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Lessons From The Lehman Brothers Collapse

Helen Chorley, investor and former investment banker, comments

They say time slows down during an accident or a ‘frightening event.’ It has come to be known as ‘altered phenomenology’ and describes the exact moment when our internal mental state, and the external passage of time seem to both oppose and collude with each other perfectly. First, the mind seems to speed up. We are suddenly, and without prescience, in possession of a heightened mental clarity; a level so high that we are able to act swiftly and perfectly in a fraction of the time it would normally take to fully comprehend the situation, let alone analyse possible solutions, and choose one to take.

Second (or simultaneously rather), time itself slows down. Or at least seems to. Whether the events around us unfold in slow-motion - or perhaps we become acutely aware of their pace as if viewed through a lens - time seems to expand. As if to fit something in that space that was too large to fit before. The melding of these two occurrences simultaneously, has the power to manifest the impossible; a completely unlikely yet essential outcome. This could be anything, from saving a chess game you’re set to lose, to a death-averting leap over a mountain chasm.

On 15 September 2008, at 5:49am, the same thing happened to me. I experienced both that speeding up of my mind, and the simultaneous slowing of time. The difference? Crisis was NOT averted by this experience. Instead of leaping to safety, I, along with my partner at the time and millions of others, plummeted into the chasm. It was of course the most memorable day of the Global Financial Crisis. The day Lehman Brothers, the investment bank where my partner was still employed, finally announced what we all already knew. That it was over. No more uncertainty. The proverbial really had, truly hit the fan.

We had already been up since 1am under the false illusion that the announcement of their bankruptcy was happening much earlier. Ha Ha. (In reality it could have been announced a few months earlier, but more on that later). On top of the red-eye of staying up all night, our nerves were shredded in anticipation of what would be the final articulation of their defeat.

And yet when the moment came, we sat there in that perfect brain-time space. All these thoughts and events culminating in a split second. First, my mind, nimbly piecing together all the conversations of the last 12 months with total clarity and understanding. The context of the energy of the markets, the various movements of the banks, all playing its part in the crescendo. And alongside this, the painful, painful self-awareness. You knew this was going to happen. I know, they lied. They were lying. To themselves, to you. It doesn’t matter that they promised you both, month after month that Lehmans was ok. It’s just the end now. Second (simultaneously) hearing every single word that came out of Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld’s mouth syllable by syllable, as if each noun, verb and conjunction meant something completely alien, and needed half-time pronunciation to be understood. Fast and slow, that’s what it was.

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