On March 14, 2008, renowned Wall Street firm Bear Stearns collapsed into ruin. Ten years later on March 14, 2018, it's worth wondering if it all could happen again.
According to Commonwealth Financial Network chief investment officer Brad McMillan, things are "more solid" today.
"Bear was done in, so the story goes, by a mix of ill-considered bets on mortgage securities and excessive borrowing. After it went down, banks started to look around to see what other companies might fail-and found that they really couldn't tell. As a consequence, each bank started to pull back individually, and the flow of liquidity that supported Wall Street fell apart," McMillan says.
Back then, Bear -- which was bought by Action Alerts Plus holding JPMorgan (JPM) in a sweetheart deal -- was brought to its knees first, a harbinger of what was to come. In 2008, TheStreet called it a "fire-sale" of a deal.
McMillan contended that there are three key pieces to its collapse -- liquidity, transparency and leverage.
"Bear was a leading player in mortgage-backed securities. Its holdings were large enough (and obscure enough, in some cases) that other banks couldn't really get a handle on just what they were worth," McMillan explains.
"This brings us to transparency. When you have doubts about the value of the holdings, you are not likely to lend against them," he added.
Finally, "This brings us to leverage. Bear, and much of Wall Street, was trapped in just this net. When Bear and other firms needed to borrow, other banks wouldn't lend. When they needed to sell? The buyers were not there. Bear lost its financial foundation in a matter of days."
But today, the system is "much more solid from a financial perspective," McMillan said, because "you rarely get hit by the bus you are watching for."
Banks are now required to hold more capital, meaning they're less leveraged. If a crisis were to happen, other banks are likely to continue lending given what is presumably a strong base of assets to back up any loans made.
Banks also hold less now in the way of trading assets, McMillan said, leaving them less exposed to declines in the market regardless of size. "The combination of a more financially secure institution with less risk exposure means a Bear Stearns moment is materially less likely today," he said. "The follow-up freeze of liquidity is even less so. The system is simply more stable and more secure."
Perhaps most importantly, though, is that regulators and government actors now know what to do in the event of a major crisis. In 2008, officials "had to make things up on the fly," McMillan said. "Today, we have a process for orderly liquidation: the government has the legal ability to go in, shut a firm down, and then reopen it for orderly liquidation. This should reassure potential lenders and help stave off the kind of chain collapses that could result from uncontrolled business failures."
Not everyone agrees though. Outspoken Minneapolis Federal Reserve member Neel Kashkari told TheStreet recently the government still hasn't solved too big too fail. Kashkari has proposed some stiff actions.
McMillan noted that while the likelihood of a 2008-caliber crisis remains small, risks will at some point surface and send the U.S. into another crisis.
"While we will certainly see financial problems, probably in the next recession, the great financial crisis is likely to remain as unique as the Great Depression," McMillan said. "Could it happen again? In theory, yes. In practice, probably not."