On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. With $639 billion in assets and $619 billion in debt, Lehman's bankruptcy filing was the largest in history, as its assets far surpassed those of previous bankrupt giants such as WorldCom and Enron. Lehman was the fourth-largest U.S. investment bank at the time of its collapse, with 25,000 employees worldwide.
Lehman's demise also made it the largest victim of the U.S. subprime mortgage-induced financial crisis that swept through global financial markets in 2008. Lehman's collapse was a seminal event that greatly intensified the 2008 crisis and contributed to the erosion of close to $10 trillion in market capitalization from global equity markets in October 2008, the biggest monthly decline on record at the time.
The History of Lehman Brothers
Lehman Brothers had humble origins, tracing its roots back to a small general store that was founded by German immigrant Henry Lehman in Montgomery, Alabama in 1844. In 1850, Henry Lehman and his brothers, Emanuel and Mayer, founded Lehman Brothers.
While the firm prospered over the following decades as the U.S. economy grew into an international powerhouse, Lehman had to contend with plenty of challenges over the years. Lehman survived them all – the railroad bankruptcies of the 1800s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, two world wars, a capital shortage when it was spun off by American Express Co. (AXP) in 1994, and the Long Term Capital Management collapse and Russian debt default of 1998. However, despite its ability to survive past disasters, the collapse of the U.S. housing market ultimately brought Lehman Brothers to its knees, as its headlong rush into the subprime mortgage market proved to be a disastrous step.
The Prime Culprit
In 2003 and 2004, with the U.S. housing boom (read, bubble) well under way, Lehman acquired five mortgage lenders, including subprime lender BNC Mortgage and Aurora Loan Services, which specialized in Alt-A loans (made to borrowers without full documentation). Lehman's acquisitions at first seemed prescient; record revenues from Lehman's real estate businesses enabled revenues in the capital markets unit to surge 56% from 2004 to 2006, a faster rate of growth than other businesses in investment banking or asset management. The firm securitized $146 billion of mortgages in 2006, a 10% increase from 2005. Lehman reported record profits every year from 2005 to 2007. In 2007, the firm reported net income of a record $4.2 billion on revenue of $19.3 billion.
Lehman's Colossal Miscalculation
In February 2007, the stock reached a record $86.18, giving Lehman a market capitalization of close to $60 billion. However, by the first quarter of 2007, cracks in the U.S. housing market were already becoming apparent as defaults on subprime mortgages rose to a seven-year high. On March 14, 2007, a day after the stock had its biggest one-day drop in five years on concerns that rising defaults would affect Lehman's profitability, the firm reported record revenues and profit for its fiscal first quarter. In the post-earnings conference call, Lehman's chief financial officer (CFO) said that the risks posed by rising home delinquencies were well contained and would have little impact on the firm's earnings. He also said that he did not foresee problems in the subprime market spreading to the rest of the housing market or hurting the U.S. economy.
The Beginning of the End
As the credit crisis erupted in August 2007 with the failure of two Bear Stearns hedge funds, Lehman's stock fell sharply. During that month, the company eliminated 2,500 mortgage-related jobs and shut down its BNC unit. In addition, it also closed offices of Alt-A lender Aurora in three states. Even as the correction in the U.S. housing market gained momentum, Lehman continued to be a major player in the mortgage market. In 2007, Lehman underwrote more mortgage-backed securities than any other firm, accumulating an $85 billion portfolio, or four times its shareholders' equity. In the fourth quarter of 2007, Lehman's stock rebounded, as global equity markets reached new highs and prices for fixed-income assets staged a temporary rebound. However, the firm did not take the opportunity to trim its massive mortgage portfolio, which in retrospect, would turn out to be its last chance.
Hurtling Toward Failure
Lehman's high degree of leverage – the ratio of total assets to shareholders equity – was 31 in 2007, and its huge portfolio of mortgage securities made it increasingly vulnerable to deteriorating market conditions. On March 17, 2008, following the near-collapse of Bear Stearns – the second-largest underwriter of mortgage-backed securities – Lehman shares fell as much as 48% on concern it would be the next Wall Street firm to fail. Confidence in the company returned to some extent in April, after it raised $4 billion through an issue of preferred stock that was convertible into Lehman shares at a 32% premium to its price at the time. However, the stock resumed its decline as hedge fund managers began questioning the valuation of Lehman's mortgage portfolio.
On June 9, Lehman announced a second-quarter loss of $2.8 billion, its first loss since being spun off by American Express, and reported that it had raised another $6 billion from investors. The firm also said that it had boosted its liquidity pool to an estimated $45 billion, decreased gross assets by $147 billion, reduced its exposure to residential and commercial mortgages by 20%, and cut down leverage from a factor of 32 to about 25.
Too Little, Too Late
However, these measures were perceived as being too little, too late. Over the summer, Lehman's management made unsuccessful overtures to a number of potential partners. The stock plunged 77% in the first week of September 2008, amid plummeting equity markets worldwide, as investors questioned CEO Richard Fuld's plan to keep the firm independent by selling part of its asset management unit and spinning off commercial real estate assets. Hopes that the Korea Development Bank would take a stake in Lehman were dashed on September 9, as the state-owned South Korean bank put talks on hold.
The news was a deathblow to Lehman, leading to a 45% plunge in the stock and a 66% spike in credit-default swaps on the company's debt. The company's hedge fund clients began pulling out, while its short-term creditors cut credit lines. On September 10, Lehman pre-announced dismal fiscal third-quarter results that underscored the fragility of its financial position. The firm reported a loss of $3.9 billion, including a write-down of $5.6 billion, and also announced a sweeping strategic restructuring of its businesses. The same day, Moody's Investor Service announced that it was reviewing Lehman's credit ratings, and also said that Lehman would have to sell a majority stake to a strategic partner in order to avoid a ratings downgrade. These developments led to a 42% plunge in the stock on September 11.
With only $1 billion left in cash by the end of that week, Lehman was quickly running out of time. Last-ditch efforts over the weekend of September 13 between Lehman, Barclays PLC and Bank of America Corp. (BAC), aimed at facilitating a takeover of Lehman, were unsuccessful. On Monday September 15, Lehman declared bankruptcy, resulting in the stock plunging 93% from its previous close on September 12.
The Bottom Line
Lehman's collapse roiled global financial markets for weeks, given the size of the company and its status as a major player in the U.S. and internationally. Many questioned the U.S. government's decision to let Lehman fail, as compared to its tacit support for Bear Stearns, which was acquired by JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) in March 2008. Lehman's bankruptcy led to more than $46 billion of its market value being wiped out. Its collapse also served as the catalyst for the purchase of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America in an emergency deal that was also announced on September 15.