Motors Co. Detroit auto makers are now solidly back in the black, thanks in part to the government-led restructuring that eliminated much of the U.S. industry’s excess production capacity, lightened their debt loads and, in many instances, enabled lower wages and more flexible work rules. That helped the auto makers raise prices and invest profits in more efficient cars and trucks.

The motor vehicle and parts industry has added 190,000 jobs since June 2009, though its workforce is much smaller than before the crisis. The bailouts left an aftertaste. As the TARP oversight panel put it, the rescue left the impression “that any company in American can receive a government backstop, so long as its collapse would cost enough jobs or deal enough economic damage.”

Housing Hangover

The 30% decline in housing prices confronted the Bush and Obama administrations and Congress with vexing choices that were never resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. And housing, until recently, has been a significant weight on the economy. At the worst, nearly one of every four Americans with a mortgage had a loan bigger than the size of the value of the house. In the past five years, lenders have completed foreclosures on 4.5 million homes, according to real estate data firm CoreLogic. A parade of government programs, each with its own acronym, was crafted to cushion some homeowners. A lot were helped: Under one program, nearly 900,000 mortgages were modified to reduce the monthly payments. About 2.7 million got help refinancing loans at lower rates.

But many more didn’t get help.

“In a sense, all these programs failed because they were designed to help people who needed only a moderate amount of assistance, a very narrow segment of the distressed homeowners,” says Mr. Kashkari, who oversaw TARP. Bigger efforts were discussed. “There were much more muscular steps we could have taken,” says Sheila Bair, former chief of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. “Yes, they would have been difficult to implement, but not impossible.” But the various schemes would have been costly—which meant either nicking bondholders, or taxing some Americans who didn’t buy more house than they could afford, in order to help some Americans who did. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations thought they would work. Housing was “where we had the biggest gap between people’s expectations of what was possible and what was realistic,” Mr. Geithner said in an interview this year. “We didn’t have half- or three-quarters of a trillion dollars to provide principal reduction,” he said. And “doing so would have been a very inefficient way to help the economy, and really unfair in many ways.”

Economy: Still Healing

Five years later, the financial system has healed enough that there are now occasional worries that some of the borrowing excesses of the past are returning. But the economy hasn’t fully healed despite an extraordinary display of fiscal and monetary firepower. The fundamental unresolved policy question is this: Were the fiscal and monetary stimulus the wrong medicine, or were they just too small to do the job? Beginning in 2008, policy makers dusted off the works of John Maynard Keynes, the mid-20th century British economist who prescribed spending increases and tax cuts to cure the Great Depression, and revisited advice they had given Japan as it confronted deflation, or falling prices, in the late 20th century. Mr. Obama won congressional approval of tax cuts and spending increases that, by CBO’s latest reckoning, added up to $830 billion over 10 years. The Fed cut short-term interest rates to zero in December 2008 and, nearly five years later, is promising to leave them there for another few years. Figuring that wouldn’t be sufficient, it printed, electronically, about $2.8 trillion to buy bonds to push long-term rates down, an unprecedented show of monetary force.

Yet each year for the past few has opened with forecasts that this will be the one that the U.S. economy grows at 3% or better; each year so far has disappointed. CBO estimates that U.S. output of goods and services will be below its potential until 2017. Unemployment remains at levels once seen only in recessions. In this light, the fiscal and monetary stimulus efforts look like failures, as Republicans frequently observe. Mr. Geithner points to unremitting bad luck: the European sovereign-debt crisis; the disruption following Japan’s tsunami and nuclear meltdown. Top Obama administration and Federal Reserve officials say today they would have preferred more government spending to make up for the shortfall in demand from the private sector. “We brought the deficit down faster than would have been optimal, and as a consequence, we’ve suffered slower growth than we needed to suffer,” says Lawrence Summers, who was among Mr. Obama’s advisers and is now a leading contender to succeed Mr. Bernanke at the Fed.

The policy makers who led the response to the crisis argue that the economy would have been even worse if not for the stimulus. And there is substantial support for that view among private-sector economists. Not everyone is convinced. “Government policy has been the cause of the problem,” says Stanford economist John Taylor. He prescribes less federal spending and “unwinding monetary excesses” while returning to a predictable monetary policy based more on rules and less on the discretion of Fed officials. There also is a lingering sense that uncertainty and anxiety are holding things in check, too. “You get moments where people seem to feel a little better, and then they pull back, again,” says former Sen. Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.,) who gave his name to the Dodd-Frank bill crafted after the crisis to strengthen financial regulation. “That lack of that sense of security that things are going to be OK” is a major reason “we haven’t taken off.

A version of this article appeared September 8, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Lessons of the Rescue: A Drama in Five Acts.