8 years ago, Lehman Brothers became the 'only true icon to fall in a tsunami' that rocked the global economy

On September 15, 2008 investment banking giant Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, becoming the largest bankruptcy by asset value.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers set off shockwaves throughout global markets and economies.

The Dow dropped over 500 points, a 4.4% fall, in one day. The US economy was well on its way to recession. People were even questioning the future of capitalism.

It’s hard to sum up the impact of that day, but the judge in Lehman’s bankruptcy proceedings — James Peck — described the overwhelming fear of the moment fairly well.

In his decision to allow Lehman to let Barclays purchase its core US assets for $1.3 billion (for reference, all of Lehman’s assets were worth over $600 billion prior to the bankruptcy), Peck laid out just how momentous the case was. According to reports, Peck declared in open court:

“I have to approve this transaction because it is the only available transaction. Lehman Brothers became a victim, in effect the only true icon to fall in a tsunami that has befallen the credit markets. This is the most momentous bankruptcy hearing I’ve ever sat through. It can never be deemed precedent for future cases. It’s hard for me to imagine a similar emergency.”

While “victim” may be a bit dubious to some given that Lehman executed the trades and decided to hold the assets that lead to its downfall, the bankruptcy did, however, become a wake up call to other banks and the government that drastic measures needed to be taken in order to save the financial system.

The “tsunami” term was a fairly common phrase during that hectic time, even Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld used it to describe the collapse of his firm while defending himself from the New York Comptroller in 2009.

Three days later, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke went to Congress with the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, which came to be known at the bailout of the rest of the banks.

The Fed slashed rates all the way down to zero, the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor, spiked to historic levels, and two presidential administrations worked for years to repair the damage from the crisis.

As Deutsche Bank strategist Jim Reid wrote in a note to clients on Thursday, the market has come a long way since the Lehman collapse. Bond yields are significantly lower as central bank buying through quantitative easing has driven up prices in the market. Reid notes that the 10-year yield on the day of collapse was 3.389% compared to just 1.698%.

In addition, Reid noted the huge comeback for stocks and massive changes in commodities.

“At the other end of the risk spectrum, the S&P 500 at 2,126 now is up a whopping +102% in total return terms in the 8 years,” said the note. “In commodity markets Gold has risen from $787 an ounce to $1323 an ounce now, or +73% while WTI Oil has more than halved from $101 per barrel to the current $44 per barrel level.”

There are still issues, US GDP growth remains sluggish, and the impact from the massive central bank actions have not yet worked themselves through the economy.

Certainly the Lehman bankruptcy was not the beginning of the “tsunami” nor was it the end, but may be the crest of the wave that made everyone realise just how rough the crash was going to be.

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