Who Lost the Most in the Financial Crisis? Ordinary Americans.

Bloomberg Opinion marks the 10th anniversary of Lehman’s bankruptcy with a collection of columns from around the world. Read more.

A decade after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., there are still arguments about who was responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. But it’s also worth revisiting who paid for the crisis and who profited from it.

Any discussion about winners and losers, of course, must start with the bank bailouts. The centerpiece of that rescue was the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, an October 2008 federal law that authorized the U.S. government to “invest” in banks and their toxic mortgage-related assets. The U.S. Treasury invested $426 billion and ultimately recovered $441 billion when TARP ended in December 2014.

While it’s true that TARP turned a profit, the reward was laughably inadequate for the risk. The program bought assets that were deeply distressed — assets that ought to pay above-market returns when prices recover. Instead, TARP generated a return of less than 1 percent a year from October 2008 to 2014, while the S&P 500 Financials Index returned 5.3 percent and the S&P 500 Index returned 12 percent, including dividends. The difference amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Federal Reserve threw banks a lifeline, too, by holding interest rates near zero for years. The average effective federal funds rate dropped to 0.16 percent in December 2008 and remained below 0.25 percent through the end of 2015. That allowed banks to borrow money cheaply. It also sapped savers of badly needed income.

Those moves were undoubtedly necessary to keep the financial system and the larger economy from collapsing. But banks bore too little of the burden, and it’s difficult to view the bailouts as anything other than a massive wealth transfer from ordinary Americans to financial firms.

But there was another — arguably bigger — wealth transfer during the financial crisis between ordinary investors and more sophisticated ones. As the stock market tumbled from November 2007 to February 2009, retail investors pulled a net $152 billion from U.S. stock mutual funds, according to data compiled by Morningstar, including adviser and retirement share classes. More than half of those redemptions, or $78 billion, were during the market’s lowest points from September 2008 to February 2009.

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Forget Banks and Worry About High Stock Prices

It’s time for investors to stop fighting the last war. The next downturn most likely won’t be triggered by another meltdown of the financial system.

The Federal Reserve has concluded its stress test of big banks, a look into whether they have enough money set aside to withstand another 2008-type financial crisis. The Fed announced last week that all 35 banks examined are sufficiently capitalized. It disclosedthe second and final round of results on Thursday afternoon, giving all but one bank a passing grade and the go-ahead to return money to shareholders.

Investors didn’t need the Fed to tell them that banks are in better shape than they were a decade ago. The signs are everywhere. Profits have fallen across the industry since the financial crisis, an indication that banks are taking on less risk. Profit margins for the S&P 500 Financials Index averaged 9.3 percent from 2008 to 2017, down from an average of 13.8 percent from 2003 to 2007, the years leading up to the crisis. Return on equity is down to an average of 5.2 percent from 14.5 percent over the same periods.

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