Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Lehman Brothers v Morgan Stanley

We hope everyone is having happy holidays. Last time, we defended Lehman Brothers from Andrew Ross Sorkin’s attack in Too Big to Fail. We’ve stolen some time from the seasonal festivities to take another look at the numbers, and we still feel there’s a strong case to be made for the way Lehman Brothers managed its finances right before its fall.

We compared Lehman to Morgan Stanley from November 2007 through August 2008, the three reporting periods leading up to Lehman’s collapse in September 2008. We looked at the progress each firm made improving three key measures of financial strength: leverage, exposure to mortgage-backed securities, and liquidity reserves.

We calculated leverage as the ratio of total assets to shareholders’ equity, exposure to mortgage-backed securities as the book value of residential and commercial mortgage-backed securities as a percent of shareholders’ equity, and liquidity reserves as total cash and unpledged liquid securities. To gauge the improvement in each measure, we calculated its value in August as a percent of its value in November.


In Sorkin’s account, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt because it had too little capital to absorb the potential losses from its real estate investments. But Lehman did much more to reduce leverage and cut exposure to mortgage-backed securities than Morgan Stanley, yet Morgan Stanley survived.

It’s true that Morgan Stanley did a better job of boosting liquidity than Lehman, but it needed to. Morgan Stanley did much more prime brokerage business with hedge funds than Lehman. It was the run-off in prime brokerage funds that brought Bear Stearns down, and it nearly ruined Morgan Stanley too. In the week after Lehman failed, Morgan Stanley went through nearly all $180 billion of its liquidity reserves and had to go to the Federal Reserve for rescue.

So what’s the risk management lesson in all this? Did Lehman Brothers deserve to die? Did it commit suicide, or was it killed? Could it have done anything to save itself? Too Big to Fail makes Lehman’s fate seem inevitable, and we agree.

Like any investment bank, Lehman relied on confidence-sensitive financing, and in September of 2008 the financial markets lost confidence in Lehman – and Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Nothing they could do about leverage, exposure to mortgage-backed securities, or liquidity reserves mattered.

It’s nothing new. As Walter Bagehot observed more than a century ago, “Every banker knows that if he has to prove that he is worthy of credit, however good may be his arguments, in fact his credit is gone.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was extremely interesting for me to read that article. Thank you for it. I like such topics and anything that is connected to this matter. BTW, try to add some pics :).