The five biggest corporate bankruptcies – and nine of the top 10 – in the U.S. all occurred in the first decade of the 21st century. This should come as no surprise, given that there were two distinct recessions and bear markets that savaged the U.S. economy over this period. The technology sector was the worst hit in the 2000-2002 downturn – the Nasdaq Composite tumbled as much as 78% over this period – and was marked by an outbreak of accounting scandals that led to the bankruptcy of a number of companies including WorldCom and Enron. The 2007-2009 global recession was unprecedented in the scale of destruction it wrought worldwide. It erased $37 trillion, or 60%, of global market capitalization within a span of 17 months, raising fears of a global depression. Corporate icons that were forced into bankruptcy during this tumultuous period included Lehman Brothers and General Motors. (If you're unclear how this recession began, see The 2007-08 Financial Crisis In Review.)

There are obvious differences in size and complexity between corporate financial statements (such as the balance sheet, income statement and cash flow statement) and your own personal financial statements. But these differences apart, there are a number of important lessons to be learned from some of the biggest bankruptcies in U.S. history that are applicable to our own personal finances.

Lesson 1
Excessive leverage is usually a high-risk strategy.
Financial leverage refers to the practice of utilizing borrowed money to invest in an asset. Leverage is often referred to as a double-edged sword, since it can amplify gains when asset prices are rising, but can also magnify losses when asset prices are tumbling.

Excessive leverage was a major contributing factor to the 2001-2006 U.S. housing bubble and the subsequent bust from 2007. The housing bubble was fueled by a huge increase in subprime lending, as borrowers with poor credit histories were lured into the housing market by low introductory interest rates and minimal down payments. Excessive leverage was also apparent on the banking side, as the five largest U.S. investment banks significantly increased their leverage between 2003 and 2007, borrowing vast sums to invest in mortgage-backed securities.

Lehman's demise is a case study in the dangers of excessive leverage. Lehman's big push into the subprime mortgage market initially provided stellar returns, as it reported record profits every year from 2005 to 2007. But by 2007, its leverage was reaching dangerously high levels. In that year, Lehman was the leading underwriter of mortgage-backed securities on Wall Street, accumulating an $85 billion portfolio. The ratio of total assets to shareholders equity was 31 in 2007, which meant that each dollar of assets on its balance sheet was backed by only three cents in equity.

Legions of real estate speculators and "condo-flippers" in the U.S. also resorted to excessive leverage during the housing bubble, with equity withdrawals from residences used to fund speculation in additional real estate. Similar to Lehman, their initial success encouraged progressively greater risk-taking, but eventually, they had little choice but to resort to distress sales as the crumbling housing market rapidly erased their minimal equity cushion.

It is safe to surmise that none of these parties – subprime borrowers, real estate speculators or the investment banks – saw the crash coming. Their entire speculative strategy may have been predicated on being able to exit their investments while the going was good – in other words, cash out while still ahead. But market corrections can occur faster and run deeper than speculators generally expect, and excessive leverage gives borrowers very little flexibility at such times.

The lesson here is that, while a reasonable degree of leverage is not necessarily a bad thing, excessive leverage is generally too risky for most individuals. It is prudent to have an adequate amount of equity backing an asset purchase or investment, whether the asset in question is one's residence, a vacation property or a stock portfolio.

Lesson 2 – Adequate liquidity is always a good thing.
Washington Mutual was forced into bankruptcy because a "run on the bank" – amounting to 9% of its deposits – occurring over a 10-day period in September, 2008. The credit markets were virtually frozen at that time following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and the near-collapse of AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The mass and speed of deposit outflows from Washington Mutual Bank shortened the time available for them to find new capital, improve liquidity or find an equity partner.

The lesson from the WaMu debacle is that often cash is a drag in a bull market, but cash is king when times are tough. Therefore, it makes sense to have adequate liquidity at all times, in order to meet contingencies and unexpected expenses – for example, an unexpected job loss or a medical emergency.

According to a September, 2009 survey by the American Payroll Association, 71% of Americans were living from paycheck to paycheck. Just over 28,000 of the nearly 40,000 respondents in the online survey said that they would find it somewhat difficult or very difficult to pay their bills if their paycheck was delayed by a week. A similar survey of 3,000 Canadians revealed that 59% would have trouble making ends meet if their paycheck was delayed by a week.

Given this reality, it would seem like a difficult task for most households to stash away enough cash to meet expenses for three months, as most financial planners recommend. But this does not preclude exploring other alternatives to build up a liquidity cushion, such as opening up a standby line of credit at your local financial institution or drawing up a plan to sell assets if required. (One way to start on the road to better finances is to examine your current budget; check out How Do Your Finances Stack Up? to learn more.)

Lesson 3 – Fraud never pays.
With former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers serving a 25-year jail sentence for fraud and conspiracy as a result of the company's fraudulent accounting and financial reporting, the lesson here is that fraud never pays.

WorldCom was by no means the only company to indulge in accounting fraud – other perpetrators to be caught in 2002 alone included Tyco, Enron and Adelphia Communications. There have also been numerous other forms of corporate fraud in recent years, from multi-billion Ponzi schemes run by Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford to insider trading and options-backdating scandals. Many of the executives who were involved in these frauds ended up serving time in jail and/or paying very stiff fines. In a few instances, top executives have been fired for providing false information about their educational qualifications on their resumes.

As far as an individual is concerned, fraudulent activities can range from perceived trivial ones such as resume falsification or embellishment to more serious offenses such as tax evasion. But if one is found guilty of fraud, the damage to that person's reputation, career and employability can be much greater than any monetary gain from such activities. (Sometimes reporting someone evading taxes can be beneficial to you, learn more in our article Reporting A Tax Cheat.)

Lesson 4 – Update your product/service/skills to remain competitive (before your financial situation deteriorates).
General Motors was the world's largest automaker for 77 years. In 1979, it was also the largest private sector employer in the U.S., with over 618,000 employees. But it ultimately became a victim of its own success, as a bloated cost structure and poor management saw it rapidly lose market share to aggressive Japanese automakers such as Toyota and Honda, from the 1980s onward. As a result, GM's share of the U.S. market declined from 46% in 1980 to 20.3% by the first quarter of 2009. This very substantial erosion of market share, coupled with the company's huge overheads, resulted in GM's financial position deteriorating at an accelerated pace during the recession, with total losses of close to $70 billion in 2007 and 2008.

The moral of the GM story is that a company needs to update its product or service in order to counter competition, well before its financial situation deteriorates. GM was literally in the driver's seat for decades, but squandered its lead by virtue of being unresponsive to its customers' requirements. As a result, its gas-guzzlers steadily lost mindshare and market share to the more fuel-efficient Accords and Camrys.

Likewise, an individual also needs to keep skills current in order to remain competitive in the workforce. This assumes greater urgency at times when the unemployment rate is high and household balance sheets are under a great deal of pressure, such as in the second half of 2009, when the jobless rate approached 10%.

Lesson 5 – If you can't understand it, don't invest in it.
One of Warren Buffett's maxims is, "Never invest in a business you cannot understand." This is the key lesson that the Enron bankruptcy holds for the investor. (To learn more about how investors were led astray in the Enron scandal, check out Enron's Collapse: The Fall Of A Wall Street Darling.)

Enron succeeded in deceiving the "smart money," such as pension funds and other institutional investors for years, before the company's lack of transparency and policy of obfuscation, which was in turn prompted by its accounting gimmickry, caught up with it.

Enron was founded in 1985 through the merger of two natural gas pipeline companies. But by 2001, it had become a conglomerate that owned and operated gas pipelines, electricity plants, water plants and broadband assets, and also traded in financial markets for similar products. As a result, Enron's business model was very complex, and its financial statements were difficult to understand because of the complexity of its financing structures involving hundreds of special purpose entities and off-balance-sheet vehicles. (Read about some typical off balance sheet items in Off-Balance-Sheet Entities: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.)

The lesson here is that a company that is not being fully transparent or that is using creative accounting might be masking its true performance and financial position. So why bother investing in a business that is hard to understand, when there are numerous investment alternatives in the marketplace?

A unique set of factors in each case eventually led to these five massive corporate bankruptcies in the U.S. These bankruptcies can provide valuable lessons to individuals and investors, despite the obvious differences in size and complexity between corporate financial statements and personal financial statements. From the perspective of financial planning and personal investments, these lessons are applicable to most individuals, from young investors to seasoned market professionals.

For related reading, take a look at 7 Lessons To Learn From A Market Downturn.