CAMBRIDGE – Next month marks the one year anniversary of the collapse of the venerable American investment bank, Lehman Brothers. The fall of Lehman marked the onset of a global recession and financial crisis the likes of which the world has not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. After one year, trillions of dollars in public monies, and much soul searching in the world’s policy community, have we learned the right lessons? I fear not.
The overwhelming consensus in the policy community is that if only the government had bailed out Lehman, the whole thing would have been a hiccup and not a heart attack. Famous investors and leading policymakers alike have opined that in our ultra-interconnected global economy, a big financial institution like Lehman can never be allowed to fail. No matter how badly it mismanages its business – Lehman essentially transformed itself into a real estate holding company totally dependent on a continuing US housing bubble – the creditors of a big financial institution should always get repaid. Otherwise, confidence in the system will be undermined, and chaos will break loose.
Having reached the epiphany that financial restructuring must be avoided at all costs, the governments of the world have in turn cast a huge safety net over banks (and whole countries in Eastern Europe), woven from taxpayer dollars.
Unfortunately, the conventional post-mortem on Lehman is wishful thinking. It basically says that no matter how huge the housing bubble, how deep a credit hole the United States (and many other countries) had dug, and how convoluted the global financial system, we could have just grown our way out of trouble. Patch up Lehman, move on, keep drafting off of China’s energy, and nothing bad ever need have happened.