Sept. 15, 2018, will be the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest investment bank in the United States. It was the definitive moment that pushed the U.S. economy into the Great Recession and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. It can happen again. In fact, the current direction in federal policy suggests it even may be likely.
After unprecedented policies by the government to stabilize financial markets and reverse the economic carnage, the economic recovery is approaching its tenth year, but significant headwinds threaten to undo the progress made in the aftermath of the financial crisis. These concerns can be broken down into three key areas: deregulation of the financial sector, uncertainty in the future Federal Reserve policy, and the increased speed of the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, D.C.
Too-big-to-fail banks even bigger now
At the top of this list is the continued prevalence of too-big-to-fail banks and the current deregulatory environment in Washington. Today only six banks manage half of the assets of the entire banking industry. Currently, 10 banks — including J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup — own more than 50 percent of the assets of the top 100 commercial banks.
Although the growth of these banks occurred in spite of the more stringent regulations enacted by both the Congress and Federal Reserve, they are healthier and more financially solvent because of them. The increased capital requirements have incentivized banks to raise more capital, and the institution of bank stress tests have allowed financial institutions to better monitor and manage their liquidity and exposure to risk.
But the bigger they are, the harder they'll fall. Even though the post-crisis requirements, like increased capital and stress testing, have been good developments, that is set against the fact that the biggest banks are bigger today than they were 10 years ago. If deregulation leads to a worst-case scenario, they will fall even harder this time. It was precisely the pre-2008 deregulatory agenda, including the elimination of barriers between investment and commercial banking, that led to the development of complex financial instruments, such as credit default swaps and derivative markets. This encouraged excessive risk-taking by banks and mortgage lenders. By rolling back these regulations and dismantling portions of the Dodd-Frank Act, the Trump administration is removing the safety net and creating a perfect storm that could lead to a crisis even worse than 2008.
Congress recently began repealing portions of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, which was enacted to prevent another financial meltdown. Smaller and midsize banks would now be exempt from the more stringent oversight and stress tests designed to access the ability of these banks to withstand another crisis.
Trump attacks on Federal Reserve could bring back stagflation
The latest year-to-year CPI figures show overall inflation near 3 percent, the highest levels in six years. With the economy at full employment, a number of factors are contributing to higher consumer prices. Among them the continued easy-money era — low-interest-rate policy by the Fed and the fiscal stimulus from the corporate tax cuts is creating excess spending and demand. Second, the escalating trade tariffs enacted by the Trump administration is working toward strangling supply and stifling competition.
Rising prices highlight the importance of the FOMC to continue monetary policy normalization and follow through on at least one or two additional rate hikes this year. Even so, Trump has broken tradition and publicly voiced his disagreement with the policy of his appointed Federal Reserve Chair, Jerome Powell, of raising interest rates. Powell's Fed has already raised the Federal funds rate twice this year for a total of 50 basis points. Trump's criticism of Fed policy stands in direct conflict with his own criticism of Powell's predecessor, Janet Yellen, of keeping interest rates too low during the Obama administration.
An independent Federal Reserve is at the core of a sound monetary policy and its goal of maintaining price stability. If the Fed complies with the undue pressure to keep interest rates low, as it did during the Nixon administration, the days of stagflation will return with a vengeance.
Top regulators all have ties to Wall Street
Industry insiders policing the markets exacerbates many of the issues that led to the financial crisis.
The head of the major financial regulatory agencies appointed by Trump all have strong ties to Wall Street and have stated their commitment to reversing the regulations implemented since the financial crisis. Among them are Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who was a hedge fund manager and partner at Goldman Sachs; SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, former partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, specializing in mergers and acquisitions; and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, who was vice chairman at U.S. Bank. Powell was a managing director at Banker's Trust when the bank was caught up in a derivatives trading scandal, and partner at the Carlyle Group investment company.
Every administration includes some members of this revolving door, but the Trump administration has a disproportionate number of top regulators from the financial industry and Wall Street.
The current state of the U.S. economy appears strong, with a low unemployment rate hovering around 4 percent and continued GDP growth that exceeded 4 percent for the fourth time in the past seven years. Indeed, the recovery it has made since the depths of the Great Recession has been nothing short of miraculous.
However, brewing below the surface is the undoing of the prudent regulatory and monetary policies of the last decade. If this continues, it spells a recipe for another financial crisis that will bring back the days of high inflation and high unemployment not seen in more than 30 years.
Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
—By Victor Li, professor of economics, Villanova School of Business