After the fall of Lehman Brothers 10 years ago, there was a public debate about how the leading American banks had grown “too big to fail.” But that debate overlooked the larger story, about how the global markets where stocks, bonds and other financial assets are traded had grown worrisomely large.
By the eve of the 2008 crisis, global financial markets dwarfed the global economy. Those markets had tripled over the previous three decades to 347 percent of the world’s gross economic output, driven up by easy money pouring out of central banks. That is one major reason that the ripple effects of Lehman’s fall were large enough to cause the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
Today the markets are even larger, having grown to 360 percent of global G.D.P., a record high. And financial authorities — trained to focus more on how markets respond to economic risk than on the risks that markets pose to the economy — have been inadvertently fueling this new threat.
Over the past decade, the world’s largest central banks — in the United States, Europe, China and Japan — have expanded their balance sheets from less than $5 trillion to more than $17 trillion in an effort to promote the recovery. Much of that newly printed money has found its way into the financial markets, where it often follows the path of least regulation.
Central bankers and other regulators have largely succeeded in containing the practice that caused disaster in 2008: risky mortgage lending by big banks. But with so much easy money sloshing around in global markets, new threats were bound to emerge — in places the regulators aren’t watching as closely.
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