Fed Ends Bank Exemption Aimed at Boosting Mortgage Liquidity: Bloomberg

By Craig Torres

March 20 (Bloomberg) — The Federal Reserve Board removed an exemption it had given to six banks at the start of the crisis in 2007 aimed at boosting liquidity in financing markets for securities backed by mortgage- and asset-backed securities.

The so-called 23-A exemptions, named after a section of the Federal Reserve Act that limits such trades to protect bank depositors, were granted days after the Fed cut the discount rate by half a percentage point on Aug. 17, 2007. Their removal, announced yesterday in Washington, is part of a broad wind-down of emergency liquidity backstops by the Fed as markets normalize.

The decision in 2007 underscores how Fed officials defined the mortgage-market disruptions that year as partly driven by liquidity constraints. In hindsight, some analysts say that diagnosis turned out to be wrong.

“It was a way to prevent further deleveraging of the financial system, but that happened anyway,” said Dino Kos, managing director at Portales Partners LLC and former head of the New York Fed’s open market operations. “The underlying problem was solvency. The Fed was slow to recognize that.”

The Fed ended the exemptions in nearly identical letters to the Royal Bank of Scotland Plc, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Deutsche Bank AG, and Barclays Bank Plc posted on its Web site.

Backstop Liquidity

The Fed’s intent in 2007 was to provide backstop liquidity for financial markets through the discount window. In a chain of credit, investors would obtain collateralized loans from dealers, dealers would obtain collateralized loans from banks, and then banks could pledge collateral to the Fed’s discount window for 30-day credit. In Citigroup’s case, the exemption allowed such lending to its securities unit up to $25 billion.

“The goal was to stop the hemorrhaging of risk capital,” said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP LLC in Jersey City, New Jersey. “Investors were being forced out of the securities market because they couldn’t fund their positions, even in higher-quality assets in some cases.”

Using mortgage bonds without government-backed guarantees as collateral for private-market financing began to get more difficult in August 2007 following the collapse of two Bear Stearns Cos. hedge funds.

As terms for loans secured by mortgage bonds got “massively” tighter, haircuts, or the excess in collateral above the amount borrowed, on AAA home-loan securities rose that month from as little as 3 percent to as much as 10 percent, according to a UBS AG report.

Lehman Collapse

By February 2008, haircuts climbed to 20 percent, investor Luminent Mortgage Capital Inc. said at the time. After Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed in September 2008, the loans almost disappeared.

“These activities were intended to allow the bank to extend credit to market participants in need of short-term liquidity to finance” holdings of mortgage loans and asset- backed securities, said the Fed board’s letter dated yesterday to Kathleen Juhase, associate general counsel of JPMorgan. “In light of this normalization of the term for discount window loans, the Board has terminated the temporary section 23-A exemption.”

The “normalization” refers to the Fed’s reduction in the term of discount window loans to overnight credit starting two days ago from a month previously.

The Fed eventually loaned directly to securities firms and opened the discount window to primary dealers in March 2008. Borrowings under the Primary Dealer Credit Facility soared to $146.5 billion on Oct. 1, 2008, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers two weeks earlier. Borrowings fell to zero in May 2009. The Fed closed the facility last month, along with three other emergency liquidity backstops.

Discount Rate

The Fed also raised the discount rate a quarter point in February to 0.75 percent, moving it closer to its normal spread over the federal funds rate of 1 percentage point.

The one interest rate the Fed hasn’t changed since the depths of the crisis is the benchmark lending rate. Officials kept the target for overnight loans among banks in a range of zero to 0.25 percent on March 16, where it has stood since December 2008, while retaining a pledge to keep rates low “for an extended period.”

Removing the 23-A exemptions shows the Fed wants to get “back to normal,” said Laurence Meyer, a former Fed governor and vice chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers LLC in Washington. “Everything has gone back to normal except monetary policy.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Craig Torres in Washington at ctorres3@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: March 20, 2010 00:00 EDT

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Federal Reserve Must Disclose Bank Bailout Records (Update5): We love Bloomberg.com

SHOCK & AWE …I’m betting! Thanks to Bloomberg for the lawsuit to DISCLOSE! Notice how both Bloomberg & Huffington are always the ones who go after the banksters…Because they probably don’t use the banksters to fund them!

By David Glovin and Bob Van Voris

March 19 (Bloomberg) — The Federal Reserve Board must disclose documents identifying financial firms that might have collapsed without the largest U.S. government bailout ever, a federal appeals court said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled today that the Fed must release records of the unprecedented $2 trillion U.S. loan program launched primarily after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. The ruling upholds a decision of a lower-court judge, who in August ordered that the information be released.

The Fed had argued that disclosure of the documents threatens to stigmatize borrowers and cause them “severe and irreparable competitive injury,” discouraging banks in distress from seeking help. A three-judge panel of the appeals court rejected that argument in a unanimous decision.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, “sets forth no basis for the exemption the Board asks us to read into it,” U.S. Circuit Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote in the opinion. “If the Board believes such an exemption would better serve the national interest, it should ask Congress to amend the statute.”

The opinion may not be the final word in the bid for the documents, which was launched by Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, with a November 2008 lawsuit. The Fed may seek a rehearing or appeal to the full appeals court and eventually petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

Right to Know

If today’s ruling is upheld or not appealed by the Fed, it will have to disclose the requested records. That may lead to “catastrophic” results, including demands for the instant disclosure of banks seeking help from the Fed, resulting in a “death sentence” for such financial institutions, said Chris Kotowski, a bank analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York.

“Whenever the Fed extends funds to a bank, it should be disclosed in private to the Congressional oversight committees, but to release it to the public I think would be a horrific mistake,” Kotowski said in an interview. “It would stigmatize the banks, it would lead to all kinds of second-guessing of the Fed, and I don’t see what public purpose is served by it.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, said the decision was a “major victory” for U.S. taxpayers.

“This money does not belong to the Federal Reserve,” Sanders said in a statement. “It belongs to the American people, and the American people have a right to know where more than $2 trillion of their money has gone.”

Fed Review

The Fed is reviewing the decision and considering its options for reconsideration or appeal, Fed spokesman David Skidmore said.

“We’re obviously pleased with the court’s decision, which is an important affirmation of the public’s right to know what its government is up to,” said Thomas Golden, a partner at New York-based Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP and Bloomberg’s outside counsel.

The court was asked to decide whether loan records are covered by FOIA. Historically, the type of government documents sought in the case has been protected from public disclosure because they might reveal competitive trade secrets.

The Fed had argued that it could withhold the information under an exemption that allows federal agencies to refuse disclosure of “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.”

Payment Processors

The Clearing House Association, which processes payments among banks, joined the case and sided with the Fed. The group includes ABN Amro Bank NV, a unit of Royal Bank of Scotland Plc, Bank of America Corp., The Bank of New York Mellon Corp., Citigroup Inc., Deutsche Bank AG, HSBC Holdings Plc, JPMorgan Chase & Co., US Bancorp and Wells Fargo & Co.

Paul Saltzman, general counsel for the Clearing House, said the decision did not address the “fundamental issue” of whether disclosure would “competitively harm” borrower banks.

“The Second Circuit declined to follow the decisions of other circuit courts recognizing that disclosure of certain confidential information can impair the effectiveness of government programs, such as lending programs,” Saltzman said in a statement.

The Clearing House is considering whether to ask for a rehearing by the full Second Circuit and, ultimately, review by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

Deep Crisis

Oscar Suris, a spokesman for Wells Fargo, JPMorgan spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli, Bank of New York Mellon spokesman Kevin Heine, HSBC spokeswoman Juanita Gutierrez and RBS spokeswoman Linda Harper all declined to comment. Deutsche Bank spokesman Ronald Weichert couldn’t immediately comment. Bank of America declined to comment, Scott Silvestri said. Citigroup spokeswoman Shannon Bell declined to comment. U.S. Bancorp spokesman Steve Dale didn’t return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Bloomberg, majority-owned by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sued after the Fed refused to name the firms it lent to or disclose loan amounts or assets used as collateral under its lending programs. Most of the loans were made in response to the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Lawyers for Bloomberg argued in court that the public has the right to know basic information about the “unprecedented and highly controversial use” of public money.

“Bloomberg has been trying for almost two years to break down a brick wall of secrecy in order to vindicate the public’s right to learn basic information,” Golden wrote in court filings.

Potential Harm

Banks and the Fed warned that bailed-out lenders may be hurt if the documents are made public, causing a run or a sell- off by investors. Disclosure may hamstring the Fed’s ability to deal with another crisis, they also argued.

Much of the debate at the appeals court argument on Jan. 11 centered on the potential harm to banks if it was revealed that they borrowed from the Fed’s so-called discount window. Matthew Collette, a lawyer for the government, said banks don’t do that unless they have liquidity problems.

FOIA requires federal agencies to make government documents available to the press and public. An exception to the statute protects trade secrets and privileged or confidential financial data. In her Aug. 24 ruling, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in New York said the exception didn’t apply because there’s no proof banks would suffer.

Tripartite Test

In its opinion today, the appeals court said that the exception applies only if the agency can satisfy a three-part test. The information must be a trade secret or commercial or financial in character; must be obtained from a person; and must be privileged or confidential, according to the opinion.

The court said that the information sought by Bloomberg was not “obtained from” the borrowing banks. It rejected an alternative argument the individual Federal Reserve Banks are “persons,” for purposes of the law because they would not suffer the kind of harm required under the “privileged and confidential” requirement of the exemption.

In a related case, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in New York previously sided with the Fed and refused to order the agency to release Fed documents that Fox News Network sought. The appeals court today returned that case to Hellerstein and told him to order the Fed to conduct further searches for documents and determine whether the documents should be disclosed.

“We are pleased that this information is finally, and rightfully, going to be made available to the American public,” said Kevin Magee, Executive Vice President of Fox Business Network, in a statement.

Balance Sheet Debt

The Fed’s balance sheet debt doubled after lending standards were relaxed following Lehman’s failure on Sept. 15, 2008. That year, the Fed began extending credit directly to companies that weren’t banks for the first time since the 1930s. Total central bank lending exceeded $2 trillion for the first time on Nov. 6, 2008, reaching $2.14 trillion on Sept. 23, 2009.

More than a dozen other groups or companies filed friend- of-the-court briefs. Those arguing for disclosure of the records included the American Society of News Editors and individual news organizations.

“It’s gratifying that the court recognizes the considerable interest in knowing what is being done with our tax dollars,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Virginia.

“We’ve learned some powerful lessons in the last 18 months that citizens need to pay more attention to what’s going on in the financial world. This decision will make it easier to do that.”

The case is Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 09-04083, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (New York).

To contact the reporters on this story: David Glovin in New York at dglovin@bloomberg.net; Bob Van Voris in New York at vanvoris@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: March 19, 2010 16:15 EDT

also see  huffington post articles on this

‘Hail Mary’ to Warren Buffett: Untold Details of Lehman’s Fall

March 11, 2010, 6:15 PM ET

‘Hail Mary’ to Warren Buffett: Untold Details of Lehman’s Fall

By Matt Phillips

Doubtless, historians will be going over the mammoth 2,200 page report from the Lehman bankruptcy examiner for years to come.

But we bloggers are writing the first draft now. And there’s plenty of good fodder on Lehman’s final days, including fresh details on its effort to get support from billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

Now, it’s well known that Lehman reached out to Buffett in its final months. The Journal’s Scott Patterson wrote about the Oracle’s decision to pass on Lehman in a story back in December.

But the level of detail provided by this report is pretty astounding. It offers a pretty amazing snapshot of Buffett’s conversation with Lehman CEO Dick Fuld as well as a remarkable window on how the Oracle negotiates during times of crisis.

The report really reads like a novel, so we’ll just give you the sections here:

Fuld and Buffett spoke on Friday, March 28, 2008. They discussed Buffett investing at least $2 billion in Lehman. Two items immediately concerned Buffet during his conversation with Fuld. First, Buffett wanted Lehman executives to buy under the same terms as Buffett. Fuld explained to the Examiner that he was reluctant to require a significant buy‐in from Lehman executives, because they already received much of their compensation in stock. However, Buffett took it as a negative that Fuld suggested that Lehman executives were not willing to participate in a significant way. Second, Buffett did not like that Fuld complained about short sellers. Buffett thought that blaming short sellers was indicative of a failure to admit one’s own problems.

Following his conversation with Buffett, Fuld asked Paulson to call Buffett, which Paulson reluctantly did. Buffett told the Examiner that during that call, Paulson signaled that he would like Buffett to invest in Lehman, but Paulson “did not load the dice.” Buffett spent the rest of Friday, March 28, 2008, reviewing Lehman’s 10‐K and noting problems with some of Lehman’s assets. Buffett’s concerns centered around Lehman’s real estate and high yield investments, lending‐related commitments derivatives and their related credit‐market risk, Level III assets and Lehman’s securitization activity. On Saturday, March 29, 2008, Buffett learned of a $100 million problem in Japan that Fuld had not mentioned during their discussions, and Buffett was concerned that Fuld had not been forthcoming about the issue. The problems Buffett saw in the 10‐K along with Fuld’s failure to alert Buffett to the issue in Japan cemented Buffett’s decision not to invest in Lehman.

At some point in their conversations, Fuld and Buffett also discovered that there had been a miscommunication about the conversion price. Buffett was interested only in convertible preferred shares. Buffett told Fuld that he was willing to agree to a $40 conversion price per share, while Fuld thought Buffett was offering to buy in at “up‐ 40,” or 40% above the current market price, which would have been about $56 per share. On Friday, March 28, 2008, Lehman’s stock closed at $37.87. Fuld spoke to Lehman’s Executive Committee and several Board members about his conversations with Buffett. Lehman recognized that an investment by Buffett would provide a “stamp of approval.” However, Lehman already had better offers for its April capital raise, and Lehman did not think it could give a better deal to Buffett at the same time it gave a less attractive deal to others. On Monday, March 31, 2008, before Buffett could tell Fuld that he was not interested, Fuld called Buffett to say that Lehman could not accept his terms.

Last‐Ditch Effort with Buffett

[Hugh “Skip” E. McGee, III, the head of Lehman’s Investment Banking Division] contacted [President David L. Sokol, president of Berkshire Hathaway’s MidAmerican Energy] again in late August or early September 2008 and outlined Lehman’s “Gameplan” for survival, specifically SpinCo. During a subsequent telephone call with Sokol, McGee explained the “good bank/bad bank” scenario and stated that Lehman would need an investor. Sokol believed the e‐mail and call were intended to induce Sokol to pass that information on to Buffett, so Sokol briefed Buffett on SpinCo. Buffett thought the idea would not solve Lehman’s problems.

Sometime during the week prior to Lehman’s bankruptcy, McGee again reached out to Sokol with what both Sokol and McGee described to the Examiner as a “Hail Mary” pass. McGee asked, “Do you have any ideas to save us?” Sokol, who was bear hunting in Alaska at the time, told McGee that he did not.

Judging by the inclusion of the largely irrelevant bear hunting detail at the end, we can tell that this report was written by a frustrated novelist. (And they did an amazing job.) But what we find most remarkable is the insight these sections offer on how Buffett assesses companies.

It’s simple–but not easy–as he combines 10-K analysis with probing questions to management.

Are they willing to put their own money at risk? Are they being upfront? Are they giving investors the full story?

Clearly Buffett didn’t think so.

FAKE it TIMMY, FAKE IT…TIMMY Faked it.

NY Fed Under Geithner Implicated in Lehman Accounting Fraud Allegation

by Yves Smith at 11:06 pm

Quite a few observers, including this blogger, have been stunned and frustrated at the refusal to investigate what was almost certain accounting fraud at Lehman. Despite the bankruptcy administrator’s effort to blame the gaping hole in Lehman’s balance sheet on its disorderly collapse, the idea that the firm, which was by its own accounts solvent, would suddenly spring a roughly $130+ billion hole in its $660 balance sheet, is simply implausible on its face. Indeed, it was such common knowledge in the Lehman flailing about period that Lehman’s accounts were sus that Hank Paulson’s recent book mentions repeatedly that Lehman’s valuations were phony as if it were no big deal.

Well, it is folks, as a newly-released examiner’s report by Anton Valukas in connection with the Lehman bankruptcy makes clear. The unraveling isn’t merely implicating Fuld 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 abetting Lehman 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 (and the failed Barclay’s said this was not infeasible: even an orderly bankruptcy would have been preferrable, as Harvey Miller, who handled the Lehman BK filing has made clear; a good bank/bad bank structure, with a Fed backstop of the bad bank, would have been an option if the Fed’s justification for inaction was systemic risk), the NY Fed at a minimum 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.

I am reading the report, and will provide an update later, but here are the key bits (hat tip reader John M). As much as Karl Denninger has done some terrific initial reporting, he does not go far enough as far as the wider implications are concerned.

The key revelation is that Lehman as of late 2007 was routinely using repo transactions at the end of the quarter to mask how levered it truly was:

Lehman regularly increased its use of Repo 105 transactions in the days prior to reporting periods to reduce its publicly reported net leverage and balance sheet.2850 Lehman’s periodic reports did not disclose the cash borrowing from the Repo 105 transaction – i.e., although Lehman had in effect borrowed tens of billions of dollars in these transactions, Lehman did not disclose the known obligation to repay the debt.2851 Lehman used the cash from the Repo 105 transaction to pay down other liabilities, thereby reducing both the total liabilities and the total assets reported on its balance sheet and lowering its leverage ratios.

Yves here. The stunning bit is these “repos” were actually a conventional type of repo, despite the name, but Lehman was engaging in blatant misreporting, treating these “repos” (in which a bank still shows them on its balance sheet as sold with the obligation to repurchase) as sales. Note that at the time (as the report notes) analysts and others kept probing at the seeming miracle of Lehman’s deleveraging in a difficult market. This ruse may also square the circle on a Lehman leak we broke in 2007. A former Lehman MD had reported that most of the deleveraging that had occurred at the end of 2Q 2008 had resulted from the placement of $55 billion of assets with newly-formed entities in which Lehman retained a 45% ownership interest and were operated by former Lehman employees. To put it mildly, these were off balance sheet entities that strained the idea of independence. Bloomberg got hold of the story, and Lehman asserted that only $5 billion of assets had actually been transferred. I am now wondering whether the $55 billion were indeed transferred precisely as the source had said originally (he in turn had been told this by several people at Lehman) but that most of it was via this type of repo, and then re-materialized on Lehman’s balance sheet once the quarter end had passed (the Examiner’s report notes that the amount that Lehman moves off its balance sheet at the end of 2Q 2008 was $50.38 billion, which tallies with the difference between what the Lehman MD said had been moved off balance sheet versus what they fessed up to when asked by Bloomberg) .

Denninger raises one question: were other banks engaging in this type of accounting chicanery? But there is another question: did some of Lehman’s counterparties must have suspected what was going on, given that this took place on a large scale basis at the end of every quarter? How many had an idea that Lehman was engaging in massive window dressing and chose to play along?

But here is the part of the report that discussed how the Fed aided and abetted Lehman misconduct:

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.

Yves here. 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 in all fairness, has never had much expertise in credit markets, this is a major regulatory problem) handed assessing Lehman over to the Fed, which bent over backwards to give it a clean bill of health:

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.

Yves here. So get this: the stress tests were a sham. Only one outcome was permissible: that Lehman pass. So after the Fed was unable to come up with an objective-looking stress test that Lehman could satisfy, they permitted Lehman to devise a test with low enough standards to give itself a clean bill of health.

So why should we trust ANY government designed stress test, particularly when the same permissive grader, Timothy Geithner, was the moving force behind the ones dreamed up last year, which have been widely decried by banking experts, including Bill Black, Chris Whalen, and Josh Rosner? We linked to a simple analysis by Mike Konczal that demonstrates that for the biggest four banks alone, merely on their second mortgage portfolios, the stress tests of 2009 were too permissive to the tune of at least $150 billion.

Lehman type accounting, in other words, is being institutionalized, with the active support from senior government officials.

It is time for Geithner to go. He is not fit to serve as Treasury secretary.

And the time is overdue for a full audit of the Fed, and in particular the New York Fed, from the start of the Bear crisis through and including all the retrades of the AIG bailout.

Update 12:00 AM, 3/12/10. Oh, boy, the spin is in in the US. Bloomberg focuses on an interesting revelation in the report, but which strikes me as secondary, that JP Morgan and Citi delivered the fatal blow to Lehman by withholding collateral. That JP Morgan seized $17 billion of collateral has been reported elsewhere; the only new elements are Citi’s role and that its and JPM’s actions could serve as grounds for legal action:

“There are a limited number of colorable claims for avoidance actions against JPMorgan and Citibank,” Valukas said in the report. He defined a colorable claim as sufficient credible evidence to persuade a jury to award damages at trial.

The Times pointed ignores the Fed’s lapses, as does the Journal and the major report at the Huffington Post.

Update 3:00 AM. Have now read the germane section a bit (over 300 pages, please do not bust my chops). Every page is stunning (the law firm did a great job, this is one case where big fees are associated with big time value). The nonsense is mile high. Lehman had been doing this sort of thing since 2001. No US law firm would give them cover via an opinion letter for their phony repo accounting, they managed to get the opinion they sought in the UK and accordingly shuffled assets through the UK for the repo 105 transactions. Frankly, if you don’t need colorful characters or glam settings, this is as attention-capturing as Too Big To Fail

More on this topic (What’s this?)

Holy F%$^ing Lehman Brothers Autopsy (Jr Deputy Accountant, 3/12/10)

Lehman Bankrutpcy: ‘Repo 105,’ Firm’s ‘Accounting Gimmick,’ Was Like ‘A Drug,’ Emails Show

Umm could we now say, we told you so?…Now on with Goldman and the rest of the dealers!

Huffington Post   |  Ryan McCarthy First Posted: 03-12-10 10:52 AM Dick Fuld

** UPDATE: Scroll down to see Dylan Ratigan’s segment **

The arcane “accounting gimmick” employed by Lehman Brothers as the firm failed in 2007 and 2008, was like “a drug” propelling the bank to conceal the true nature of its financial health, according to bankruptcy documents released yesterday.

As news organizations pore through the 2,200 pages of documents released by Anton Valukas, the examiner in charge of sifting through the most expensive bankruptcy in history, new details have surfaced about possible criminal actions by Lehman executives.

An executive referred to by Lehman execs as the firm’s “balance sheet” czar — who later went on to become the firm’s COO — likely had knowledge of the firm’s highly creative accounting maneuvers, notes The New York Times. Here’s the NYT:

“I am very aware … it is another drug we [are] on,” Herbert McDade wrote in an April 2008 e-mail cited by the examiner’s report. At other times, he is described as calling for a limit to the number of Repo 105 transactions.

At the center of the controversy is a technique called “Repo 105,” under which Lehman was able to move $50 billion off of its balance sheet in the second quarter of 2008 alone, MarketWatch reports. Here’s more from Market Watch:

[Repo 105 is] essentially a type of secured loan and is booked that way in the accounts — leading to an increase in both assets and liabilities. 

Lehman’s trick was to use a clause in the accounting rules to classify the deal as a sale, even though it was still obliged to repurchase the assets at a later date. That meant the assets disappeared from the balance sheet, and it could use the cash it received to temporarily pay down other liabilities…. [Repo 105] was crucial for maintaining the group’s credit rating as rating agencies and investors began to focus more on leverage and demanded lower risk.

In a series of e-mail messages cited by the examiner, one Lehman executive writes of Repo 105: “It’s basically window-dressing.” Another responds: “I see … so it’s legally do-able but doesn’t look good when we actually do it? Does the rest of the street do it? Also is that why we have so much BS [balance sheet] to Rates Europe?” The first executive replies: “Yes, No and yes. :)”

But these accounting techniques did not sit well with every Lehman executive. The Wall Street Journal passes along this nugget from the examiner’s report, which suggest that Ernst & Young, Lehman’s auditors, were not concerned about the firm’s use of Repo 105. Here’s the WSJ:

In May 2008, a Lehman Senior Vice President, Matthew Lee, wrote a letter to management alleging accounting improprieties;82 in the course of investigating the allegations, Ernst & Young was advised by Lee on June 12, 2008 that Lehman used $50 billion of Repo 105 transactions to temporarily move assets off balance sheet and quarter end.
The next day on June 13, 2008 Ernst & Young met with the Lehman Board Audit Committee but did not advise it about Lee’s assertions, despite an express direction from the Committee to advise on all allegations raised by Lee. Ernst & Young took virtually no action to investigate the Repo 105 allegations. Ernst & Young took no steps to question or challenge the non disclosure by Lehman of its use of $50 billion of temporary, off balance sheet transactions. Colorable claims exist that Ernst & Young did not meet professional standards, both in investigating Lee’s allegations and in connection with its audit and review of Lehman’s financial statements.”

 

NPR Marketplace reporter Alisa Roth said on Friday that it’s a “safe bet” that there will be “another big round of white-collar trials, like we had post-Enron.”

The question will be how far anybody can prove the responsibility extended. The report says “colorable claims” could be made against some Lehman execs and against Ernst & Young, the accountants. And by colorable claims, it means evidence that’s strong enough to potentially get a jury to award damages.

UPDATE: On Friday’s Dylan Ratigan Show, the MSNBC host delved into the Lehman saga with former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, breaking down the firm’s fraudulent meltdown in easily-understandable terms.