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opinion | judy abel

Picking up the pieces

Four years after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, gains in losing

BENJAMIN MILLS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Some years before the financial meltdown of 2008, seeking a respite from the big, hot city, we rented a home in Connecticut for a few weeks. One day, while lounging in the backyard with my family, our local babysitter, a college student, inquired about the baseball cap I was wearing. Like so many of the things we owned including tote bags, towels, and corkscrews, it bore the logo of my husband’s employer, Lehman Brothers.

I explained that my husband had been an investment banker at Lehman for many years and she asked, shyly, if we knew her friend’s dad, who also worked there. We smiled, maybe a little patronizingly, both of us thinking that there was little chance we would know the man. Lehman was a powerful, multi-national company with tens of thousands of employees. What were the odds of knowing someone in common? We tacitly assumed her friend’s father circulated in a lower echelon, and was not part of my husband’s rarefied investment banking world. Nonetheless, we tried to mask our skepticism.

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“Tell us his name,” we urged, kindly. (We saw ourselves as interested, engaging adults who would never dismiss a 20-year-old college student, no matter how naive we perceived her to be.)

“His name is Mr. Fuld.”

We were silent. “Dick Fuld?” one of us finally asked.

“Yes, that’s him.”

“He’s the head of the firm. He’s the big boss,” I blurted out.

She knew. She’d gone to prep school with his daughter. She’d spent time at some of his homes (he reportedly had four, at that point). She told us he was “very nice” — a wonderful, generous man. And we agreed. After all, times were good — the Internet bubble had yet to definitively burst and I couldn’t really say what a subprime mortgage was. So as the breeze blew off the rocky Connecticut beach, which was just a stone’s throw from the house we temporarily called ours, we smiled and, just maybe, liked our babysitter a little better for being associated with such a fine leader.

Dick Fuld at that point had brought Lehman stock price from the $20s to the $70s, making us all feel flush with wealth and good fortune. Our portfolios grew in value every time the stock price rose. But that wasn’t all — Dick promised more. Each time the stock price peaked, he forecasted it would go higher, never accepting complacency or resting on laurels. He rallied the troops, encouraging them to work harder and prosper greater. Dick was a man of optimism and vision.

What would happen seven years later is history. The subprime mortgage crisis that brought down Bear Stearns in the spring began the slow and agonizing death of Lehman Brothers. The stock price dropped from its peak of about 85 in the January of 2007 to below 15 in August of 2008 and, eventually, to zero.

The Lehman collapse of almost precisely four years ago triggered a financial tsunami that most Americans didn’t see coming, and didn’t know how to deal with. For almost a decade, a lot of people had been able to borrow money with relative ease. Lending institutions thrived by encouraging customers to take out loans at artificially low rates, whether or not they were qualified. Lulled into believing the good times would go on forever, many people took out massive mortgages, borrowing against borrowed money to live larger and provide their families with longed-for luxuries.

When the lid blew off Lehman, the music suddenly stopped. The standards for borrowing and refinancing tightened, unemployment grew, and the sense of good fortune that people had enjoyed for a long while was replaced by despair and panic. It wasn’t only those who worked in financial services, or those with overly extended mortgages, who suffered; eventually, pretty much all of America felt the effects, one way or the other. Four years later, we’ve yet to recover from the blow, and for many, visions of a promising future have given way to cold calculations for day-to-day survival.

It has been a fight to maintain some semblance of a way of life that many of us thought was secure, and took for granted. But it has also been an opportunity to look at ourselves a different way, and separate the merely material from the deeper core of our self-esteem.

At the time of the Lehman fall I felt stunned, angry, and betrayed. After all, my husband had worked at Lehman for 20 years, leaving only to attend graduate school and then returning to his Lehman home, despite offers from other firms. It seemed impossible that this mighty and revered institution, with more than 150 years of history, could cease to exist. And yet, in the early hours of Sept. 15, 2008, we sat in disbelief trying to comprehend that it was “Game Over.”

The next morning, while dropping a child at school, I felt the gazes of people following me through the lobby. A few, who felt closer to me, asked how I was. I said I didn’t know.

It’s a question millions of Americans still struggle to answer. When people are in the midst of a crisis, others often console them by telling them to redirect their focus to what’s right in their lives, rather than what’s wrong. It’s a reasonable tactic, because even in the darkest times, there are usually aspects of our lives we can celebrate. But for those in the throes of financial reversals it’s hard to look away from the grim realities of outstanding debt and looming disaster. So how do people respond to “how are you?” when they worry about losing their homes, their jobs, or their ability to provide for and protect their families?

Four years later, I still have fears — but the answer is, I was fine. I’d been shaken and shocked, but the core of who I was had not been changed or damaged. The comfort the Lehman years afforded me and my family had been nice, but maybe it had been too easy. I never felt entitled to the luxuries in my life, and always made a point of telling my children that the vacations, dinners out, and extra pairs of shoes were privileges and, by no means, our right.

It’s tempting to view the Lehman collapse as some kind of punishment for insufficient introspection and taking too much for granted. I pretty much reject that line of thinking; but I have come to see that things can be gained in losing.

I think somewhere in those years, my sense of “normal” shifted. I, who grew up in the 1970s with two parents who worked full time, lost touch with the some of the values that were instilled in me in childhood. I did not sustain a full-time career. I lacked the financial independence my mother had, however modest, and I’d mistaken my husband’s success for my own. Over the years, I had advised him and offered guidance but, ultimately, he was the one who closed the deals and his was the name on the bonus check. I was living off the spoils and, somehow, had concluded it was my due.

The past few years have been about rebuilding. He continues to work in banking, where deals have been more challenging than ever. I have not wavered in my support, but have also gained the clarity to know I must, above all, focus on my own career. Writing may not pay as well as finance (even in the lean years), but it’s mine. And ultimately, I have realized, I was never a banker, I never really understood what was happening at Lehman, and, unlike our seemingly naive babysitter, I really didn’t know Dick Fuld.

Judy Abel lives in New York and frequently writes about film for the Globe.
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