The lesson from Lehman’s failure
Editorial 2010-03-15

The report into Lehman’s failure will no doubt prompt much snorting about swindling investment bankers. Some may be tempted to draw parallels with past financial frauds, such as Enron or Madoff. But to do so would miss the wider point about Lehman’s collapse.

Lehman was a poorly-managed bank that operated an irresponsible business model. But it was no Enron or Ponzi scheme. Indeed it behaved much as any bank would, if allowed, in a similar situation.

It is worth looking back to the months before Lehman’s collapse. After the rescue of Bear Stearns in March 2008, it was clear that investors were losing faith in highly-leveraged investment banks that relied on wholesale funding. This was Lehman in excelsis. As such, it was the next domino in line.

Bosses of banks that are in clear danger of failing have three courses open to them. They can wind the bank up; sell it; or keep trading in the hope of resurrection. Given the crystallisation of losses involved in the first option, only a manager who put integrity above either his own reputation or the shareholders’ interest would ever take it. The board of Lehman was stuffed with major shareholders. Unsurprisingly, it opted for option three (only later seeking an outright sale of the bank).

A barely-alive bank is an extremely dangerous thing. The temptation to fudge the figures or lie to prolong life becomes overwhelming. This is why regulators seize banks that are close to failure. But, as a broker-dealer, Lehman was not subject to such regulation: the SEC did not have the tools. In this situation, it is scarcely surprising that Lehman’s managers resorted to fudging. The report details how they used a repo transaction to artificially reduce the bank’s leverage, knowing the importance that investors placed on this figure. Lehman also misled investors about its access to liquid funds.

If there are lessons to be learned from Lehman, it is not simply that its management succumbed to temptation. The authorities were excessively sanguine about the existence of such a vast and undercapitalised organisation. None of this excuses the conduct of individuals or professional service firms that may have failed in their duties. Anyone who did wrong should be held to account. But the real lesson is that institutions with bank-like characteristics should all be treated like banks and be subject to proper oversight. Whatever the future regulatory world is to be, it should not contain loopholes for another Lehman to exploit.

FT社评:雷曼破产的教训

雷曼(Lehman)破产调查报告,无疑会让人们对坑蒙拐骗的投资银行家嗤之以鼻。有些人可能还会将其与过去的金融欺诈事件进行比较,例如安然(Enron)或马多夫(Madoff)事件。但这样做实际上忽略了雷曼破产更深远的意义。

雷曼是一家管理糟糕的银行,有着一个不负责任的商业模式。但它不是安然,也不存在什么庞氏骗局。事实上,如果身处同样的境地,任何银行都会像雷曼那样做。

我们有必要回顾一下雷曼倒闭前的几个月。在2008年3月美国政府为贝尔斯登(Bear Stearns)纾困之后,投资者们对于依赖大宗融资的高杠杆率投行显然已失去了信任。而在这一点上,雷曼是无可比拟的。因此,它便成为紧接着倒下的那块多米诺骨牌。

如果银行明显面临破产危险,它们的主管有三条路可走。他们可以对银行进行破产清算;将其出售;或是继续经营,以期浴火重生。鉴于第一种选择牵涉的损失明晰可见,只有将职业操守置于个人名声或股东权益之上的管理者才会选择这么做。雷曼的董事会里大股东比比皆是。它选择了第三条道路(稍候才寻求直接出售该行)也就在意料之中了。

苟延残喘的银行极端危险。编造数字或撒谎以求延长寿命的诱惑变得无可抗拒。这就是为什么监管机构会接管濒临破产的银行。但是作为一家经纪自营商,雷曼不受此类监管:美国证交会(SEC)没有相关监管手段。在这种情况下,雷曼管理层选择编造数字也就不足为奇了。调查报告详细说明了他们如何利用一种回购交易,人为降低了该行的杠杆率,因为他们知道投资者非常重视这个数字。雷曼还在其获取流动性资金的渠道上误导了投资者。

如果说我们能够从雷曼的经历中吸取什么教训的话,绝不只是雷曼管理层屈从于诱惑这么简单。对于这种规模庞大且资本不足的机构的存在,监管当局过于乐观。这些都不能用来给疏离职守的个人或是专业服务公司洗脱罪责。不论是谁,做错了事情就应该承担责任。但真正的教训是,拥有类似银行特征的机构,应该全部被当作银行来对待,并接受适当的监督。无论未来的监管体系是怎样一幅场景,都不应该再有漏洞让另一个雷曼加以利用。

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