Tag: Lehman

We Are All “Yappers Who Don’t Know Anything”

By James Kwak

According to ex-Lehman executives interviewed by Max Abelson (hat tip Felix Salmon). To summarize, they say that using borderline-legal transactions to massage your balance sheet at the end of a quarter is completely normal, everyone does it, $50 billion is no big deal anyway, only “nonprofessionals” would even notice, and the only reason the bankruptcy examiner made so much noise about it was to justify the fee for his work. (Abelson does point out that, according to internal Lehman emails cited in the report, there were Lehman executives at the time who were worried about what they were doing and did not think it was standard practice.)

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A Whiff of Repo 105

The following guest post was contributed by Jennifer S. Taub, a Lecturer and Coordinator of the Business Law Program within the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (SSRN page here).  Previously, she was an Associate General Counsel for Fidelity Investments in Boston and Assistant Vice President for the Fidelity Fixed Income Funds.

To the uninitiated, the term ‘Repo 105’ evokes the name of a basic finance course or perhaps an expensive perfume.  However, the broader implication of Lehman’s corrupt accounting strategy is neither simple nor does it pass the smell test.

While hiding $50 billion off balance sheet is nothing to sneeze at, ‘Repo 105’ may be an unfortunate distraction. We should focus our attention on a far more mainstream and dangerous use of repurchase agreements backed by securitized bonds to grow balance sheets. This practice, enabled by a 2005 legal change, directly destabilized the financial sector and led to the ultimate credit crisis of 2008. In other words, the approximately $7-10 trillion repo financing market created what Gary Gorton and Andrew Metrick call the “run on repo” or what Gerald Epstein describes as a “run on the banking system by the banking system.”

A repurchase agreement or “repo” is a two-part arrangement. The seller (cash borrower) agrees to sell securities at a slight discount to a buyer (cash lender). Under that same agreement, that original seller agrees to buy them back at a future date at a higher price. The securities are known as “collateral.” The discount is known as the margin or a “haircut.” The ratio between the increase in price and the original price is known as the rate.

With ‘Repo 105,’ Lehman, according to volume III of the examiner’s report, acting as a seller (cash borrower), treated $50 billion in repo transactions as sales instead of financing transactions. Lehman did not reveal to investors that it was doing so. In contrast, standard practice was to record these transactions on balance sheet by increasing both cash (assets on the left side) and collateralized financing (liabilities on the right side). Thus a properly recorded repo transaction results in both a larger balance sheet and also higher leverage ratios.

Not wanting to issue more equity to boost leverage ratios, Lehman instead chose a cosmetic solution. With ‘Repo 105,” near the end of a reporting period, Lehman treated the transactions as sales and used the cash proceeds to pay down other liabilities. This made the firm appear to have a smaller balance sheet and less leverage than it truly had. The transactions were called ‘Repo 105’ and ‘Repo 108’ in reference to the size of the haircut. In other words, for ‘Repo 105’ transactions, Lehman would provide collateral purportedly worth 105% of the amount of cash it received.

As we blame the bad apples at Lehman, we fail to see how recent legal changes brought about bigger problems in the repo markets and how instead of reversing these missteps, the law may instead amplify it. Indeed, as discussed below, language in the Dodd draft released Monday, March 15th suggests we have not learned some basic lessons.

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Senator Kaufman: Fraud Still At The Heart Of Wall Street

By Simon Johnson

Last week, Senator Ted Kaufman (D., DE) gave a devastating speech in the Senate on “too big to fail” and all it entails.  A long public silence from our political class was broken – and to great effect.  Today’s Dodd reform proposals stand in pale comparison to the principles outlined by Senator Kaufman.  And yes, DE stands for Delaware – corporate America has finally decided that its largest financial offspring are way out of line and must be reined in.

Today, the Senator has gone one better, putting many private criticisms of the financial sector – the kind you hear whispered with conviction on the Upper East Side and in Midtown – firmly and articulately on the public record in a Senate floor speech to be delivered (this link is to the press release; the speech is in a pdf attached to that – update: direct link to speech, which will be given tomorrow).  He pulls no punches:

“fraud and potential criminal conduct were at the heart of the financial crisis”

He goes after Lehman – with its infamous Repo 105 – as well as the other entities potentially implicated in those transactions, including Ernst and Young (Lehman’s auditors).  This is the low hanging fruit – but have you heard even a squeak from the White House or anyone else in the country’s putative leadership on this issue?

And then he goes for the twin jugulars of Wall Street as it still stands: The idea that we saved something, at great expense in 2008-09, that was actually worth saving; and Goldman Sachs. Continue reading “Senator Kaufman: Fraud Still At The Heart Of Wall Street”

A Few Words on Lehman

I have a trip coming up at the end of this week, and in the meantime I have two articles to write, and a section of a legal thingy, and I’m sick, and my daughter’s sick, so I won’t be able to do justice to the Lehman report issued by the bankruptcy examiner on Thursday. So here are just some moderately quick thoughts.

  • The report is great reading (I’ve read some sections of it). You can get the whole thing here, in nine separate PDF files. If you want to get an overview of the report, Volume I has a comprehensive table of contents. Note that the TOC is thirty-eight pages long. Like many legal documents, some of the section heads are written as sentences, so you can sort of “read” the TOC. In particular, you can see from the TOC which parties might be the subject of legal causes of action. (Note that the “Volume” numbers have nothing to do with the logical organization of the report; they only reflect how it was chopped into nine PDFs.)
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The Myth of Dick Fuld

Wall Street critics often say that compensation should be in long-term restricted stock so that managers and employees do not have the incentive to take excessive risk, make big money in good years, deposit the cash in their bank account, and then escape to their private islands when their bets blow up the next year. Wall Street defenders like to point to Dick Fuld, who supposedly lost $1 billion by holding on to Lehman Brothers stock that eventually became worthless. You don’t get more of a long-term incentive than that, the argument goes.

Lucian Bebchuk, Alma Cohen, and Holger Spamann have exploded this myth in a Financial Times op-ed and a new paper. They look at the CEOs and the other top-five executives of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. (All numbers are adjusted to January 2009 dollars.) From 2000 through 2008, these ten people received $491 million in cash bonuses (Table 1) and sold $1,966 million in stock (Table 2); on average, each person took out $246 million in cash. (Both Lehman and Bear had rules that prevented top executives from cashing out equity bonuses for five years from the award date–see p. 16 n. 33.)

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Back-Door Resolution Authority

Tyler Cowen quotes from Robert Pozen’s yet-to-be-released book:

“In my view, the adverse repercussions of Lehman’ failure could have been substantially reduced if the federal regulators had made clear that they would protect all holders of Lehman’s commercial paper with a maturity of less than 60 days and guaranteed the completion of all trades with Lehman for that period.”

Back when people cared about these things, I wrote a couple of posts on the issue of selective protection of creditors.

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Mixed Messages

David Wessel seems to be doing the impossible: his book, In Fed We Trust, is getting mentions from all over the Internet, even before its publication, despite competition from what seem like dozens of other crisis books. That’s what a good PR campaign (and a good review from Michiko Kakutani) will do for you.

I obviously haven’t read the book yet, but I was interested in this description in Bloomberg:

None of the senior government policy makers anticipated the credit-market collapse that followed Lehman’s bankruptcy filing in the early hours of Sept. 15, according to Wessel’s book. . . .

On a conference call the previous week, Paulson, Bernanke, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, and senior staff members from those agencies had agreed that companies and investors who did business with Lehman had learned from Bear Stearns and would have acted to protect themselves from a Lehman failure, Wessel wrote.

What were they supposed to learn from Bear Stearns? That they should be very, very afraid of a major bank failure and take steps to protect themselves? Or that the government would step in, so that even if shareholders were largely wiped out, counterparties would be protected? It seems like more of them drew the latter conclusion, even though Paulson, Bernanke, et al. wanted them to draw the former conclusion.

This seems to me an illustration of the fact that you can never be sure what message you are sending. Perversely, even letting Lehman fail ultimately convinced market participants that the government would step in the next time – because the damage done by Lehman’s collapse was so great. One-off intervention are a crude and risky way of communicating policy and creating incentives.

By James Kwak

Causes: Hank Paulson

Other posts in this occasional series.

I generally prefer systemic explanations for events, but it is obviously worthwhile to complement this with a careful study of key individuals. And in the current crisis, no individual is as interesting or as puzzling as Hank Paulson.

The big question must be: How could a person with so much market experience be repeatedly at the center of such major misunderstandings regarding the markets, and how could his team – stuffed full of people like him – struggle so much to communicate what they were doing and why?

Hank Paulson’s exit interview with the Financial Times contains some potential answers but also generates some new puzzles.

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