By the time Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in American history on Sept. 15, 2008, the country had been navigating stormy global financial waters for more than a year. Bear Stearns had been rescued in a bailout-facilitated merger with JPMorgan Chase, and the government had nationalized housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For anyone paying attention to the financial system, the situation had been quite dire for a long time.

And yet throughout the mess, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury had been permitting the largest banks in the country to funnel as much cash as they wanted to their shareholders ― even as it became clear those same banks could not pay their debts. Lehman itself had increased its dividend and announced a $100 million stock buyback at the beginning of 2008. Insurance giant AIG paid its highest dividend in company history on Sept. 19, 2008 ― three days after the Federal Reserve handed the insurance giant $85 billion in emergency funds. According to Stanford University Business School Professor Anat Admati, the 19 biggest American banks passed out $80 billion in dividends between the summer of 2007 and the close of 2008. They drew $160 billion in bailout funds from the U.S. Treasury, and untold billions from the Fed’s $7.7 trillion in emergency lending. ..

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