Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

200 pages on why they let Lehman fail

When I first saw Laurence Ball’s 218 page NBER paper “The Fed and Lehman Brothers”, my first reaction was that this was too long to read. During the crisis, I had waded through 2200 pages (not counting appendices totalling close to 2000 pages) of the report of bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas. But so many years after the crisis, Lehman fatigue sets in even for persistent readers like me. I am glad however that I overcame my initial reluctance and read this paper. Incidentally, NBER found the paper too long and so they relegated it to a “supplemental file” and posted an 18 page summary as the main paper. I think this is stupid – if you wish to read it at all, I would suggest you read the full paper (the 18 page summary is a waste of time). If you do not have access to NBER, you can read the full paper at the author’s website.

Ball puts together evidence scattered over many different sources to demolish the claim by the Fed that they lacked legal authority to rescue Lehman. The legal requirement was only that any loan should be secured by adequate collateral. Since Lehman had a large amount of unsecured long term debt, its assets (even at very pessimistic valuations) exceeded its short term debt by a wide margin. Therefore Lehman could have provided adequate collateral to the Fed to support a loan large enough to replace its entire short term debt. Lehman would then have been able to remain open for several weeks or months (until the long term debt fell due). This could have enabled Barclays to buy Lehman – the stumbling block to that deal was that Barclays needed a shareholder vote to complete the transaction and without a Fed loan, Lehman could not have survived that long. Even if that deal did not happen, an orderly liquidation of Lehman would have been possible. Ball’s point about long term debt is a valuable contribution to the Lehman literature. In credit risk modelling, it is well known that long term debt is less problematic than short term debt. In the famous KMV model, default risk measurement uses the sum of short term debt and half long term debt. But I have not previously seen this insight applied to Lehman.

Ball is also able to establish that the decision not to lend to Lehman was taken by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, though legally Paulson had no role in this decision which was the exclusive province of the Fed. This is of course evidence that the powers to lend to distressed institutions should be moved out of the central bank to a separate resolution corporation in order to safeguard the independence of the central bank.

Let me add that I am firmly of the view that the decision to let Lehman fail was the correct one. If today the US seems to be the only country to have put the crisis behind it and to be on the recovery path, much of the credit should go to the bold decision to let Lehman fail. Countries which spent years in denial and tried to muddle along have fared much worse. It is unfortunate that those who took this correct decision have not had the courage to admit this, but have chosen to hide behind the fig leaf of a non existent legal barrier. Ball’s paper set the record straight on this and ensures that future historians will know the truth.

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