What did you do in the great financial crash, grandad?

Reuters European HQ in Canary Wharf London, pictured in 2006
I remember asking my grandfather what he’d done in the Second World War and his answer held me spellbound.

Whether tales of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 that more or less kicked off ten years ago today will similarly capture children’s imagination in years to come seems unlikely, even though its lessons are arguably not too much less significant for future generations.

Why? Because failing to learn the lessons of the past bodes ill for an ever more integrated global financial system and world economy, and that means his, your, my – our wealth and prosperity. Yes, that supposedly complex process of financial regulation has tightened, lending practices have changed. But, ten years on from the start of the crisis, there remain significant threats – the threat of inflationary surges in commodity prices, the risks of deflationary collapses, the problems of house-price bubbles and subprime lending elsewhere, the implications of high levels of consumer debt, and not forgetting disagreements over the best policy to counter excessive credit growth.

The last of these is nothing new – the old adage that if all economists were laid end-to-end they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion remains as true now as it was when it was first coined by George Bernard Shaw.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is that seemingly isolated events can converge to threaten catastrophe. And that’s one lesson that hopefully has been learned.

Alastair Darling, the former UK Finance Minister (or ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer’ as the role is formally designated) in 2007 told the BBC recently that “something that can start apparently as a small ripple in the water can become mountainous seas very quickly.”

In 2007 I had a ringside seat as a financial journalist at Reuters. At the time I was helping to manage the news agency’s relationship with the then International Herald Tribune and working as part of the Top News Team, a global 24/7 group of journalists who kept all Reuters publishing platforms updated with the big financial and political story of the day.

Based at Canary Wharf, we were barely a stone’s throw from the offices of Lehman Brothers, which was to collapse spectacularly a year later in September 2008, a cataclysmic event that is still to this day the largest bankruptcy filing in US history.

But in the early summer of 2007, the warning signs of a looming crisis were only slowly coming together, and they still appeared somewhat unconnected to the unwary eye.

Sitting in the daily morning news briefings over the previous months, I listened as colleagues rattled off details of one seemingly problematic but apparently isolated event after another – big swings in the stock markets, a boom in commodity prices, a deepening subprime mortgage crisis in the US with growing numbers of foreclosures and repossessions, and loudly-voiced fears of a recession from the former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

Outside the morning briefings, meanwhile, one banking contact after another called to say they’d been unexpectedly fired. One on his return from a family vacation in Africa. Another after being summoned back to an emergency meeting from his holiday home in Spain and forced to hand back his security pass and company car key – the vehicle itself was apparently left at Barcelona airport for months. My contacts book thinned out as banks surreptitiously began a silent bloodletting.

Eventually came the disclosure that BNP Paribas was preventing investors from redeeming cash from three of its own funds and the floodgates opened – bad news got worse, and worse still. Bankers began to be fired in their droves. Some celebrated the humbling of the so-called Masters of the Universe. Others fretted about the broader implications given banks’ role in the integrated global economy.

On the very day 10 years ago exactly when colleagues reported BNP Paribas’s decision, other financial services companies claimed there was no undue cause for concern over the prevailing market conditions.

The chief executive of French insurer AXA declared there was ‘no systemic crisis at the moment’ while the finance chief of Germany’s Commerzbank said the problems in the US subprime market were ‘not a major issue’.

Panic came soon enough. Queues appeared outside banks as customers rushed to withdraw funds and a series of catastrophes as apparently ‘too big to fail’ banks stumbled and collapsed, Governments rushed to launch costly bail outs and some observers mulled the end of capitalism. On the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse I found myself interviewing sacked bankers as they exited their nearby headquarters, cardboard boxes of possessions in hand.

Workers leave Lehman Brothers' HQ after the bank's collapse - copyright Reuters Andrew Winning After 18 months of writing ever more dire stories about the crisis, I changed jobs and moved to the World Economic Forum in Geneva as its editor-in-chief. At Davos the following year, all the talk was of a fundamental reboot of the financial system, even if no one could quite agree what that would entail. Shaw would doubtless have chuckled at that, I reflected.

Ten years on, some of the causes are apparent – failures in financial regulation, lapses in corporate governance, excessive household borrowing, and a failure by regulators and lawmakers to really understand how the financial system they were supposed to be responsible for actually worked.

Could it happen again? Arguably, yes. The banks are stronger, risk management is better understood, and consumer lending has been tightened up. Whole new structures of financial regulation have been devised and implemented. But reports of a subprime crisis in car loans, an equities boom apparently at odds with global sentiment and much volatility elsewhere all serve as a reminder that when financial institutions see one income source dry up, they just hunt around for another.

So what has the decade since 2007 taught us? Perhaps only that financial regulation is no more sophisticated an activity than whack-a-mole. If so, at least it’s an analogy my grandchildren will understand.

The copyright to all images belongs to Reuters.

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