Billions in bonuses on Wall Street at the expense of Main Street

Seven years after the traumatic 2008 financial crisis, millions of Americans still have not recovered. But a few others are doing quite well, thank you. One of the first signs of the impending implosion in financial markets occurred in the summer of 2007 when two Bear Steams hedge funds with major investments in mortgage-backed securities collapsed. It was the beginning of the end for the world’s fifth largest investment bank, which, during its 90-year run, had developed a maverick reputation in the white-shoe culture of investment banking.

During the wee hours of March 24, 2008, just before Asian markets opened, the federal government forced Bear to announce its sale for a few pennies on the dollar to JPMorgan Chase, an offer that would not have been made without government assistance.

The deal was backstopped by the Federal Reserve’s commitment to buy upwards of $30 billion worth of mortgage-based securities in Bear’s portfolio that Morgan regarded as “too toxic to touch.” It was hoped that the Bear rescue would stem any fallout from spreading into the larger financial world, which many policymakers viewed as likely following the failure of a major investment bank.

Bear’s collapse was a critical event signaling the start of a great unraveling. One of the things that made Bear’s demise such a watershed event was the federal government’s direct involvement in orchestrating the deal that saved the company from having to file for bankruptcy.

Previously, the federal government would become so intimately involved only when a deposit-taking commercial or savings bank got into financial trouble.

If they screwed up and failed? Others would learn from their mistakes. That’s what was supposed to happen under capitalism. That is until the federal government got bushwhacked by Bear, a “don’t get no respect” underdog, and found itself in a jam.

So the feds had to throw out the standard game plan, even if it meant the Federal Reserve buying $30 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities from Bear that nobody else would touch as the financial tsunami of 2008 began rolling across the globe.

Bear Steams may have ceased to exist on March 24, 2008, but it continued to haunt the financial world like Marley’s ghost for months thereafter as the global meltdown continued, marked by formerly solid financial institutions turning into basket cases that could no longer survive on their own – after years of shooting up on short-term borrowings and boozing away on risky trades that blew up in their faces.

At the beginning of 2008, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and Bear were the five largest stand-alone investment banks in the world. By the end of the year all would be gone.

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were converted to bank holding companies while Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch was acquired by Bank of America. These supposedly omnipotent institutions proved to be giants with feet of clay.

The financial crisis precipitated the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, costing millions of Americans their jobs, homes, life savings and hopes for decent retirements. Since then, workers’ median incomes have effectively stayed unchanged while inequality between the top and bottom of the income scale has risen sharply.

Meanwhile, we recently learned from the New York State comptroller that Wall Street banks handed out $28.5 billion in bonuses in 2014. The average bonus was $172,860, more than three times the median household income of about $52,000. To say that anyone is surprised would be selling the truth below wholesale.

It’s reassuring to know that some folks have recovered very nicely from the financial crisis. But Main Street America will apparently have to learn to live with the wounds from the financial crisis.

originally published: March 28, 2015

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