It was ten years ago this week that Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the global financial crisis and feeding our insatiable appetite for negative news.
There is a perverse fascination with doom and gloom, particularly among Australian readers. Don’t get me wrong – negative press is a global phenomenon, but when it comes to reporting on financial matters we seem to be right up there with the worst of the haters. We love a punt on failure.
Even positive developments – like property prices rising – are easily spun into stories highlighting the risks associated with what otherwise might be viewed as a good outcome for the economy.
When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on 15 September 2008, reporters from Manhattan to Mauritius scrambled to understand what the hell was happening. The collapse remains the largest bankruptcy filing in US history. The 168-year old firm held over US$600 billion in assets at the time and employed more than 26,000 people globally.
A decade on, the financial crisis is still keeping newshounds and movie producers well fed. There’s nothing like a catastrophe to keep a good yarn spinning. Let’s face it – the GFC has become a very storied affair. Hollywood blockbusters like Inside Job and The Big Short have put the financial crisis on the silver screen and used actors like Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie to make terms like ‘collateralized debt obligation’ seem sexy.
Hollywood has played a major role over the last few years in elevating financial markets – particularly the risks and potential meltdowns of such – into popular consciousness. Any indicator, headline or tidbit of information that the next crash could be coming feeds the zeitgeist.
But of course, Australia largely missed out on all the madness. We came through the GFC ‘relatively unscathed’ as the saying goes. Do we feel like we missed out on something?
I’m reminded of the remarks Steve Munchenberg made at a conference back in 2014. The former Australian Bankers Association chief basically said that he gets the feeling that Australia knows it didn’t get hit by the GFC and secretly, perhaps even ashamedly, wishes it was more involved. We basically sat on the sidelines as the big boys fought it out on the field.
Now, ten years later, it’s their story being told by the motion pictures – not ours. Which may suggest why we have become so fixated on the next crash. This time, we want to make damn sure we’re playing a key role. A main character in the carnage.
If Lehman left anything behind after closing its doors a decade ago, it’s the mountain of regulation and fear-driven scrutiny that financial services organisations operate under today. The Hayne royal commission could be viewed as the culmination of a chain of events, dating back to the Rudd government and then through the Murray Inquiry and a series of reforms until the final act with Hayne and his counsellors assisting.
Nobody really knows what it’s all for, mind you. The consumer? Doubtful. Politics: most likely. Votes? Probably.
Media remains the primary beneficiary of the string of inquiries, reports and reforms that have taken place since 2008. The media, forever with eyes trained on the horizon for that glimmer of crisis, the scent of a catastrophe that we all missed ten years ago. In the meantime, we’ll march on boringly towards our 28th year of uninterrupted economic prosperity.
Perhaps all this fascination with the next crash is a childish hope that we, the Land Down Under, may one day receive a financial crisis to call our own.
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