Did We Learn Nothing From the 2008 Crisis?

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

September 2008 was a whirlwind month for Michael Grynbaum, then a markets reporter for the New York Times. A self-described “newbie” to the paper’s business desk (he had previously worked on the metro desk), Grynbaum was immediately thrust into reporting on a financial maelstrom, a period which included the collapse of Lehman Brothers (otherwise known as the largest bankruptcy filing in United States history), the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, the transformation of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley into bank holding companies, and what very well could have been the collapse of the nation’s economy.

Among Grynbaum’s responsibilities was “covering all the daily market plunges and the economic reports,” he told me, which meant he was busy that September, trying to keep pace (along with the other Times reporters like Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jenny Anderson, Eric Dash, and Michael de la Merced, among others) with a tumultuous flurry of daily breaking news. “As a reporter, you couldn’t divert your gaze for one minute,” says Diana B. Henriques, then a senior financial writer for the Times. “It was like an atomic blast, with ripples going in every direction.”

One of those ripples was the House of Representative’s September 29th vote on a $700 billion economic rescue plan; despite pleas from both President George W. Bush and Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, the House voted down the bill, 228-205, a move which prompted the Dow Jones Industrial Average to fall nearly 800 points.

Grynbaum remembers reporters and editors gathering around TV screens scattered about the Times’ newsroom to watch the landmark vote, and as it became clear the proposal (which entailed using taxpayer money to buy and absorb troubled assets) would fail, “an eerie silence fell over the newsroom,”he says. And then, “The Bloomberg machines started flashing red: the market was plunging.” He soon realized on that late September day a decade ago that he had to write the “breaking story about a historic stock collapse.”

“Everyone was working on adrenaline, aware of how consequential this moment was,” he says of the coverage:

At 1:30 p.m. the House began to vote on the rescue package that Mr. Paulson and Congressional leaders negotiated over the weekend. About 10 minutes later, when it became clear that the legislation was in trouble, the stock market went into a free fall, with the Dow plunging about 400 points in five minutes.

At his home office in Great Neck, N.Y., Edward Yardeni, the investment strategist, received terse e-mail messages from clients and friends. “Is this the end of the world?” one asked. Another sent a simple plea: “Stop the world, I want to get off.”

At some point, Grynbaum thought to call his parents, suddenly aware of the affects a stock market free-fall would have on their 401(k)s and portfolios, which were “taking a massive hit.” Ten years later, and another Great Depression averted, and Grynbaum can recall those weeks with some necessary and illuminating perspective, adding, “It was a thrilling and slightly scary time to be covering Wall Street.”

To others intimately involved with the roller-coaster fall of 2008, like Gary Cohn, then the president of Goldman Sachs, that same sense of measured introspection is notably lacking.

Since resigning as the director of the National Economic Council, Cohn has emerged as arguably the lone sane voice operating within the current chaos—aka within the Trump administration. First there were reports of his near-resignation following President Trump’s comments on the violence in Charlottesville, VA, and Bob Woodward’s recently published Fear alleged Cohn removed letters from Trump’s desk, thus saving trade agreements with several countries. During a period in which many feel as if they are vainly screaming into a void, Cohn’s protests—real and alleged—have endeared him to those looking for any sort of official resistance.

But that aura shattered around the time of the collapse’s ten-year anniversary. During an interview with Reuters, Cohn outlined the primary cause of the financial crisis, and surprisingly, the former Goldman exec largely laid the blame on Main Street’s front porch, saying,

“Who broke the law? I just want to know who you think broke the law. Was the waitress in Las Vegas who had six houses leveraged at 100 percent with no income, was she reckless and stupid? Or was the banker reckless and stupid?”

Cohn’s comments echo a popular opinion for many of those in the financial industry, and yet, that doesn’t disqualify his statements as anything less than mind bogglingly obtuse. It’s easy to navel-gaze in an attempt to diagnose the financial near-collapse and subsequent recession: yes, Americans became entranced with debt—at the bubble’s peak, the average American owned 13 credit cards—and yes, people flagrantly spent, running up an average household debt of roughly $15,000. But to absolve Wall Street and its employees is negligent, and ignorant that Wall Street became just as cozy with risk. Lehman Brothers and its ilk posted leverages (or the debt to equity ratio) of $30-plus to $1, and the notion that these investment firms, which were in the midst of accumulating massive annual profits (and bonuses for its executives), heeded any attempt to self-regulate proved farcical.

So yes, while that waitress accumulated homes (a fictionalized anecdote that borrows heavily from Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which recounts a similar—but not exact—instance), Wall Street was creating—and profiting spectacularly off of—the vehicles that allowed people to gamble so recklessly. The events of 2008 were the result of one massive feedback loop: the embrace of a free market economy led to lax oversight of financial firms, which enabled banks to pursue strategies that would lead to tumescent payouts. As the housing market was seen as the bedrock of the American economy, those strategies sought to commercialize that stability, and thus complex and complicated securities and derivatives like CDOs, MBSs, and CDSs were born; everyone wanted to get rich now, and those catchy acronyms allowed both the American people and banking execs to plunge ahead. Greed on Wall Street fueled greed on Main Street (and vice versa), until the very thing that inflated the bubble—debt—was so overextended that it had no other option but to fail. The illusion couldn’t hide anymore.

Cohn may have been the sanest person in the White House, but that he would lay the blame squarely on Main Street is utterly preposterous, and suggests a lack of nuance and perspective that—ten years after the nation’s economy nearly collapsed—is frightening. In Margin Call, a 2011 film which is arguably the best depiction of the financial crisis, Jeremy Irons plays the CEO of an investment bank that, thanks to the levels of risk it carries on its books, is threatened with extinction. After a 24 hour period in which the firm survives by unloading its risk onto Wall Street (thus eliminating its own exposure but contributing to the toxicity that soon engulfs the financial world), Irons justifies the bank’s actions:

It’s just money. It’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other to get something to eat. It’s not wrong. And it’s certainly no different today than its ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, ’37, ’57, ’84, 1901, ’07, ’29, 1937, 1974, 1987—Jesus didn’t that fuck me up good!—’92, ’97, 2000, and whatever we want to call this. It’s all just the same thing over and over. We can’t help ourselves. You and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it, or even so slightly alter it. We just react, and we make a lot of money if we get it right, and we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been, and there always will be, the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy fucks and sad sacks, fat cats and starving dogs in this world.

That speech is a perfect encapsulation of what happened in 2008. There is none of this equivocation of whoever deserves a greater share of blame, and Irons’ monologue contains more truth and accuracy than anything Cohn is peddling on his rehabilitation tour.