The financial crisis and collapse is typically so laden with acronyms and it difficult for the casual observer to understand exactly what went wrong. In this telling of the story, the collapse is an inevitability brought on by complex financial products and unforeseeable market forces. It makes the banks seem like victims, too. A new trove of files from Lehman Brothers’ last days indicates that, no, bankers’ arrogance helped them stumble towards oblivion, bringing everyone else with them.
Bloomberg dug through the documents, which were made available by Jenner & Block LLP, a law firm involved in Lehman’s bankruptcy, They found that the documents “dispel the myth that Dick Fuld, chief executive officer…and his close associates were unaware of the risks their business face in 2007 and 2008.” And furthermore, that they were “blind by their hubris.”
Here is Bloomberg’s summary of Lehman executives’ conversation about whether to accept a large investment from Citic, a Chinese bank. It would have been “a potential lifeline in a crisis”:
Fuld responded with his usual misguided bravado: “Sounds to me like another non-starter…” Goldfarb couldn’t resist piling on. “Agreed 1000 percent,” he wrote back to Fuld. “How do you spell stupidity in Chinese!!!” Then the conversation descended into a pathetic display of macho arrogance. “What happened,” Fuld asked Goldfarb, “u didn’t like my sumdum spelling?” Responded Goldfarb, “I love it, better said then I could have. I think Mizuho is the best option for strategic partner. Any potential investor that would consider BS” — Bear Stearns — “in the same breath as LB should go fungoo themselves!!!” Fuld replied, “I agree we need some help — but the Bros always wins!!” Goldfarb agreed. “Absolutely, will and skill always win, and that be us!!!!” Concluded Fuld: “Got it so do u.” Fuld was well-paid for these insights…he took out of Lehman some $500 million in cash.
The Bros, along with BS, actually did lose in 2008. And so did all of us. While complex financial products that multiplied and spread risk all over the financial system certainly played a part in the collapse, arrogant individuals like Dick Fuld helped ruin the economy, too. As evidenced in these emails, their cavalier attitude toward their own risk of failure helped steer them toward certain doom. According to Bloomberg, as late as January 2008, Lehman execs boasted that they were “strongly capitalized” and that they didn’t need to increase liquidity — the higher-ups thought they were fine. We all know how this story ends.
As we get further away from 2008, things get blurry, and it becomes more difficult to assign blame. After all, what do we know about CDOs, MBS, CMBS, and CDS? Precious little. But thanks to this dump of files, we can remind ourselves that, yes, a few arrogant men in suits helped ruin the global economy. And, yes, they deserve our scorn, or at least our skepticism.
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