The Lehman Bros. collapse: One year later
The day in 2008 that Lehman Brothers sank beneath the financial waves might become one of those epiphany moments, as in "do you remember where you were when...?" — at least for financial types.
Like a house of cards, the Sept. 15 collapse of the prominent New York investment house started the process whereby financial institutions, technology companies, retailers and other public corporations found their stock prices slashed, their ability to raise working capital moribund and their chances of staying in business perilously close to zero.
Purists trace the fall of global financial markets to the failure of the overly-leveraged Icelandic banking system in the month prior to the Lehman failure.
But most lenders held back from taking drastic action during Iceland’s travails, waiting to see whether moves by the U.S. Treasury and various monetary authorities would be sufficient to keep listing companies, like Lehman, above the financial waves.
Once the iconic Wall Street firm slipped below the surface, however, lenders scrambled to make sure the Lehman Brothers millstone did not drag them down as well.
Borrowing credit, once so easy to come by, dried up.
Investors then panicked, dumping any and all stocks, including some gold-plated issues only tangentially affected by the financial crisis.
Take Tim Hortons Inc.
The coffee-and-doughnut purveyor topped out at $35.58 a share in early September 2008, then proceeded to take a 25-per-cent haircut, slumping to $25.80 by late November.
Timmies took the stock hit despite fourth quarter 2008 revenue that was up more than nine per cent versus the same quarter one year earlier.
If people were not eating enough of Tim Horton’s sugar-filled cholesterol bombs to satisfy investors, other companies were even more likely to find themselves on the Wall Street-Bay Street death watch list.
Companies from insurer American International Group Inc. to retailer Linens N’ Things to publisher Ziff Davis Media Inc. ended up in bankruptcy protection.
In Canada, firms like Air Canada found themselves approaching a similar fate.
But, many corporations in this country were able to avoid paying the ultimate financial penalty, partly because of Canada’s lower exposure to asset-backed commercial paper financing and zero-per-cent mortgage payment vehicles.
Still, unlike past recessions where in some cases a larger percentage of economic wealth was destroyed, this time around the global meltdown triggered real fear among traders and industrialists.
It was a time when so-called "captains of industry" appeared to be driving their companies toward the ice without any way of changing course.
Paragons of free-market ruggedness found themselves literally begging for government bailouts. Posting a deficit became a government’s litmus test for backing up the economy.
Indeed, thanks to massive amounts of government stimulus from the United States, Canada and almost every other industrialized economy, the crisis appears to have been averted.
So, with a slow turn for the better apparently underway, these companies — indeed most Canadians — appear to believe the country has dodged the economic bullet.
The real struggle is to learn the lessons of the meltdown so that Canada’s financial "where were you" moment doesn’t get an encore.