Special Excerpt from “The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It”

The Bankers' New ClothesYesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy in 2008, sending our economy into a tailspin. To note this occasion, we posted a list of some of our Top Banking Books to help people try to figure out what in the world is going on with our economy.
Along that same thread, today we have a special excerpt of The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It by Anat Admati & Martin Hellwig posted below. In this excerpt (pages 11-12 to be exact), Admati and Hellwig address the Lehman Brothers fall and the ripple affect it had on America and even other countries abroad.
As a whole, the book addresses how risks in banking can impose significant costs on the economy. Many think that a safer banking system would require sacrificing lending and economic growth, but Admati and Hellwig  argue that we can have a safer and healthier banking system without sacrificing any of the benefits of the system, and at essentially no cost to society.
Check out the excerpt below!

In the run-up to the financial crisis, the debts of many large banks financed 97 percent or more of their assets. Lehman Brothers in the United States, Hypo Real Estate in Germany, Dexia in Belgium and France, and UBS in Switzerland had many hundreds of billions of dollars, euros, or Swiss francs in debt. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in September 2008. The other three avoided bankruptcy only because they were bailed out by their governments.


The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy caused severe disruption and damage to the global financial system. Stock prices imploded, investors withdrew from money market funds, money market funds refused to renew their loans to banks, and banks stopped lending to each other. Banks furiously tried to sell assets, which further depressed prices. Within two weeks, many banks faced the prospect of default.


To prevent a complete meltdown of the system, governments and central banks all over the world provided financial institutions with funding and with guarantees for the institutions’ debts. These interventions stopped the decline, but the downturn in economic activity was still the sharpest since the Great Depression. Anton Valukas, the lawyer appointed by the bankruptcy court to investigate Lehman Brothers, put it succinctly: “Everybody got hurt. The entire economy has suffered from the fall of Lehman Brothers . . . the whole world.”


In the fall of 2008, many financial institutions besides Lehman Brothers were also vulnerable. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) that “out of maybe . . . 13 of the most important financial institutions in the United States, 12 were at risk of failure within a period of a week or two.” Some or all of the major banks in Belgium, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom failed or were at significant risk of failing had their governments not bailed them out.


Accounts of the crisis often focus on the various breakdowns of bank funding between August 2007 and October 2008. Much bank funding consisted of very short-term debt. Banks were therefore vulnerable to the risk that this debt would not be renewed. The deeper reason for the breakdowns, however, was that banks were highly indebted. When banks suffered losses, investors, including other financial institutions, lost confidence and cut off funding, fearing that the banks might become unable to repay their debts.


The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy itself heightened investors’ concerns by showing that even a large financial institution might not be bailed out, and therefore that default of such an institution was a real possibility.


The problem posed by some banks being regarded as too big to fail is greater today than it was in 2008. Since then, the largest U.S. banks have become much larger. On March 31, 2012, the debt of JPMorgan Chase was valued at $2.13 trillion and that of Bank of America at $1.95 trillion, more than three times the debt of Lehman Brothers. The debts of the five largest banks in the United States totaled around $8 trillion. These figures would have been even larger under the accounting rules used in Europe.


In Europe, the largest banks are of similar size. Because European economies are smaller than that of the United States, the problem is even more serious there. Relative to the overall economy, banks are significantly larger in Europe than in the United States, especially in some of the smaller countries. In Ireland and Iceland before the crisis, the banking systems had become so large that, when the banks failed, these countries’ economies collapsed.


The traumatic Lehman experience has scared most governments into believing that large global banks must not be allowed to fail. Should any of these large banks get into serious difficulties, however, we may discover that they are not only too big to fail but also too big to save. There will be no good options.


The consequences of letting a large bank fail are probably more severe today than in the case of Lehman Brothers in 2008, but saving them might cripple their countries. The experiences of Ireland and Spain provide a taste of what can happen if large banking systems have to be saved by their governments. In both countries, the governments were unable to deal with their banking problems on their own, so they had to ask for support from the International Monetary Fund and from the European Union.