by Prof. Rodrigue Tremblay
Global Research, October 12, 2008
“The basis for optimism is sheer terror.” — Oscar Wilde [After the March 2008 Bear Stears bailout]
“As more firms lost access to funding, the vicious circle of forced selling, increased volatility, and higher haircuts and margin calls that was already well advanced at the time would likely have intensified. The broader economy could hardly have remained immune from such severe financial disruptions.” — Ben Bernanke, Fed Chairman (March 2008)
“In accounting 101 we learn that high yields equal high risk. We know the CEOs had an incentive to disregard this because they were getting huge bonuses.” — David Hartzell, dean of the University of Delaware’s business college and a former vice-president of Salomon Brothers
“Intensifying solvency concerns about a number of the largest U.S.-based and European financial institutions have pushed the global financial system to the brink of systemic meltdown.” — Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Head of the IMF (October 11, 2008)
The Bush administration’s way of dealing with the ongoing financial crisis has been frantic, but probably less than adequate. In fact, tragic errors may have been made that must be remedied as quickly as possible.
The most damaging error may have been to let the global investment bank Lehman Brothers fail ($691 billion of assets at the end of 2007), on Monday September 15. This fateful date may have to be remembered in the future. This was the largest failure of an investment bank since the collapse of Drexel Burnham Lambert in 1990. In contrast, the Fed and the U.S. Treasury moved quickly in mid-March (2008) to save a similar global investment bank in distress (but half the size of Lehman), Bear Stearns, by quickly lending and guaranteeing $29 billion to the large universal J. P. Morgan Chase bank in order to absorb it. —(N.B.: Let us keep in mind that it was the collapse in June 2007 of two internal Bear Stearns hedge funds that had been heavily invested in mortgage securities that kicked off the full-fledged market panic that unfolded in August 2007, and which today has turned into a full-fledged international financial crisis).
Why was the same treatment not offered to Lehman? Possibly because of a personal lack of empathy between Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. (a former chief executive of rival investment bank Goldman Sacks) and Lehman’s CEO Mr. Richard S. Fuld Jr., or possibly because the Bush administration wanted to make an example that all investment banks, no matter how large, could not count on being rescued by the government. The Bush administration did not even bother to appoint a trustee to supervise Lehman’s liquidation in order to make it orderly.
Such a liquidation of a large international bank, known for its worldwide interconnections and unsound banking practices, was nearly a repeat of the mistake made in letting the large Vienna-based Creditanstalt bank fail, on May 13, 1931. This was a bank that had borrowed large amount of money in London and in New York to finance its activities. Its failure created a domino effect among other international banks that had lent to each other in the international credit chain. So much so that the failure of the Creditanstalt forced them to severely tighten their lending to absorb their sudden losses.