Posts tagged: lehman

Lehman And Meritocracy

Following on the Lehman thread (one year anniversary and all), here is Andy Kessler writing in Forbes:

Part of the charm of Wall Street, and what scares most reasonable people away, is that it is as close to a meritocracy as exists on this earth. It’s dog eat dog. It’s sink or swim. You do a trade and it makes money, then you’re a hero (for a moment anyway) and deserve a bonus. You bring in a deal, you get paid. You lasso more clients’ assets under your firm’s roof, you’re a hitter. I once discovered some good news on the stocks I followed before the rest of the Street, and mentioned it to the sales force at a morning meeting and moved markets in New York, Tokyo and London. I had the head of global equities pat my head on the elevator ride up the next morning. Pat my head! I was told he never does that.

The flip side, of course, is what makes Wall Street so dangerous. You lose money for the firm and you’re a heel. Do it again and you don’t get paid that year. Do it a third time and you’re out of a job. Just like that. Gone. I’ve seen it happen to friends and acquaintances at just about every firm up and down Wall Street. There is no tenure on Wall Street, no job security, no long-term guarantees. Ten- and 20-year careers end in a flash. Happens all the time, and everybody who works in the business knows this.

…But the crude reality is that Lehman Brothers is a classic Wall Street story. Inside and outside, it was a meritocracy. They wanted to one up on Goldman Sachs, generate as good a return on equity and earnings growth so they could win the meritocracy game and get paid in spades. How dare Bear Stearns’ CEO make more than ours! Let’s lever this sucker up with mortgage-backeds and create a trillion-dollar balance sheet. If not us, who? And by the way, very few people at Lehman really understood how upper management was playing this meritocracy game with the rest of Wall Street with the rank and files’ careers.

Read the full article here

Andy Kessler: Running Money: Hedge Fund Honchos, Monster Markets and My Hunt for the Big Score

Why a Lehman Deal Would Not Have Saved Us

Niall Ferguson writing in the Financial Times:

All would not have been for the best in the best of all possible worlds if only Lehman Brothers had been saved. On the contrary, a decision to bail out Mr Fuld would almost certainly have had worse consequences than letting him and his company go under.

…Lehman’s chief executive persistently over-played his hand, overvaluing the property assets on the bank’s balance sheet by as much as $25bn-30bn. Mr Fuld was adamant: “As long as I am alive this firm will never be sold. And if it is sold after I die, I will reach back from the grave and prevent it.”

…But there was a reason why no buyer could be found in this universe. Lehman was a firm in its death throes. It had lost $6.7bn in the space of six months. It had debts in excess of $600bn. Its assets were collapsing in value. Even when a deal with Barclays seemed within reach, the British Financial Services Authority vetoed it. Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the exchequer, made it clear: “We are not going to import your cancer.”

…Not everything in history is inevitable; contingencies abound. Sometimes it is therefore right to say “if only”. But an imagined rescue of Lehman Brothers is the wrong counterfactual. The right one goes like this. If only Lehman’s failure and the passage of Tarp had been followed – not immediately, but after six months – by a clear statement to the surviving banks that none of them was henceforth too big to fail, then we might actually have learnt something from this crisis.

The real tragedy is that the failure of Lehman has left Wall Street’s survivors both bigger in relative terms and more secure politically. As long as the big banks feel confident that they can count on the government to bail them out – for who would now risk “another Lehman”? – they can more or less ignore calls for lower leverage and saner compensation.

If only we had learnt from Lehman that no bank should be “too big to fail”, we might still have a real capitalist system, instead of the state-guaranteed monstrosity that is the real legacy of last year’s crisis. If only.

Read the full article here

Niall Ferguson: The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

Missing Lehman Lesson of Shakeout Means Too Big Banks May Fail

Bloomberg has a great (long) piece on missing the lessons of last year’s financial collapse. Below is an excerpt from the article:

Of all the quakes of 2008 — the fall of Bear Stearns Cos. in March, the takeover of mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the salvaging of American International Group Inc. in September — the failure to account for the effects of Lehman’s demise was the most critical because its aftershocks came closest to wrecking the world economy.

“They put the entire financial system at risk, and they didn’t have to,” said Harvey R. Miller, a partner at Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York who represented Lehman in the bankruptcy, referring to government officials. “They were warned. I told them, ‘Armageddon is coming. You don’t know what the consequences will be.’ Their response was, ‘We have it covered.’”

Paulson and Geithner, who succeeded him as Treasury secretary, both declined to comment.

Inviting ‘Catastrophe’

One year later, policymakers haven’t learned the lesson of the bankruptcy, said Richard Bernstein, CEO of Richard Bernstein Capital Management LLC in New York and former chief investment strategist for Merrill Lynch.

Rather than break up institutions such as Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc., or limit their expansion, the U.S. has given them billions of dollars in tax incentives and loan guarantees that enabled them to grow even bigger. To protect against a bank collapse touching off another freefall, President Barack Obama has proposed regulatory changes that rely on the wisdom of bankers and government overseers — the same people who created the conditions that led to Lehman’s bankruptcy and were unable to foresee its consequences.

“Designating certain institutions as too big to fail, and not having a thorough regulatory process to match, practically invites another catastrophe,” Bernstein said.

Rescue efforts exposed a financial system with so many moving parts that U.S. regulators and the world’s top bankers couldn’t keep track of them all. A reconstruction of the meetings at the New York Fed that preceded Lehman’s bankruptcy, drawn from more than a dozen interviews with participants, reveals a failure to understand the importance of commercial paper and how that market would be affected by the collapse of the New York investment bank.

Ice-Nine

It turned out to be a $3.6 trillion blind spot.

Like the fictitious substance ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s 1963 novel “Cat’s Cradle,” a seed of which set off a chain reaction that transformed all the world’s water into ice, Lehman’s failure froze credit markets, said Simon H. Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.

“Ice-nine was invented by a crackpot scientist, and it was unleashed by mistake,” said Johnson, now a professor of finance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge. “How did the financial system get so fragile that this could happen? What were the guys overseeing it doing?”

The bankers and regulators who met at the New York Fed unwittingly dropped the first seed.

Great stuff. You can read the whole article here.

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