When Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy ten years ago on Friday, the question on everyone’s minds was simple: “Who’s next?”
If a pillar of Wall Street worth hundreds of billions of dollars just months before couldn’t be trusted with the public’s money, then nowhere was safe. Panicked investors rushed for the door, banks refused to lend to each other, and money market funds began to collapse.
“I describe it as an economic Pearl Harbor,” Warren Buffett, the legendary investor of Berkshire Hathaway, told VICE News. “It was something we hadn’t seen before. Even the 1929 panic was nothing like this. I mean, the system stopped.“
Buffett had a front row seat to the global crisis even before the Bush Administration took up the struggle. He had been approached by Lehman’s CEO Dick Fuld for emergency capital earlier in the summer, and after it failed, he found himself courted by other teetering investment banks desperate for capital. His $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs saved the firm, and netted him billions.
He credits the Bush administration, led by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, with helping to prevent a second Great Depression. “When they realized the gravity of what was happening, we were having a run on the United States, maybe a run on the world, they stepped up,” Buffett said.
He’s not convinced, however, that the financial community’s takeaway from its brush with financial Armageddon will prevent future disaster. “Humans will continue to behave foolishly and sometimes en masse. And that doesn’t change. We get smarter but we don’t get wiser,” Buffett said.