The lessons of Lehman
Where Broadway ends in New York's financial district is the larger-than life sculpture by Arturo Di Modica of the rampaging Wall Street bull. Every day it draws mobs of tourists, all wanting to be photographed leering at its out-sized bullhood.
Which is pretty much how many feel about the denizens of this part of Manhattan. Or to put it another way, few can believe the bull-sized cojones of bankers to be taking fat bonuses again so soon after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the worst financial and economic crisis since the 1930s.
It is the anniversary of the banking calamity that symbolises this age of financial anxiety. And in separate films for Newsnight (to be broadcast tonight) and for BBC World (already being shown) - and also in a special edition of Business Daily for BBC World Service - I've been evaluating the carnage from Lehman's demise and what steps are being taken to protect us when next banks abandon all common sense and lend as though tomorrow never comes.
Lehman's collapse was the trigger of the worst banking crisis the world has experienced for almost 80 years. In fact, as Lord Turner - chairman of the Financial Services Authority - recently told me, it is arguable that the financial crisis was the most severe ever, in that there was almost no hiding place from it anywhere in the world.
But - and this is important - the death of Lehman was not the underlying cause of the deepest global recession since the 1930s.
The cause of the global recession was a banking system that had expanded its lending and investing beyond what was remotely sensible, atop flimsy foundations, which was lethal because of the build-up of unsustainable debts by households and businesses in the US and other economies, including the UK's.
Lehman Bros - a firm not far short of its 160th birthday - was simply one example among many of a bank that had lent far too much relative to its capital resources (its buffer for absorbing losses), that had far too little cash and secure funding to reassure creditors that it could not run out of the readies, and that was too intimately connected in too opaque a way with too many other financial institutions.
This combination of inadequate capital, insufficient liquidity and complex relationships of mutual dependence with other institutions was characteristic too of Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS, AIG, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, HBOS, and so on.
All were vulnerable to collapse. And the collapse of any one of them would have damaged many other firms of importance to the financial system.
Lehman was a little more unstable than the others - and turned out to be the only one that the authorities would not save.
It's because there were so many other weak banks and financial institutions, that all of those whom I interviewed for the film said the US Treasury made a huge error in allowing Lehman to fail, in not using public money to prop it up.
Here's Sir John Gieve, who at the time was a deputy governor of the Bank of England: "it was clearly a disastrous decision not to save Lehman".
Or Sheila Bair, the US banking insurer and regulator as head of the FDIC: "sure, it was a mistake".
Or Rodgin Cohen, one of America's most influential commercial lawyers as chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell: "we were as close as I've ever seen to the edge of the abyss - the abyss being a collapse of the financial system".
Many would applaud the motives of Hank Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary, in refusing to put in public money to prop up Lehman: it's plainly wrong to provide a guarantee to banks that taxpayers will always bail them out for their mistakes, especially when individual bankers can become so rich by taking crazy risks.
Unfortunately this turned out to the wrong time and place to spank the banks - because rather more punishment than may have been necessary or fair was also inflicted on taxpayers.
The US Treasury recognised within hours of the death of Lehman on 15 September that it had messed up, so it - and other governments, including the UK's - embarked on the biggest banking bailout of all time.
Taxpayer support for banks and other financial institutions - in the form of loans, guarantees, investment and the creation of new money - has ballooned to $15 trillion in just Europe and the US. That's equivalent to about a quarter of everything the world produces in a year, global GDP, or more than $2,000 for every person on the planet.
The price of allowing our debts to rise to dangerous levels and of permitting the banking system to become so rickety has been far too high.
But reform of the banking system has been painfully slow. And the indebtedness of the US and UK economies - including escalating public-sector debt - has been increasing.
So the recession may, in a technical sense, be coming to an end. But we have not yet solved the serious structural weaknesses of either the financial system or our economies - and until we do, any recovery may well be insipid, intermittent and fragile.
You can see my report on Newsnight on Monday 14 September at 22:30 on BBC Two or following that on this website.