When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15 of last year, its collapse set off a domino effect across the global financial world. Credit markets froze. Twenty-five thousand Lehman employees lost their jobs, and the landscape of Wall Street shifted as a storied 158-year-old bank closed its doors. You would think the firm's executives and managers would be treated as pariahs following Lehman's demise. Yet, with the exception of the most senior management, including CEO Dick Fuld, many Lehman financiers have found similar jobs at institutions such as Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan, and Barclays. "I don't think the Lehman anniversary means very much at all," says Charles Geisst, a financial historian. "It was just redeployment of personnel."
One year later, the real casualty of Lehman's collapse has been the fate of the bank's former rank and file: secretaries, event planners, and operations staffers. Many of them remain out of work and were not among the roughly 12,500 Lehman employees who went to Barclays or Nomura Holdings when the two companies purchased divisions of Lehman Brothers following its bankruptcy. "Nobody wants to be in situation where you work for 25 years and your retirement fund goes to hell because of other people's decisions," says David Ambinder, a former senior vice president of the bank's support services who left Wall Street to start his own small business.
Former Lehman executive assistant Stacey Lynn Kobell has yet to find another job, despite previous work in both finance and magazine publishing. The 42-year-old worked for Lehman for six years and had the prototypical life of a single professional in New York, earning $75,000 and living in an apartment on the Upper East Side.
Like many of her colleagues, her severance has run out. She has maxed out her credit cards. To earn extra money, she buys cosmetics at discount stores and resells them on eBay for a few dollars' profit. "The support staff was hit the hardest because we're at the bottom of the rung," she says. After years of planning meetings, booking trips to Asia, and organizing the life of her Lehman boss, she says she wishes her Lehman connections would help her land a job. "I'm angry because nobody [from Lehman has done] anything for me," she says.
After Lehman's 2008 collapse, company veteran Ambinder decided to take his fate into his own hands. He'd watched banks consolidate over the years and knew that similar jobs in operations were hard to find, especially since he oversaw 500 people at Lehman.
Instead of spending months looking for work, he bought a Mr. Handyman franchise in November 2008. Now, he oversees five people who respond to customers' calls for home repairs and contracting help. "I don't miss Wall Street, but [its] financial rewards are something everyone misses," he says, particularly since his business started to break even only a few months ago.
For those watching Wall Street from the outside, the forces that brought down Lehman could easily converge again. Although the federal government allowed Lehman to close, it bailed out other banks that made similarly bad real-estate deals and that engaged in the same legal, yet risky, business practices of derivatives and subprime mortgages. Now, there's a growing concern that the bailout money gave Wall Street an aura of invincibility. "If you're a Wall Street player and you know someone will rescue you, you'll just keep doing what you're doing," says Prof. Andrew Ang of the Columbia Business School.
A year after the financial meltdown, the government hasn't institued many reforms that could prevent a repeat of the crisis. Congress has not passed any regulations to constrain financial firms, even those still benefitting from the bailout money. Executive compensation remains at an all-time high, according to a recent study by the Institute for Policy Studies. The government still has not laid out a plan for the steps it will take if it must intervene in the financial market, and certain banks like J.P. Morgan borrowed bailout money at low interest rates only to make risky investments in the second quarter that allowed them to later post record profits. "I'm not so sure that the companies have learned their lesson because in the end they've been helped greatly," says Luigi Zingales, an economics professor at the Chicago Booth School of Business. "If I'm the CEO, can I afford not to take risk? I don't think so."
Among former Lehman rank and file, there's hope that a similar collapse won't happen again. But many know that hope may be unrealistic, even naive. "We've already made the same mistakes in different degrees; from the dotcom bubble to the savings and loan crisis. Now we're in the mortgage crisis," Ambinder says. "I don't truly believe 20 years from now, we won't have another crisis." The cycle repeats itself because people forget, he says, and the many of those same people may still be working on Wall Street.