Reliving the financial meltdown, ten years later

CNN's Chief Business Correspondent Christine Romans looks back on what it was like covering the financial crisis that ushered in the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Posted: Sep 13, 2018 9:49 AM
Updated: Sep 13, 2018 10:13 AM

When John Taylor starts remembering the years leading up to the financial crisis, his fury wells up all over again.

As president of the nonprofit National Community Reinvestment Coalition, he warned Congress about the predatory and fraudulent lending that was fueling a housing bubble as early as 2000. Lawmakers told the Federal Reserve to write rules that would have put a stop to the worst practices. But the crash came first.

"Thinking about it now, I can feel myself being angry about it," says Taylor, in a soft accent left over from his upbringing in the housing projects of Boston. "Because we fought when we saw these things happening. We brought it to the attention of both Democrats and Republicans. In the end, it took the nation's economy having to collapse before they felt the need to do something."

The mounting crisis turned into a full-blown crash nearly 10 years ago, when Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in United States history on September 15, 2008. Stuffed to the gills with bad mortgages, it sustained heavy losses as housing prices dropped, and imploded after multiple acquisition deals fell through.

The collapse set off a chain reaction of bank failures that required unprecedented federal action to unwind.

Now, with a buoyant economy finally starting to lift some of the United States' most depressed pockets, CNNMoney is taking a look back at the decade following the financial meltdown — and the signs that something similar might again be on the horizon, as Congress and regulators begin to loosen some of the rules they put in place to fix and prevent the problems.

"We're sitting here, 10 years later, with a short-term memory that doesn't seem to recall how we got into that mess," Taylor says. "We got into that mess because of the lack of regulation, and now we're talking about making banks less accountable. It makes no sense whatsoever."

The scars that remain

Of course, America has come a long way since the Federal Reserve and the Treasury had to step in to save the banking system from going under. Corporate profits are at record highs, the unemployment rate is at an 18-year low and the Dow Jones Industrial Average has nearly quadrupled since its Recession-era nadir in 2009.

But this is still a changed country. By many metrics, and for millions of Americans, the recovery has yet to arrive. Take the homeownership rate, for example: Only in 2017 did it stop its long downward slide, after private equity investors bought hundreds of thousands of foreclosed homes and rented them back to their former owners, many of whom saw their credit so badly damaged that they can never buy again. Male workforce participation is still nearly as low as it's ever been, since blue-collar professions were particularly hard hit and haven't totally bounced back.

The recovery has deepened the divide in other ways: Geographically, with big tech hubs and cities rich with natural resources booming and the Rust Belt falling behind. By education level, with people with bachelors degrees rejoining the workforce faster than those who dropped out of college or only graduated high school. And by income, with most gains going to households in the top 10% of the wage scale.

Median household net worth remains below where it stood in 1998, according to the Federal Reserve, even as households take on more debt than ever before. There's also a shortage of affordable housing, a legacy of the drought in both mortgage and construction lending that lasted long after the worst days of the recession had passed.

Memories of those difficult days seem to have faded from the public consciousness, as have the lessons we learned on how we got there in the first place.

Related: My road back from the Great Recession

Congress tried to answer this question when it established the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, and its 2011 autopsy of the meltdown remains excellent reading today. Its fundamental conclusion: The financial crisis was not like a freak weather event, as some bankers and regulators had claimed. Rather, it was man-made, predictable and entirely avoidable.

If only lawmakers hadn't knocked out the legal guardrails in the 1990s that had kept banks small and relatively uncomplicated. If only bank CEOs had thought more critically about the complex securities they had created and traded with abandon. If only the Federal Reserve had acted to stop the flow of toxic mortgages that would rot through the core of the nation's largest financial institutions — they could have saved the global economy from disaster, the commission found.

A missed opportunity to change the system

Even as the commission's report was being drafted, however, the next chapter of the recession was unfolding.

In 2009, President Obama pushed through a stimulus package worth $787 billion in an effort to save jobs, and launched home mortgage modification programs to help those at risk of foreclosure.

A year later, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 established new oversight bodies to coordinate the alphabet soup of regulators that had avoided responsibility by acting in silos. It also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was explicitly charged with monitoring malfeasance by lenders. It instructed financial regulators to draft new rules for derivatives, credit bureaus, mortgage appraisals, executive compensation, corporate governance and other factors that played a role in the economy's implosion.

Related: The stunning downfall of Bear Stearns and its bridge-playing CEO

While most agree that the financial system is safer now than it was before the crisis, there's been abundant criticism of the adequacy of the response.

Many argue that bailouts for homeowners should have been much more generous, in order to avoid more foreclosures and to better stabilize neighborhoods, and that banks should have been pushed harder to lend to qualified borrowers once new safeguards were put in place.

Others faulted Obama for not punishing the executives at fault for reckless lending. Although their firms — and thus shareholders — have paid out hundreds of billions of dollars in fines, none of the people running these investment banks and mortgage lenders went to jail. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission itself made eleven criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, and none were prosecuted. The commission's chairman Phil Angelides says the lack of action sent a message to Wall Street that consequences for individuals would be minimal.

"I believe it was a seminal failure of the Obama administration not to hold accountable the people responsible for the wrongdoing," Angelides says. "If someone robbed a 7-Eleven of $1,000, and were able to settle up by having someone else pay $50, would they do it again? Of course they would."

Related: Too-big-to-fail banks keep getting bigger

Banks have spent billions of dollars complying with Dodd-Frank, even while fighting the rules as they were written, contributing to long delays in implementation. As of mid-2016, 20% of the mandated rules hadn't been proposed at all.

The Treasury's independent Office of Financial Research, which Dodd-Frank established to serve as an early warning system for impending crises, has been dramatically scaled back.

More broadly, Anat Admati, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, argues that reformers missed their chance to increase transparency in the financial system and decrease the industry's dependence on debt, which could pose a risk as interest rates start to rise.

"We haven't had a major crisis and a bailout," says Admati. "But in terms of being prone to one, I'm disappointed that relatively little or not enough really changed."

Deregulation begins again

Earlier this spring, after years of attempts, Republicans passed the most significant rollback of Dodd-Frank regulations since the bill was enacted, with the help of 16 DemocratIc senators who voted to exempt banks with less than $250 billion in assets from enhanced supervision. The bill also frees most banks from having to report lending data used to police for discrimination and weakens mortgage underwriting standards, among a host of other provisions.

Meanwhile, President Trump's picks to head federal agencies overseeing the banks have either worked for the industry, like Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Jay Clayton, or have been harsh critics of the agency they've been put in charge of, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's acting director Mick Mulvaney. They have slowed or halted enforcement actions and rule making and imposed hiring freezes, limiting their ability to pursue fraud.

On the international level, the United States has withdrawn from some of its most important alliances, weakening relationships with countries like Canada, the UK and Germany that would become essential if a new crisis were to arise.

"The political economy landscape has shifted, with a fading commitment to international cooperation — ironically, the very kind of cooperation that prevented the crisis from becoming another Great Depression," said Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, in a speech last week.

Related: 10 years after Lehman, Mark Carney says another crisis could happen

Add to all of this an exuberant market and it again brings big risks, from rising corporate debt to cyber threats that can cripple whole companies in an instant. In combination with weaker tools to address financial failures when they occur, Columbia Law professor Kathryn Judge worries that these industry-friendly regulators again won't take action when they need to.

"There's been a shift from safety to growth," Judge says. "But if you want to have a growth-oriented system, then you have to accept that there's going to be fragility. How are we going to deal with that fragility when it becomes manifest?"

A Decade Later: It's been 10 years since the financial crisis rocked America's economy. In a special series, CNNMoney examines the causes of the crisis, how the country is still feeling its effects, and the lessons we have — and have not — learned.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of a story that first ran in March, 2018.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 996341

Reported Deaths: 16245
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1343262101
Lake658231151
Allen57160791
Hamilton45963460
St. Joseph43954607
Elkhart35546503
Vanderburgh31975473
Tippecanoe27694256
Johnson24821440
Hendricks23647353
Porter22735362
Madison18538404
Clark18383248
Vigo17274300
Monroe15117197
LaPorte14987249
Delaware14931256
Howard14574286
Kosciusko12166147
Hancock11597175
Bartholomew11447179
Warrick11225188
Floyd10983214
Wayne10840248
Grant9898217
Morgan9361176
Boone8819115
Dubois8210129
Dearborn815492
Henry8107150
Noble7944106
Marshall7786134
Cass7462119
Lawrence7379168
Shelby7115114
Jackson691788
Gibson6480113
Harrison641591
Huntington630299
Knox6269105
DeKalb623796
Montgomery6184109
Miami586595
Putnam573477
Clinton567171
Whitley558055
Steuben550473
Wabash5250101
Jasper520475
Jefferson504695
Ripley492485
Adams472773
Daviess4596112
Scott433968
Greene421196
Wells419787
Clay418460
White414261
Decatur4118101
Fayette402186
Jennings383260
Posey374243
LaGrange352078
Washington352049
Randolph339999
Spencer336442
Fountain331858
Sullivan326652
Starke310868
Owen310169
Fulton304566
Orange290562
Jay278445
Perry264452
Franklin262742
Carroll258232
Rush257232
Vermillion254254
Parke229726
Pike227343
Tipton225659
Blackford187840
Pulaski181155
Crawford158122
Newton155648
Benton150117
Brown144047
Martin137319
Switzerland133911
Warren120116
Union106615
Ohio84012
Unassigned0532

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1494160

Reported Deaths: 23327
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1623021662
Cuyahoga1442512412
Hamilton1042291409
Montgomery729771240
Summit607921094
Lucas55462904
Butler50923707
Stark457361053
Lorain34972568
Warren32373369
Mahoning30168672
Clermont27861321
Lake26543434
Delaware23920162
Licking23442283
Trumbull22420552
Fairfield22117241
Greene22014311
Medina21673305
Clark19567349
Richland18260280
Portage17616247
Wood17174220
Allen15672269
Miami15305296
Muskingum14481174
Columbiana13656263
Wayne13538263
Tuscarawas12415298
Marion11760175
Scioto11336154
Pickaway11264141
Erie10613180
Ross10425196
Lawrence9638137
Hancock9504149
Ashtabula9410197
Belmont9086197
Geauga8795157
Jefferson8455191
Huron8193139
Union809156
Washington8009137
Sandusky7677145
Athens767072
Knox7571138
Darke7530151
Seneca7184144
Ashland6776125
Auglaize664896
Shelby6392111
Brown627382
Crawford6159130
Mercer606793
Defiance6059102
Fulton590596
Highland587199
Madison585776
Clinton575190
Logan569092
Guernsey568467
Preble5640121
Putnam5238108
Williams516784
Perry511761
Champaign502971
Jackson495470
Ottawa477886
Coshocton468382
Morrow449056
Pike429962
Fayette420760
Adams409987
Gallia409865
Hardin409276
Van Wert362378
Henry357171
Holmes3549122
Hocking350378
Wyandot316561
Carroll295459
Paulding275145
Meigs257849
Monroe212153
Noble195646
Morgan190132
Harrison177842
Vinton161724
Unassigned05
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