Stock market boom doesn’t float everyone’s boat

Forgetting history is an American pastime. The current bull market that ranks among the great rallies in stock market history began 10 years ago this month, just about the time when Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” was the number one song in America.

The stock market party has been going on for a decade, but many Americans have not been invited. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index has soared over 300 percent since March 2009, but the gains are heavily concentrated among the richest families.

The richest families are far more likely to own stocks than are middle- or working-class families. Eighty-nine percent of families with incomes over $100,000 have at least some money in the market, compared with just 21 percent of households earning $30,000 or less, according to a Gallup survey.

Overall, 62 percent of families owned stocks before 2008. That number has fallen to 54 percent, the Gallup poll found. The psychological and financial damage inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession continue to weigh heavily on the average American, just as memories of the Great Depression influenced financial habits for decades.

In March 2008, the Financial Meltdown, Financial Apocalypse, Financial Collapse – call it what you will – began, with the feds arranging a shotgun marriage between Bear Stearns and JPMorgan Chase. In March 2008, Bear Stearns, the smallest of the five major Wall Street investment banks, was unable to fund its operations and was bleeding cash, having lost the confidence of the market. The feds were faced with a choice between letting the company fail or taking extraordinary steps to rescue it. They choose the latter.

Bear Stearns was sold to the JPMorgan Chase, with the Federal Reserve providing $29 billion as an inducement to the acquiring bank. Bear Stearns may have ceased to exist as an independent firm, but it continued to haunt the financial world like Marley’s Ghost for months thereafter. Its collapse signaled the real start of the financial crisis. Bear’s demise started a banking liquidity crisis in which financial institutions became unwilling to lend to each other, and credit markets seized up.

A growing number of formerly solid financial institutions were turned into basket cases. After their years of kindergarten management games, shooting up on short-term borrowings, ample use of leverage fueled by low interest rates, and binging on risky trades blew up in their faces. Freezing their lending to businesses and individuals alike caused vast portion of the nation’s business activity to grind to a halt, leading to the Great Recession.

The Financial Meltdown of 2008 was one of the most critical events in American history, a biblical-style plague tanked the stock market by nearly 60 percent in the fall of 2008, killing off other financial and credit markets in the process. Banks and firms either vanished into bankruptcy or had to be rescued by taxpayers. The financial system nearly collapsed, triggering an economic crisis.

The deepest recession in decades wiped out some $11 trillion of wealth and vaporized more than eight million American jobs by September 2009. It froze up the nation’s vast financial credit system, leaving many firms without enough cash to operate. It forced the Federal government to spend $2.8 trillion and commit another $8.2 trillion in taxpayer funds to bail out crippled corporations like General Motors, Chrysler, Citigroup, AIG and a host of other too-big-to-fail private institutions.

In addition to their jobs, it cost millions of Americans their homes, life savings, and hopes for a decent retirement. These Americans were in no position to invest in stocks and benefit from the subsequent run-up in the stock market. By contrast, the wealthy have gotten even richer.

This was a cataclysm far worse than any natural disaster the nation has experienced, and its ripples continue to be felt today.

Originally Published: March 29, 2019.