Weathering the financial crisis: how seven lives were changed
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Ten years ago, on September 15 2008, the world woke up to the largest and most devastating bankruptcy filing in history. When financial services firm Lehman Brothers collapsed, it wiped away 25,000 jobs in a moment and set off a domino effect across global markets that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression — and, some argue, ever.
House prices plunged. Almost nine million Americans lost their jobs over the following two years, as did millions more across the globe. In an unprecedented move, huge financial institutions in the US and Europe were bailed out, receiving billions in loans as governments tried to stem the contagion. All told, losses from the crisis are estimated to be about $10tn — more than a sixth of global gross domestic product in 2008.
Who were the faces behind these numbers? The following seven stories are from people on the front lines of the crisis. Most are FT readers who responded to our call for their stories. We also looked for accounts via social media, outside of our usual channels, to get a wider range of life experiences. You’ll meet a homebuyer in Florida whose house was foreclosed, a regulator in London whose career thrived, and a Lehman trader who, disillusioned, gave it all up to work for Oxfam. Everyone we spoke to felt they had changed. Most feel cautious. None feel safer.
All stories are in their own words, as told to Lilah Raptopoulos
“I learnt more working for Oxfam in less than three years than I did in nine years at an investment bank”
Then: vice-president, Lehman Brothers
Now: head of sustainable development goals at UN Principles for Responsible Investment
I still remember being on the Tube on the morning of September 15 2008. I bumped into a colleague. We were both reading on the front page of the Financial Times that our employer, Lehman Brothers, had gone bankrupt. It was a total shock. We had recently been told by management that the bank had enough liquidity for a full year should anything happen. But when we got into the office, my boss called the team together and told us, “I'm afraid I have the worst news.”
After the meeting, we didn't really know what to do. There was no point in doing work but we didn’t want to go home. We wanted to be together for solidarity, so around 4pm, we went to the pub and drank vodka tonics. Within a few days, the administrators [PricewaterhouseCoopers] told us if we stayed through September we might get paid for the month. It felt very strange, but we kept going into work. Sitting on the trading floor, we updated our CVs and spent our days job searching. Headhunters had parked themselves in the Starbucks downstairs.
When you work in the City, you get used to the money
The bathrooms started getting dirty, because the outsourced cleaning companies stopped providing services immediately. Employees were buying armfuls of sweets at our internal snack shop to spend the money on their cash-loaded cards, which made me sad: here I was in shock, worried about my future, while people were manically buying chocolate bars. It was a traumatic experience, really. I suppose everyone deals with it differently.
Lehman was a collegiate place. I strongly identified with my work and remember thinking, had those four years all gone down the drain? It felt like a big part of me had suddenly disappeared. In the following months I started grinding my teeth and suffered from terrible migraines. I heard that others, particularly those who had worked at Lehman longer, suffered much more serious health issues.
About a month later, I was transferred to Nomura, who bought Lehman's European and Asian businesses. To me, the financial crisis was a strong warning sign that the finance sector needed to change. It showed that taking care of environmental and social issues and stakeholders is critical to business survival. However, most people around me were not interested in integrating sustainability issues into business practices. It felt like nothing had changed and I became quickly frustrated. Because I'd worked in the City for my entire working life, I decided I wanted to make a change, and work for an organisation that took sustainability seriously.
I took a job as a financial sector policy adviser at Oxfam. My salary was lower than my secretary’s salary had been in the City; it was lower than my own salary had been in 17 years. But I took it. When you work in the City, you get used to the money. And if you don't have a strong reason to change, it's tempting to stay because you get paid so well. Without the external shock of the crisis, I could easily have stayed there longer, getting increasingly disillusioned and unhappy.
I really needed to be inspired, and to find purpose in work. My role at Oxfam gave me a wide-ranging experience, from engaging with investors on human rights issues to researching how global companies sourced materials, and their tax and lobbying activities. Taking the plunge proved worth it. I learnt more working for Oxfam in less than three years than I did in nine years at an investment bank.
My new salary was lower than my secretary's in the City. But I took the job
Now I am at the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which was launched by the late Kofi Annan [former UN secretary-general]. PRI works with investors to incorporate environmental, social and governance factors into investment practices. My focus now is on the sustainable development goals — they are ambitious goals agreed by 193 countries of the UN to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030. It’s very ambitious, intellectually challenging and purposeful, and exactly 10 years later I feel like I’ve finally got to my dream job.
One more thing: I studied economics and went to business school, but neither taught me to think critically about the purpose of finance. Most people in finance look at spreadsheets and screens all day, having only learnt one type of economic theory. It’s not surprising that they don't think about the real big-picture impact of their work. I think the purpose of finance needs to be taught in universities, business schools and financial analyst programmes so people don’t lose perspective on how their actions have an effect on the real world.
“Corporate America might get a bailout, but no one was going to bail me out”
Then: small business owner
Now: masters candidate in nursing
In 2006, I bought a house in Florida at the height of the market for less than I could afford. I qualified for more, but didn't want to overstretch, as my then husband and I were having a second baby. We were at the right point in our lives: married with kids and [had] a web design business that was doing well. It was a bad move, but we really didn't know that at the time.
Everybody was buying houses. The real estate market was exploding. We kept hearing that the prices would go up so we’d better hurry. Our realtor, the bank, advisers, everyone who approved me for a mortgage all suggested I find something better or newer than the house I chose. They really tried to influence me to spend more. Everyone was hungry.
Central Florida is not like New York. We were making about $270k a year between the both of us, which was a lot. Our house cost less than we were making per year. So we thought, we can easily afford this and I can take a year off and raise the kids. No problem.
It was somewhere between 2008 and 2009 when things started to really decline. We were aware that the economy wasn't doing well, and obviously that was reflected in our business: people weren't spending money on websites or design. They'd get inexpensive prepackaged websites and ask us to tweak them or hire their cousin for a few hundred bucks. It was clear the economy was in trouble, but I wasn’t keeping up with the details, like Lehman Brothers. I think my husband kept up with that more than I did. I had little kids.
It seems my then husband was panicked about our loss of income, because one day he took all of our money and ran. He disappeared. Desperate times can really change people. I was left with a two-year-old, a six-year-old, no business, a one-day-a-week nursing job, a big house that I couldn't afford by myself and a lot of debt.
I lived in the house for the next few years, watching its value drop to half of what I paid for it. Crime in my neighbourhood exploded. My house was robbed five times, even with a security system. Anything the kids left outside, like skateboards and bikes, disappeared by morning. Before the crisis, we had never had that problem.
I had to stop paying the mortgage. It was the only way to get back on my feet
I had to learn how to be poor again. It was like being in college, but with kids. In 2011, I claimed bankruptcy. My credit was destroyed. When I bought the house my score was low 800s, almost perfect. Then I was bankrupt with a score of 400.
A lawyer friend who helped me pro bono encouraged me to let my house foreclose because I couldn’t even afford the taxes to short sell it. I had to build my credit back up because no one wanted to rent to me, and to do that I needed to stop paying the mortgage. I felt like a loser doing that, but it was the only way I could get back on my feet. I didn't have anyone I could stay with. My parents helped me watch my kids while I worked three jobs. I just stopped paying the mortgage and eventually lost my house.
It probably took me six full years to recover financially, to get my credit back to average, build up a decent income, some small savings, and start contributing to my 401k [retirement savings plan]. I went back to school last year for my masters degree, and next year I'll graduate and become a nurse practitioner. I was reluctant to take on student loans, but decided it was worth it because I'll be doubling my income. The crisis has made me do a lot more research before making any big decisions.
I feel less safe now than I did before the crisis. I learnt from experience that the little guy is not the priority. We haven’t kept up with inflation, education is much more expensive, and it’s a struggle to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Corporate America might get a bailout, but no one was going to bail me out.
“We live in a bubble in financial services. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably kidding you”
Nick Bayley, 53
Then: head of regulation at the London Stock Exchange
Now: regulatory adviser at Duff & Phelps
I was lucky — if that’s the right word — to be close to the epicentre of the crisis, working as head of regulation at the London Stock Exchange. I was on the Sunday night conference call on September 14 2008 when Paul Tucker from the Bank of England told representatives of all the big City firms and infrastructure that the Barclays acquisition of Lehman had failed, and Lehman was going to go down the pan the following morning.
It was just a monumental time. Lehman was a global titan. The idea that it would collapse was unthinkable. We knew there were issues in the market; prices were all over the shop. But we went into that weekend assuming that someone would step in and a deal would be done.
There must have been 30-odd institutions on that Sunday night call. When Paul told us that Lehman would go down the next day, nobody said anything. He said he wanted to go around the call and hear that we were ready and this wouldn’t cause a problem. He said he’d start with the London Stock Exchange, so I was the first person to speak.
When in doubt, keep it short. I made a few noises about Lehman’s important role in the equity markets and that we have default rules that come into play, and then I shut up. We went around the call and everybody said the same thing. Nobody told Paul Tucker, “This is going to cause huge problems, and there will be a major domino effect.”
The next morning, I got the 4.30am train into the office and we sat and waited. We drafted announcements. Exchanges have these archaic but useful things called default rules, where you freeze all of the unsettled transactions and cash settle them out, with just a net amount owed between each institution. But nobody had ever done a bank administration of this size. They had done supermarkets and factories, but nothing of this complexity.
It felt like absolute Armageddon
On Tuesday morning I went to the Lehman building in Canary Wharf to see one of the PwC partners running the administration. It was on the top floor, with great views down the river. I had been up there before for lunch, and remembered it with thick carpets and chaps in white gloves. It had been a real place of tranquillity. But this time, all the paintings were gone from the walls. Gangs of 25-year-olds were running between rooms with laptops, clearly with little idea of what they were supposed to be doing. I walked PwC and their lawyers through our processes. It seemed they had never even heard of Stock Exchange default rules. It took an hour or two of explaining. They were pretty relieved that at least the unsettled equity trades would be sorted by someone else.
That was just the start. Over the subsequent weeks we watched the prices of some of the largest financial institutions in the world drop by huge percentages every day: 5 per cent, 10 per cent. When you realised Bank of America and Merrill Lynch would have to be bashed together overnight, that Goldman was potentially going to have to be rescued . . . can you imagine? Goldman Sachs? “Masters of the universe”? Even they had to go cap in hand to Warren Buffett. RBS and HBOS got rescued, Barclays had to go talk to the Qataris. It felt like absolute Armageddon.
It was awful at the time, but I've spent the rest of my career dealing with regulation, and it has been a bit of a golden era since the crisis. When I first got into this in the 1990s, Compliance was called the “Business Prevention Unit” all the time. We were seen as a block. Now demand for good experience in this area has rocketed. It is taken seriously. Regulation and compliance has become a proper career.
What the crisis threw into sharp relief is that you absolutely cannot run an economy without an effective financial services sector. The damage that this crisis caused to the real economy was quite sobering. We live in a bubble in financial services. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably kidding you. We get paid more than most industries do. Do we deserve it? Not in my view. Are people much cleverer in financial services than in other industries? No, not in my view. Most of us are just relatively high-achieving doers.
The good times rolled for a long time, and it all came crashing down and the party ended rather unceremoniously. Ninety-five per cent of people don't understand what happened in the crisis at all. They know that the government had to bail out the banks, it cost the taxpayers a fortune, and it was those rich “bankers” down in Canary Wharf and Wall Street that did it. The industry took such a hit, including institutions that have been around for hundreds of years and had reputations for being trusted fortresses where you could put your money. That trust just went. The sheer fragility of it actually was quite scary. Reputations are hard won and easily lost, and it's going to take a long time to rebuild that confidence fully.
“I’m just now finding my feet after losing everything”
Karim Ullah, 45
Then: small business owner
Now: associate publisher, Great Golf Magazine
I'll be honest with you, I was quite materialistic before the crisis. But after what happened to me, I realised that none of it mattered. All you need is your health and your family and a few people that love you.
I started an Asian business magazine in the UK in June 2007. We were seeing major brands targeting Asian businesspeople and thought we could take some of that market share. Quickly after starting the business I saw the media start to take a hammering. Regular advertisers were cutting back. Things got gradually worse. When Lehman happened, I thought, “Let's just try and keep this thing afloat, because if we can survive it, we'll be fine when it's over.”
I put as much money as I could into the business, in the hopes that the tide would turn. But after some investors pulled out last minute, the money ran out.
The decision to pull the plug was devastating. I had a child who was 11, who had just started at boarding school. I knew we would lose our house and I'd have to take her out of school. The idea of getting a new job in a tough job market was also difficult in the mental state I was in at the time. It hit me tremendously hard.
We handed over our keys and moved into a hostel
We lost everything and became homeless. The moving van came, we handed over our keys and moved into a hostel. The day I dropped my daughter off for her first day at her new school, I became very ill. I told her I’d pick her up that afternoon, but I started feeling unwell and had to call an ambulance. It was a horrific day for her.
I have a debilitating condition called Crohn's disease, which was triggered by stress. I had to have surgery a few days later because my situation had reached a life-threatening stage. I asked my doctor if I'd be able to do things I used to do, and she said, “We'll do our very best.” She never promised.
Thankfully I made a great recovery and we slowly started crawling our way out of this huge hole. I'm just now finding my feet after losing everything. It took me a full three years before I felt like I was above water again.
I started working again as an associate publisher of a luxury golf-travel-lifestyle magazine. I've been helping my wife start a pop-up Indian restaurant, and we run it very differently. My approach to risk has changed in a major way. One rule I follow now is to never borrow money to start a business. There are so many other creative options. The start-ups I’m working on now have tremendous potential, but if they don't work we won't lose out financially.
My daughter is now 20. She's studying at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London. She's very dedicated and gifted. My wife and I have another daughter. We’re not raising her in the same financial situation, but that’s OK. I don't feel safe financially; we're still struggling to get back to the life we had before the crisis. But we are optimistic about the future.
“I learnt the concept of sovereign debt spreads at the age of 14”
Joanna Ntoukaki, 23
Now: masters candidate in finance, Warwick University
When the recession hit I was 13 years old, living in Athens. The global crisis sparked a crippling debt crisis in Greece; over the years my country was repeatedly bailed out by the IMF and the EU, and there were years of austerity that are only just ending. So I had to adapt my life to a new economic environment before I really understood how the world worked.
On a daily basis I was seeing emergency news on Greek TV about technical terms that I knew nothing about. I learnt the concept of sovereign debt spreads at the age of 14. I knew about financial haircuts. I had to understand the implications of these things on my day-to-day life quite early. It has led me into a career in finance.
The crisis hit Greece the hardest around 2011, when I was 16 and had to choose a path of study. I had been interested in environmental studies but everyone working in the field told me not to bother as there weren’t enough jobs. So I chose to leave the country at 18 to study economics, at Queen Mary University in London. I hoped that by the time I had finished my undergraduate degree I could come home and my country would be back to economic expansion. Needless to say, I am still waiting.
Maybe if I had grown up without the crisis, I would have taken more risks
Around my second year in university I started hearing that people had moved into their grandparents’ houses, or back to their villages, or had totally changed career paths. I saw people with 15, 20 years in a career being fired at a day’s notice. Those people had families and mortgages and expenses, and suddenly they were not able to keep up. That has definitely affected my level of security.
I am also more cautious. I don’t think people my age are as comfortable taking out loans to buy houses and cars. I am quite an ambitious individual, but in my job search I am looking for an employer that was stable during the financial crisis and the dotcom bubble, that wasn’t laying off thousands of people. Maybe if I had grown up without the crisis overshadowing my decisions, I may have taken more risks.
I am now doing my masters in finance at Warwick University and have decided to build my life in the UK. I really miss my family all the time. But they understand that I’m trying to build a life for myself here and I am really thankful for their support. I love Greece but I can’t trust the economy will be stable enough for me to build a long-term career.
“For us, the timing was right. We got really lucky”
Leanne Liang, 40
Now: real estate agent
In 2008 when the crisis hit, I didn’t have much to lose. I had gone back to school after a career in fashion and was working part time. My husband had an entry-level job in IT. We were renting a cheap apartment in the Bay Area and living on very little. Housing prices were crazy expensive, so we thought we could never afford to buy. But in 2009 I saw the housing prices take a dive in Oakland, and I thought, “Wow, this is a once in a lifetime chance to buy something.” Both of our families had a bit of money to lend us, and we bought a fixer-upper. It’s crazy to think that I paid $230,000 for my house in 2009, and now it’s worth $1m or more.
I come from an immigrant family from China. I grew up very poor, so my parents were frugal and taught me to budget. They didn’t have money to give me an allowance — if I wanted something I had to get a job and buy it myself. I’ve been working since I was 14 and learnt early on not to take on more debt than I could afford. My mother is also an accountant, which helped.
It's crazy to think I paid $230k for my house and now it's worth $1m or more
But a lot of other people were taken advantage of. They were not informed properly about how these things work. For us, the timing was right. We got really lucky. I was very strict about our budget, we lived in an area with a great job market, my husband worked in the tech industry, our families had some money to lend us. It was lucrative for us, but so many others weren’t as lucky.
I thought things post-crisis were getting better, but with the new US administration, I feel like we're going in the wrong direction again by relaxing all these regulations. So I'm not very hopeful at this moment. I feel actually kind of depressed about what's going on, and helpless. But the best I can do is focus on my own life and the people around me.
Ten years later, I’m in the process of getting my realtor licence. My interest was piqued 10 years ago, buying our first house. I've also started investing in real estate. We bought a few rental houses a few years ago when the prices were still affordable — I’m hoping in the next downturn to get a few more.
“I have become extremely suspicious about the industry I have worked in since 1981”
Christian Thwaites, 60
San Francisco, California
Then: CEO of Sentinel Investments
Now: chief strategist at a wealth management firm
I was president and CEO of Sentinel Investments. We ran about $28bn in fixed income and equities. Most of the equities were in mutual funds, and the fixed-income investments were managed for a life insurance company. The insurance company wanted a predictable, see-through portfolio, so it was all fairly catholic, and life pre-crash was easy. Cash flow came in, and bonds were bought to match the liabilities. Defaults were rare. It was basically buy and hold.
But with the crash, prices for our bonds started to fall . . . and then, suddenly there weren’t any prices. One day in September 2008, I came into the office and some of our highest-quality and low-risk investments were at close to zero. That’s when I realised we had a real problem.
Next, we just couldn't get bids on stuff. It's one thing to be able to sell something and not like the price. It’s another to be selling a public security but no one will take it from you. There was just nothing on the other end of the terminal.
One of my responsibilities was to keep calm. It felt like shell shock, but I knew those emotions were contagious and if I showed fear, it wouldn’t help my team get through the day. But I was clenching my fists.
Because we had to pay insurance claims, a big hole in the balance sheet developed and we had to put out a hugely expensive bond issue just to shore up capital. Funnily enough, we ultimately did rather well out of the crisis on the mutual fund side, because we had a very successful short-term government fund. We had one of our best sales years in 2009 and 2010.
I ran the company for another seven years, and I was lucky, as the financial impact to me was minor. But I have an enduring suspicion of all great new things. I have become extremely suspicious about an industry I have worked in since 1981.
I remember in the middle of 2008, one of our smarter guys was explaining how these collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) worked. I thought, “I have no idea what he's talking about. And I don't even know if he does.” I think we bought some of them not fully understanding all the implications of how they could unravel. In hindsight I didn’t have the smarts to suggest we test them. It's easy to understand the acronym. I understood all three of the words. But they were complicated.
Are we safe? No. And bubbles don't come in the same clothes
Since then, innovation and complexity have put me on my back foot. I’m always asking, “What is this really? How do you deconstruct it? What can go wrong?” I prefer to do things simply, and potentially leave some money on the table, than get into something we don't fully understand. About a year ago we were pitched a bank loan market fund and I couldn't get out of the room fast enough.
Are we safe? No. We’re not safe. I don't know where the next thing will come from, but panics and bubbles don’t come in the same clothes. What happened last time won’t repeat.
I think there should have been more perp walks for the financial guys. People have an intrinsic sense of fairness, and a lot of people suffered. We didn’t need a public flogging, but with such a cataclysmic series of events, there should have been a more public reckoning. We also owe it to consumers to fully understand borrowing and savings. When you go to a doctor and have an operation, they say, “You may not ever wake up,” or “We might leave a scalpel in there, do you understand?” It doesn't have to be vast and complicated legalese. But do people taking risks understand what those risks mean?
How did the crisis affect you?
These are just seven people's stories. Many of you have your own, which we would like to read in the comments below. Where were you when the crisis hit? What was its long-term impact on your personal and professional life? Did it change how you think about money and risk? Ten years later, do you feel safer?
This article is part of an FT Series on the financial crisis anniversary: are we safer now?
Photos by Rick Pushinsky, Justin Kaneps, Preston Mack and Zakaria Zainal