By Mike Whitney
March 15, 2010 “Information Clearing House”
After a year-long investigation, court-appointed bank examiner Anton Valukas has produced a deadly 2,200 page report which details the activities that led to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. The report is a keg of dynamite. The question now is whether anyone in government has the nerve to light the fuse. Valukas provides powerful evidence that Lehman executives were involved in “balance sheet manipulation” by implementing an arcane accounting procedure called “Repo 105” which masked the bank’s true financial condition from investors and regulators.
According to Valukas, Lehman was “Unable to find a United States law firm that would provide it with an opinion letter permitting the true sale accounting treatment” using Repo 105. So, Lehman executives went outside of the country in an effort to enlist the support of a London law firm that would approve the procedure.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of Valugas’s findings. The report exposes the opaque but central role of the repo market which provides essential short-term loans for financial institutions. (Lehman used repos to conceal the full extent of its collapse, by dint of the amount of leverage it was using, meaning the pitiful asset anchor tethered to a vast zeppelin of debt) More importantly, it shows the cozy and, very probably criminal relationship between the country’s main regulatory bodies and the Wall Street behemoths. The activities of the New York Fed (NYFRB), which at the time was headed by Timothy Geithner, is particularly suspect in this regard. The report should trigger an immediate Congressional investigation, probing the whole affair and most importantly the role of the Fed.
Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith, who has apparently sifted through all 2,200 pages of the report, has done some first-rate analysis of the details. Here’s an excerpt from her Friday posting:
“Quite a few observers… have been stunned and frustrated at the refusal to investigate what was almost certain accounting fraud at Lehman. ….The unraveling isn’t merely implicating Fuld (Lehman’s CEO) and his recent succession of CFOs, or its accounting firm, Ernst & Young, as might be expected. It also emerges that the NY Fed, and thus Timothy Geithner, were at a minimum massively derelict in the performance of their duties, and may well be culpable in aiding and abettingLehman in accounting fraud and Sarbox violations….
“We need to demand an immediate release of the e-mails, phone records, and meeting notes from the NY Fed and key Lehman principals regarding the NY Fed’s review of Lehman’s solvency. If, as things appear now, Lehman was allowed by the Fed’s inaction to remain in business, when the Fed should have insisted on a wind-down …..
“…at a minimum, the NY Fed helped perpetuate a fraud on investors and counterparties. This pattern further suggests the Fed, which by its charter is tasked to promote the safety and soundness of the banking system, instead, via its collusion with Lehman management, operated to protect particular actors to the detriment of the public at large.
“And most important, it says that the NY Fed, and likely Geithner himself, undermined, perhaps even violated, laws designed to protect investors and markets. If so, he is not fit to be Treasury secretary or hold any office related to financial supervision and should resign immediately.” (Naked Capitalism)
Repeat: “Accounting fraud”, “collusion”, “aiding and abetting.” This is strong language from a woman who spent than 25 years in the financial services industry, alternately working at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Co., and Sumitomo Bank. Smith typically chooses her words carefully and is not easily given to hyperbole. Yves Smith again: “Here is the part of the report that discussed how the Fed aided and abetted Lehman misconduct:
“The Examiner [that’s Valukas] questioned Lehman executives and other witnesses about Lehman’s financial health and reporting, [and] a recurrent theme in their responses was that Lehman gave full and complete financial information to Government agencies, and that the Government never raised significant objections or directed that Lehman take any corrective action.
“So get this: even though Lehman dressed up its accounts for the great unwashed public, it did not try to fool the authorities. Its games playing was in full view to those charted with protecting investors and the financial system.
“So what transpired? The SEC (which has never had much expertise in credit markets — a major regulatory problem) handed assessing Lehman over to the Fed, which bent over backwards to give it a clean bill of health.” (Naked Capitalism)
What did Geithner and Bernanke know, and when did they know it. It appears that they either knew what was going on at Lehman and looked the other way or acted as the “chief enablers” of accounting fraud. (ie–The Repo 105-charade) Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times which clarifies the point:
“Newly released report on the collapse of Lehman Brothers … sheds surprising new light on Lehman’s dealings with the New York Fed. Lehman engaged in a series of transactions with the New York Fed that were similar to the ones that drew criticism from the bankruptcy court examiner who investigated its collapse. The examiner, Anton R. Valukas, drew no conclusions about the transactions with the Fed, and focused instead on deals that were known inside Lehman as “Repo 105.”
But the report by Mr. Valukas nonetheless raises fresh questions about the role of the New York Fed in supporting Lehman during the frantic months leading up to its collapse. It suggests that Lehman executives believed the Fed would be able to help the bank avert disaster and provide it with a business opportunity.
“Bernanke and Co. may have ‘saved the day’ ” a Lehman executive, Geoffrey Feldkamp, wrote in an e-mail message to a colleague in March 2008, according to the report. Neither Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, nor Treasury officials saved Lehman, of course. But it was that month that the Fed started a special lending program open to Wall Street banks like Lehman that could not borrow directly from it. The Fed also lowered its standards for the kinds of collateral that it would accept against such short-term loans.
“Lehman, desperate for financing, seized its chance. It packaged billions of dollars of troubled corporate loans into an investment called Freedom CLO. Then, in a series of transactions, it shifted Freedom back and forth to the New York Fed, in exchange for cash. Those moves helped make Lehman look healthier.
“Essentially, Lehman was able to temporarily warehouse illiquid investments that were worrying its investors at the New York Fed in return for cash. The Fed created this facility immediately after the near collapse of Bear Stearns. Some suspect that other banks engaged in similar maneuvers.
A spokesman for the New York Fed said the loan facility was created to help the entire financial system and prevent the problems at one bank from cascading. The collateral accepted from Lehman met the Fed’s standards, he added. A third party valued it, the Fed accepted it and then reduced prices to limit the risk.” (“Fed Helped Bank Raise Cash Quickly”, Eric Dash, New York Times)
The excerpt from the NY Times deserves a second reading. The so-called lending facility that the Fed set up was called the Primary Dealer Credit Facility or PDCF. It was established to provide short-term lending for financial institutions after the secondary market froze and banks became reluctant to lend to each other. The Fed arbitrarily (and, perhaps, illegally) expanded the rules for “only” accepting the highest rated bonds and securities as collateral, and became (what zero hedge calls) “the enabler of last resort”. The Fed’s willingness to take any manner of mortgage-backed sludge in exchange for US Treasuries turned out to be the lifeline for underwater banks whose vaults were loaded with the worthless paper. This is why Fed keeps resisting demands for an independent audit, because it would prove that Bernanke “knowingly” paid huge sums of money for dodgy assets.
When the PDCF first opened for business, the Wall Street tycoons could see that their friend at the Fed was riding to the rescue. Lehman boss Dick Fuld, who could not conceal his delight, crowed, “The Federal Reserve’s decision to create a lending facility for primary dealers and permit a broad range of investment-grade securities to serve as collateral improves the liquidity picture and, from my perspective, takes the liquidity issue for the entire industry off the table.”
Indeed. Economist and author Michael Hudson summed it up like this for CounterPunch:
“Today, there’s only one market for junk: the Federal Reserve, which has lent $1.3 trillion in cash for trash, no questions asked. This amount exceeds the forecast Obama medical care plan for the next decade. No money for health insurance, but all for the junk-mortgage lenders.”
Is there really any doubt that Tim Geithner at the New York Fed, or Bernanke knew that Lehman was trading its junk assets to finance its ongoing operations? Doesn’t that in-itself constitute a cover up or “intentionally” misleading investors? And, if Lehman was exchanging garbage to feign solvency, then it seems likely that the other investment giants were engaged in the same type of charade. (Which implies that the ratings agencies were culpable, as well)
Here again is the crucial excerpt from the Valukas report which suggests that–at the very least–the NY Fed (Geithner) was involved in a vast cover-up which eventually ended in the nation’s largest bankruptcy followed by a global market crash.
“The Examiner questioned Lehman executives and other witnesses about Lehman’s financial health and reporting, a recurrent theme in their responses was that Lehman gave full and complete financial information to Government agencies, and that the Government never raised significant objections or directed that Lehman take any corrective action…….Although various Government agencies had information that raised serious questions about Lehman’s reported liquidity and about the sufficiency of its capital and liquidity to withstand stress scenarios, the agencies generally limited their activities to collecting data and monitoring.
“After March 2008 when the SEC and FRBNY BEGAN ONSITE DAILY MONITORING of Lehman, the SEC deferred to the FRBNY to devise more rigorous stress-testing scenarios to test Lehman’s ability to withstand a run or potential run on the bank.5753 The FRBNY developed two new stress scenarios: ‘Bear Stearns’ and ‘Bear Stearns Light.’ 5754 Lehman failed both tests.5755 The FRBNY then developed a new set of assumptions for an additional round of stress tests, which Lehman also failed.5756 However, Lehman ran stress tests of its own, modeled on similar assumptions, and passed.5757 It does not appear that any agency required any action of Lehman in response to the results of the stress testing.” (My emphasis.)
This is the huge scandal: collusive government officials who operate as de facto agents for an industry saturated with corruption and conflicts of interest. Connived at the coverup of Lehman’s true position because he doesn’t work for the 10 million people who are now standing in unemployment lines, or the 35 million people who are now on food stamps, or the 6 million people who have lost their homes to foreclosure, or the hundreds of millions of people who have seen the home equity evaporate, their retirement funds plunge and their hopes for the future dashed so that a handful of insatiable landsharks could fatten their bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.
Michael Hudson, the ex-Wall Street economist and author of Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of the American Empire put the Lehman case into perspective with observations he made to me via e mail on Sunday. I think it summarizes the big picture admirably:
“When predators have exhausted the economy, they turn on each other. The result is financial cannibalism. After all, who else is it possible to get money from in today’s negative equity environment?
“If the media are missing anything, it’s that the game is over. The financial institutions are taking their money and running. They know it’s over. And the only source of cashing out is the US Treasury and Fed.
“My solution:There is an easy place to start, that can take only a few weeks. That is to look at the Fed’s $1.3 trillion in cash-for-trash swaps. If these prove to be junk mortgages for which the Fed has given good US Treasury bonds, at the proverbial taxpayer expense, then the Fed and Treasury administrators should have criminal charges brought against them, the accounting firms of the companies pledging these junk mortgages and other financial junk should be closed down and RICO charges brought, and the banks themselves should be wiped out. I have urged the appropriate Washington oversight committee to open an investigation along these lines.”
Well said, Dr Hudson! If investigators can prove that the Fed exchanged US treasuries for MBS securities and other toxic assets that they knew were worth less than the amount they provided via short-term loans,(repos) then it is reasonable to assume that the Bernanke’s quantitative easing (QE) program operated under the same guidelines. That means, that the $1.25 trillion QE program–which was supposed to extend credit to consumers and businesses–was actually a scam designed to transfer a gigantic load of capital to the very people who gamed the system and precipitated the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. Without question, that misallocation of capital has deepened the recession and sent unemployment skyrocketing. We need to get to the bottom of this.