It Can’t Happen Again (But It Did)


For many of us who remember the 2008 market crash and ensuing recession all too well, this time feels remarkably similar.

In addition to the really-scary-virus running around, we also have business shutdowns, massive cash liquidity infusions into the economy by the federal government, and rising unemployment.

As I write this, there is a two trillion (with a “T”) dollar coronavirus relief bill (“fiscal stimulus”) working its way through congress.

The coronavirus itself is still spreading – reported cases in the U.S. are on the upswing and things will probably get much worse over the next few weeks before they get better.

Life as we know it is very different, but the world isn’t coming to an end (at least not yet). We are all living under necessary restrictions, and appropriately concerned, but these will end.

The stock market is having convulsions (a stronger word than “being volatile”) with daily swings of between 5-12%. This volatility is unprecedented, even during the 2008 event; the market went down dramatically, but it wasn’t nearly as volatile.

The financial crash of 2008 precipitated a severe recession that resulted in corporate and personal bankruptcies, mortgage foreclosures, and high unemployment. Many rightfully thought it might lead to a total meltdown of the financial system.

Now, during the pandemic, the steps being taken by the federal and local authorities to shut down large events, curtail small gatherings, encouraging social distancing, and get as many as possible working from home, which will likely lead to another recession. Some say we are already in one. Others suggest that an extended period of social “shut-down” could lead to a full-blown financial collapse.

I don’t know what is going to happen; only God does. But I do know that the 2007-2009 recession didn’t last forever, and neither will this one. That doesn’t mean things won’t be extremely challenging for a while; months and perhaps a year or two.

It happened again

I have vivid memories of the Fall of 2008 because I was employed by one of the large banks that “failed” – Wachovia Corporation – which was later bought by Wells Fargo. Just a few weeks before the sale, the interim Wachovia CEO Bob Steel was on an investment show on CNBC called “Mad Money” and said that out of $500 billion in loans on the bank’s books, only $10 billion were “bad.”

The implication was that although the bank had some real issues, it should be able to weather the current storm and remain independent and intact. Soon after that, we were informed that Citigroup had bought Wachovia’s banking operation for what essentially amounts to $1.00 per share, supposedly because the actual total was $42 billion and, after the failure of Washington Mutual, the FDIC was about to seize Wachovia.

What followed was a bidding war, and Wells Fargo ended up owning the company, gaining one of the best banking franchises on the east coast. But the deal understandably made the 20,000 or so of the Wachovia employees in Charlotte, NC, very uneasy. I was one of them.  Many of my friends lost money (Wells paid pennies on the dollar for WB’s stock) and careers.

It was a dark time, especially for those of us working in the banking industry. Wachovia was one of the first companies “taken out” by the crisis; others included Washington Mutual, Countrywide, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch. But that is now a distant memory.

As we entered 2020, the financial industry was strong. Wells had grown into a top-five bank (although it stumbled badly because of its fraudulent activities). Bank of America and Merrill Lynch had record earnings. BB&T and SunTrust were merging to form Truist Bank. Then, all of a sudden, the bottom dropped out. Before we knew it, we heard about credit markets and liquidity problems. Interest rates dropped to near zero. And the battles in congress for corporate and consumer bailout money ensued shortly after that.

We thought it could never happen again, but it did! Only this time, the culprit wasn’t too much debt or overvalued real estate (although that is still a HUGE problem in our country), it was an unseen enemy from the microscopic world.

More than just banks and real estate

In 2008, the problem was mainly with the banks and precipitated by a crashing real estate market. An often-quoted phrase was “too big to fail.” Some said that Wachovia (and other banks that size) were “too big to fail”; in other words, they couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be allowed to fail as the consequences would be too great.

Consequently, the feds decided that they had to step in and do something. Early on, they brokered the sale of struggling companies to others at bargain-basement prices. Later, cash bailouts for banks, investment firms, and insurance companies (remember “TARP”?) were the order of the day.

History has a way of repeating itself, doesn’t it?

In 2008 it quickly became clear that the wisest and most experienced executives, regulators, and analysts in the country didn’t know what to do to about it. So, like the rest of us, they reacted to those unprecedented events as they unfolded and did what they could to “contain the damage.”

We are now in an eerily similar time. But this time, almost all industries and companies, and especially small businesses, have been impacted. Many may never recover.

Once again, government officials, medical experts, financial analysts, advisers, and observers are trying to help worried consumers as they face bad medical and economic news every day. Additionally, massive consumer and corporate aid and stimulus package bills are being enacted by congress.

After a decade of amazing economic growth and relative stability, we have been reminded once again just how fragile things are. “Its deja vu all over again.”

God, our Sovereign Provider

Some are optimistic that the virus will be controlled, after which the economy will quickly rebound. Other predictions are direr. But nobody knows for sure.

This all started with one microscopic cell. And, once again, despite our best efforts, we have been reminded how little control we have over anything – our health, our employment, our finances, or the world economy. This is a poignant reminder that we are not in control, only God is.

I loved what Paul D. Tripp had to say in a devotional I read early this week titled, “Five Thoughts From Quarantine“:

  • This pandemic confronts the delusion of human independence and self-sufficiency. We like to think, as human beings, that we are so advanced and capable. But look around – all it takes is a single virus to shut down the entire world. Let this time remind you that you were created to be dependent on the Creator. The development of spiritual maturity is a move from independence to greater dependence on God. Exposing our delusion of self-sufficiency is a painful thing, but a good thing.
  • This pandemic makes God’s sovereign power and amazing grace shine even brighter. In moments where our helplessness is on full display, isn’t it amazing that God remains in careful control of his world? He is not confused or surprised by any of this. It’s okay for us not to be able to reconcile what is happening. But there is One who is not afraid at this moment. We won’t always know why he does what he does, but we know who he is, and we know what he has promised to his children.

Times like these indeed reveal our human inadequacy and God’s sovereign power over all. We never thought there’d be another 2008-level event in our lifetimes, yet here we are.

In such times, it takes a lot of faith – even for Christian believers who are “strong in their faith” – to trust that God is still on the throne; that He knows what He is doing and none of what is currently happening is outside of His realm of knowledge or control.

John Piper, in an article about God’s providence and sovereignty, points us to Question 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism (circa 1563):

Question: What do you understand by the providence of God?

Answer: The almighty, everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were, by his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.

That’s a good summary of God’s providence: wise and purposeful sovereignty.

It may be easier to believe that in a more abstract or theoretical sense as we are experiencing significant anxiety or even fear about our situations. God would have us to know it with absolute certainty and to put our faith and trust in Him in a real and literal sense, living it out in practical ways every day, not just as a Biblical concept.

To do that, and to come through this trial in a way the honors and glorifies God, we believers must know and have full confidence in God who is both Sovereign and in his wise providence; he is our strength and provider who has promised never leave us or forsake us.

We also need to remember that God doesn’t make a promise that we will always be healthy or will maintain the same lifestyle we have now. Nor does he say that we will keep all that we have (or could have had should things have been different). But he has promised that he will be with us and will always provide for us.

To address our temptation to fear and anxiety during these difficult times we, need to pray, immerse ourselves in the Word and let God’s Word speak to our hearts, and of course, wisely care for ourselves and family while also caring for one another.

What, me worry?

In Luke, Chapter 22, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about the things of this life. Easier said than done, right! He asks, “Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your life span?” Yet the temptation for fear, anxiety, doubt, and real concerns are with us. Our relationship with God and faith in him does not keep us from hardship. We all still have to deal with these hardships or bad times, but holding fast to what we believe about God and His character, and the truth of His Word, will help us through.

One final thought from God’s Word: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread” (Psalm 37:25). Let us cling to God’s precious promises and His merciful love for us.


👋 Hi, I’m Chris Cagle, the founder of Retirement Stewardship, a blog that focuses on the various aspects of retirement from a Christian stewardship perspective (1 Peter 4:10).

I write as a retiree who is dealing with the things I write about. I base most of the articles on my research and experience applying it to my situation and how it might apply to yours.

If you’re new here, check out the site introduction for an overview. You can also learn more about me.


My Books

Redeeming Retirement: A Practical Guide to Catch Up (2021)
The Minister’s Retirement (2020)
Reimagine Retirement: Planning and Living for the Glory of God (2019)