Ten years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers brought the American economy to its knees, many are asking an obvious question: When will the next financial crisis hit? If one accepts the basic tenet developed by Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner – that we learn from the consequences of our behavior – the answer is likely sooner rather than later.
The great irony of the 2008 financial collapse is that Wall Street, whose reckless risk-taking drove the financial system over the precipice, suffered very few, if any, consequences for its actions. The crisis cost millions of people their jobs and their homes, devastated cities and towns across the nation and stripped away trillions of dollars in household wealth from the middle class. But the big banks barely skipped a beat, paying no real economic, legal or political price for their misconduct.
Rescued by a multitrillion-dollar taxpayer bailout undertaken through more than two dozen federal financial aid programs, Wall Street quickly returned to the black, ushering in a period of record bank profits. By 2010, compensation at publicly traded Wall Street firms hit a new record and, by 2011, the nation’s 10 biggest banks controlled more than three-quarters of the country’s banking assets.
While North American banks have paid more than $200 billion in fines for crisis-era wrongdoing, including mortgage securities fraud, interest rate manipulation, money laundering and municipal bond bid rigging, those fines were paid by shareholders (read: your 401(k), mutual fund or pension fund), not the executives responsible for the misconduct. Indeed, the Justice Department failed to hold a single senior executive on Wall Street civilly or criminally accountable for the actions leading to these massive fines, undermining efforts to deter future malfeasance and breeding anger and cynicism about the fairness of our legal and political systems.
As the crisis receded, major financial institutions never undertook the critical self-analysis or the fundamental cultural changes warranted by the debacle they caused. There were no sweeping, industry-wide reforms in corporate practices, including executive compensation, nor were there any deeply held acknowledgments of responsibility. All of which is quite remarkable given the extent of the damage caused by the big banks and former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s assessment that, in the wake of the Lehman bankruptcy, 12 of the nation’s 13 most important financial firms were at risk of failure within a period of one to two weeks.
Indeed to the contrary, ever since the American people helped Wall Street off the mat, financial firms have waged a fierce, rearguard action against reform. Since 2008, they have spent more than $3 billion in federal lobbying and campaign contributions seeking to deprive regulators of the funds needed to do their jobs and block common-sense rules in Congress, at regulatory agencies and in the courts. Today, they are working hand in hand with the Trump administration and its Republican congressional allies to roll back key safeguards put in place in response to the crisis.
They have found success on many fronts, including removing heightened scrutiny for 25 of the nation’s largest banks; hobbling the already feeble system of punishment for financial wrongdoing; overturning the fiduciary rule requiring financial advisers to act in the interests of their clients; and depriving financial consumers of the right to go to court when wronged. And they have more targets in sight – from weakening the Volcker rule to reducing capital requirements to eviscerating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
After the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the United States enjoyed five decades of financial system stability and sustained economic progress by virtue of tough New Deal financial reforms and a widely accepted rejection of the Wall Street excesses that led to disaster. The consequences of that calamity changed behavior for decades, with the financial calm finally giving way only when the financial industry pushed for savings and loan deregulation as memories of the Depression faded.
This time around, the big banks never changed their ways, not even for a decade, let alone five. Then again, why should they have? It had all worked out fine for them. Unlike Skinner’s laboratory rats, Wall Street never experienced the consequences of its actions. That’s bad news for the rest of us.
Phil Angelides, a Democrat and former California state treasurer, served as chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter