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1.5 The Financial Crisis of 2008

Just as investor confidence had (somewhat) been restored and the avalanche of regulatory reform that followed the 2001 meltdown digested, a new, possibly even more damaging crisis, potentially global in scale and scope, emerged. While it has not (yet) been labeled as a “corporate governance” crisis, the “financial crisis of 2008” once again raises important questions about the efficacy of our economic and financial systems, board oversight, and executive behavior.

Specifically, as the economic news worsens—rising inflation and unemployment, falling house prices, record bank losses, a ballooning federal deficit culminating in a $10 trillion national debt, millions of Americans losing their homes, a growing number of failures of banks and other financial institutions—CEOs, investors, and creditors are walking away with billions of dollars, while American taxpayers are being asked to pick up the tab (Freddie Mac’s chairman earned $14.5 million in 2007; Fannie Mae’s CEO earned $14.2 million that same year). Not surprisingly, ordinary citizens who have seen the value of the 401K plans shrink by 40% or more are asking tough questions: How did we get into this mess? Why should we support Wall Street? Where was the government? What has happened to accountability?

While the causes of the current crisis will be debated for some time—Did we rely too much on free markets or not enough? Did special interests shape public policy? Did greed rule once again? Where were the boards of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG? Were regulators asleep at the wheel? Incompetent?—one thing is for sure. Another wave of regulatory reform—this time possibly global in reach—is around the corner. And once again we will be asking the questions that prompted the writing of this book: What will be the impact on investor confidence? On corporate behavior? On boards of directors? On society?