Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers

For over 150 years, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. was one of the largest financial services organizations in the world. In the United States it had far-reaching business operations in investment banking, securities sales and trading, research and analysis, asset and wealth management, and private equity investments.

Despite this long history, in the early 2000s Lehman Brothers was deeply impaired by the firm’s involvement in the subprime mortgage market, the impending bursting bubble of which precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis. Losing clients, market value, and rating status rapidly, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on September 16, 2008. This date is often seen as the impetus of the subsequent financial crisis, when widespread, sustained market collapse commenced.

The Lehman Brothers businesses were almost immediately taken over by Barclays in North America and Nomura Holdings elsewhere in the world. However, the impact of the bankruptcy was seismic. It had a strong effect both in concrete terms of losses in the financial markets and stress to the economy as well as a symbolic effect in representing the “too big to fail” categorization that troubled the global financial system and the many large firms within in that suffered great losses during the ensuing crisis.

  • A Colossal Failure of Common Sense – Also a best-selling book by Lawrence G. McDonald with Patrick Robinson, this lecture goes into great detail of the events leading up to, during, and following the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy during the years 2007-2010. The study goes even further back as well, to unpack the changes in financial regulation and banking industry laws from the 1990s which allowed the business conditions under which products like the subprime mortages and resulting securities were created and sold.
  • The Last Days of Lehman Brothers: Moral Hazard – This film dramatizes the events of the weekend leading up to, and in hopes of preventing, the eventual bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. The subtitle “moral hazard” refers to the situation in which precarious risk calculations are made by individuals who do not face the liability and/or loss if the decision was the wrong one.   This sort of risk-taking was prevalent during the lead-up to the financial crisis and in the subprime mortgage securitization market. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers served as both a reminder that the risk could come home to roost after all, as well as a cautionary tale for financial firms and governments in the future to continue to try to mitigate this exposure.
  • Wall Street Crash of 2008 – This is the real-time video from CNBC on the evening of September 14, 2008 which reports the unfolding story that Lehman Brothers was going to collapse and file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection the next day (followed by a bankruptcy filing the day after that).
  • Did Lehman Brothers Cause the Financial Crisis & Stock Market Crash on Wall Street? – This interview between Maria Bartiromo and Yves Smith analyses the effects of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy to ask whether the firm’s collapse contributed to the causes of the global financial crisis or simply signalled the beginning of a trend.
  • Five Years After Lehman Brothers – This discussion on The Agenda with Steve Paikin from 2013 looks into what has changed, or not, in the global economy and financial services sector since Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008 and the markets and industry began their prolonged collapse.


The story of the rapid decline and fall of Lehman Brothers, and the collapse of the global economy and markets that followed, is one that will remain captivating to students of the 2008 financial crisis for years to come. Furthermore, the events of that weekend in September 2008, and their causes and effects, serve as an interesting and important measure against which compliance professionals and decision-makers in the business should judge their assumptions of risk and expectations for liability.

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