World changed, finance rules remain same post-Lehman

A New York trader reacts to the fall of global stock markets in September 2008.
The terrain of the financial world has changed since the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

It’s been one year since the U.S. stock market took its biggest decline since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the world slid into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. In its wake, the prestige of the United States has been tarnished and the importance of emerging markets like China has come into the spotlight. Governments around the world — from the United States to the United Kingdom, Japan and China — passed billion-dollar bailouts to bolster the economy and the world banking system. But one thing hasn’t yet changed since the seismic events last year — financial regulations. The crisis was a failure of Wall Street’s risk management and the U.S. government, said U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Federal Reserve at the time. “We allowed too much risk and leverage to build up in the financial system,” he said. “That was a classic, tragic regulatory failure and requires fundamental financial reform.” But reform has yet to come. Only in the past two months has the U.S. Treasury Department sent comprehensive legislation to U.S. Congress that would create a National Bank Supervisor, give the Federal Reserve more oversight and tighten monitoring of credit regulations. “My God, have these people learned nothing” said Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. Levitt notes that health care has pushed financial reform out of U.S. headlines “so (financial reform is) not going to get done, and that’s tragic.”

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“People should be outraged that there’s so little change. They should be demanding of their politicians that there be change,” added Professor David Beim, Columbia University School of Business. After the G20 meeting of finance ministers in London, bank regulators have called for strong limits on the amount of capital banks must have on hand to absorb financial shocks. But no regulatory changes have been made. Meanwhile, on the streets of Hong Kong, angry investors still stage regular protests on money lost to Lehman-linked investments. People like Peter Chan, chairman of the Alliance of Lehman Brothers Victims in Hong Kong, has lost thousands of dollars in Lehman’s backed securities they are still try to recoup. “We should take responsibility (for the loss) if and only if we are given sufficient information. But in this Lehman Brothers saga we have never been given sufficient information,” he said. Instead, Chan is now making investments in China to help fund his retirement — as now are many global investors. “The largest creditor nations are China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore. All the money is here. People are moving, influence is moving to Asia, power is moving to Asia,” said Jim Rogers of International Investor. “It’s another dramatic and historic shift from the West to the East.”

Some financial experts believe the U.S. government’s inconsistent response to the crisis — bailing out Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, but letting Lehman’s fail — help fan the flames across the globe. “The government really needs to communicate when you’re in the middle of a crisis that you’re in charge, you know what you’re doing and here are the rules: This is what we’re going to do to calm the situation down,” said Bill Isaac, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. “And we didn’t do that.”