A Year After the Bang

A look back at the year of recession shows that the nature of the global economy has not changed.

Today marks exactly a year since the huge explosion that was heard round the world, from Wall Street to Beijing. It was the sound of Lehman Brothers crashing down, unable to stand against the financial hurricane.

The noise from the fall of the massive investment bank was so loud, and its impact so traumatic, that many thought the crash began on September 15, 2008. That is untrue. The count should start earlier, on July 17, 2007.

That was the day a hedge fund belonging to Bear Stearns (another major Wall Street investment bank) went bankrupt. They called it the subprime crisis, and it marked the end of the "seven fat years," during which the American consumer went on an uninhibited buying spree. He took out mortgages without a thought, bought homes and cars, and flooded his home with the most modern electronics available, in the spirit of live now, because there is no tomorrow.

In September 2007, a large British mortgage bank, Northern Rock, collapsed. Then, in March 2008, Bear Stearns itself collapsed. But no one wanted to believe that we were in the midst of a huge financial crisis. Investment managers and brokers said that now, when stock prices had dropped, was an opportunity to buy. And that brings us to the first lesson: Never believe investment managers and brokers. They always speak in favor of the stock they hold.

Then came September 15, 2008, and Lehman Brothers went broke. At that point, it was clear to everyone that we were in the midst of the largest financial crash since 1929.

But the Republican administration wanted to show strength. It refused to put up money to save Lehman Brothers, due to a principle: that taxpayers' money should not be used to rescue a private business. Thus overnight, an enormous investment bank was wiped out, and the entire world was shocked: The public lost faith, stock markets collapsed, banks went bankrupt and panic spread everywhere.

Thus the second lesson is that there are circumstances in which a business can be "too big to fail." There are situations in which a business cannot be allowed to go bankrupt because the cost to the economy would be too high. And indeed, after learning the lesson of Lehman Brothers, the Bush administration changed direction. It no longer dared to allow another giant to fail. It spent trillions of dollars to rescue the insurance firm AIG, Citibank and the Bank of America, the largest financial institutions in the world.

The third stage of the global crisis was the transition from a financial crisis to a real one: a worldwide recession, businesses closing down and laying off workers, unemployment. This happened when the banks went into shock and stopped loaning money. Suddenly, everything seemed too risky. A moment earlier, they had been making loans without a care in the world, recklessly. But when everything collapsed, they stopped loaning money. And without financing, which is like oil in the cogs of the economic engine, the global economy began grinding to a halt, stopping, and even going backward, into genuine negative growth. Thus the world found itself in a recession during the last quarter of 2008.

A look back at the year of recession shows that the nature of the global economy has not changed. We have not moved from a free market economy to a socialist model. Western governments have not intervened in the management of businesses. The U.S. administration is not managing the banks it saved.

The market economy remains the best system out there, but everyone knows that it is not perfect. There are market failures, especially in the capital markets. And this leads us to the third lesson: It is necessary to bolster oversight of the capital markets, and also to alter the way senior managers are compensated, so that they no longer have an incentive to take unreasonable risks.

The fourth lesson is the most important of all: Anyone who lives beyond his means will one day pay with tenfold interest. When 300 million Americans party for seven years on loans they took out from the Chinese, the day will come when those loans blow up in their faces.

Those who sanctified the culture of consumption and lowered their savings rate to zero were bound to crash. In contrast, those who behaved relatively responsibly, did not go crazy taking loans and did not exceed their budget too greatly are now reaping the rewards. Therefore, Israel is one of the first economies to begin emerging from the crisis - just one year after the big bang.