This month marks the anniversary of the collapse of Bear Stearns, once Wall Street’s fifth-largest investment bank. The demise of the 85-year old institution signaled the real start of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Eight years later, we can only hope our leaders learned something from the experience.
The collapse and Bear’s subsequent bailout by the Federal Reserve, with the support of the Treasury Department and JPMorgan Chase sent shockwaves throughout the financial system. Bear’s incredibly rapid demise raised serious questions about the banking industry’s use of leverage, inadequate oversight of commercial and investment banks, and the role of the Fed and other regulators in preventing the failure of major financial institutions.
Late on Sunday afternoon, March 16, 2008, Bear’s board of directors accepted JPMorgan Chase’s offer to purchase the company. Less than 18 months after its stock was trading at an all-time high of $172.61 a share, Bear Stearns had little choice but to accept the humiliating offer of $2 a share.
JPMorgan Chase later raised the bid to $10 per share and the Fed provided $30 billion in collateral guarantees to facilitate the deal. The Fed considered Bear too large and too interconnected to fail and saw no choice but to arrange a bailout to prevent a global market crisis. It was hoped that the Bear rescue would nip the problem in the bud and avoid the damage to the larger financial world that many policymakers thought would result from the failure of a major investment bank.
The precise nature of the transaction seemed unclear, but the Fed appeared to be accepting responsibility for the toxic, illiquid assets on Bear’s balance sheet if their eventual liquidation resulted in a loss. In this sense, it appeared that the Fed became the residual owner of these securities and put the federal taxpayer on the hook for Bear’s reckless risk taking activities. Some believe that this action exceeded the Fed’s power.
The first sign of trouble at Bear was the July 2007 collapse of two of its hedge funds. The funds had invested heavily in collateralized debt obligations backed by subprime mortgages, and their failure alerted the rest of the financial system to this contagion.
The hedge funds’ collapse also raised concerns about the firm’s own exposure to mortgage-related securities. It damaged the firm’s reputation, weakened its finances and served as the precursor to Bear’s ultimate collapse. Within a year “the plumbing had stopped working” and credit ceased to flow through the financial system.
Hopes that a global financial crisis could be averted proved misplaced just six months later when Lehman Brothers, another bank that was heavily involved in the mortgage business and was even larger than Bear filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on September 15, 2008. The public backlash against the Bear bailout made rescuing the 158 year-old Lehman Brothers politically untenable, especially just weeks before a hotly contested presidential election.
The 2008-2009 financial crisis proved to be the most expensive in history. On July 21, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd Frank), one of the most sweeping financial reforms in U.S. history.
The law’s stated aim is to “promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end ‘too big to fail,’ to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.” Essentially, Congress’s intent was to reduce system-wide risk and to prevent another financial collapse.
Let’s hope policy makers actually learned enough about how the economy and the financial system fit together from the 2008-2009 financial crisis to avoid future learning experiences. They would be well advised to recall the words of that prolific author, anonymous, who said, “The past is prologue: but which past?”
originally published: March 5, 2016