lehman brothers entrance financial crisis Chris Hondros/Getty Images

What Lehman Brothers’ Failure Means Today

The standard story about the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers is that it led to a deeper understanding of the risks of financial complexity and free-wheeling capitalism. In fact, the ensuing crises in the US, Europe, and elsewhere were more a product of broader changes in twenty-first-century politics and society.

PRINCETON – So far this year, the world has marked the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring (and its suppression), the centennial of the end of World War I, and the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth. Against that backdrop, should one really care about the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers?

Yes, we should. Lehman may not have been a particularly large bank, and it probably was not even insolvent when it failed. Nonetheless, it nearly took down the global financial system and triggered the Great Recession. Lehman was transformative because it fundamentally altered people’s understanding of the world around them.

After September 15, 2008, the fear of “another Lehman” and a deeper financial catastrophe put the United States on the path toward wide-ranging reform. And Lehman was constantly invoked during the European financial crisis that erupted after 2010, highlighting fears of a “death spiral” stemming from state bankruptcies and defaults. Since then, the scare story seems to have lost its effectiveness. In the US, banking reforms are now being undone; and in the European Union, government debt-to-GDP ratios are well above where they were in 2008.

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