It depends who you ask. Where were you when the banks failed? Which bank? Which country? In America, the lightning rod was Lehman Brothers, which failed on the weekend of 13-14th September 2008. In Britain, it was RBS, which died on 7th October 2008. But if you ask the experts, many in Europe point to 9th August 2007.
Today in 2007, BNP Paribas of France told investors in three of its funds that their money was gone. Or at least, for now, they didn’t know where it was or how much was left, which made them freeze all transactions in the funds. We all knew something had been coming, but we didn’t know which country would blink first. British bank Northern Rock then collapsed a few weeks later, the 14th September 2007. For weeks, customers had been queuing up for hours to withdraw their money. The snowball had started to roll.
What is most surprising and disappointing is that, ten years on, not very much seems to have changed. In the last few weeks, some Italian banks have failed and been propped up by the government. RBS is still in public hands, a festering swamp of fines and criminal investigations. It cannot even sell its RBS-branded branches in England and Wales because its computers cannot cope with the strain. Or, more realistically, because nobody wants them and they are worth more to RBS than anyone else.
Famously, RBS is only here today because then-chancellor Alistair Darling rang his old friend at Deutsche Bank and begged him to continue clearing for RBS. Nobody else would, and it is the only reason RBS survived. Darling also played a small role in the collapse of Lehmans when he refused to help Barclays rescue the American bank. It was an American problem, he told Hank Paulson. Yet we are all feeling the effects today.
That it was an aggressive French bank, BNP, that was the canary in the coalmine is slightly ironic. The dodgy product they could not shift was American home loans, or securities made from them. Now utterly devalued after a series of huge trials and fines, BNP would not have been anyone’s guess as to who would fail first in the summer of 2007.
We are celebrating, or perhaps commemorating, the failure of the global banking system, a crash which has not cured the banks of their ills. We are doing so in a slightly different way. We are planning a season of articles looking at the individual victims of their crimes, mainly in the UK. Tune in next time!