Inquiring minds are digging into a 27 page statement made by William Black before the Financial Services committee. Black is an Associate Professor of Economics and Law, at the University of Missouri.
Professor Black’s statements regarding the collapse of Lehman and the role the Fed played in that collapse are refreshingly candid.
Please consider “Public Policy Issues Raised by the Report of the Lehman Bankruptcy Examiner“. Emphasis, highlighting, and subtitles are mine.
I begin with a short description of my background that is relevant to your questions. My primary appointment is in economics. I have a joint appointment in law. I am a white-collar criminologist. My research specialization is financial fraud by elites and financial regulation. I was a senior regulator during the S&L debacle (and had the honor of testifying many times before this Committee).
Valukas Report Documents Three Major Deficiencies In Lehman Governance
The [Valukas] Report documents at least three major deficiencies in Lehman’s corporate governance that need to be addressed globally. First, it points out that Lehman, and many other Delaware corporations, have eliminated the fiduciary duty of “care.”
… Alan Greenspan has admitted that he had a similar view and that events have falsified this naïve account. It is insane to withdraw accountability for negligence. Doing so encourages negligence. Congress should mandate that corporate officers and directors be subject to the fiduciary duties of care and loyalty. They will still, of course, have the very substantial protection of the business judgment rule.
Second, the same individual should not serve as the CEO and Chair of the Board of Directors of a large corporation. The imperial CEO is a consistent problem in this and prior crises.
Third, Lehman ignored its stated risk “limits” and simply increased its limits retroactively to accommodate its violations of its risk limits. In plain English, that means it had no meaningful limits. ….
I have a different view than Mr. Valukas about the overall state of Lehman’s corporate governance. First, Lehman’s nominal corporate governance structure was a sham. Lehman was deliberately out of control with regard to “risk” in its dominant operation – making “liar’s loans.” Lehman did not “manage” the risk of making liar’s loans. It engaged in massive, fraudulent transactions that were “sure things”.
The Valukas Report bears witness to the consequences of these transactions. The Report provides further evidence of the accuracy of Akerlof’s and Romer’s famous article – “Looting: Bankruptcy for Profit.”
Lehman’s principal source of (fictional) income and real losses was making (and selling) what the trade accurately called “liar’s loans” through its subsidiary, Aurora. (The bland euphemism for liar’s loans was “Alt-A.”) Liar’s loans are “criminogenic” (they create epidemics of mortgage fraud) because they create strong incentives to provide false information on loan applications.
The FBI began warning publicly about the epidemic of mortgage fraud in 2004 (CNN). Liar’s loans also produce intense “adverse selection” – even the borrowers who are not fraudulent will tend to be the least creditworthy. The combination of these two perverse incentives means that liar’s loans, in economics jargon, have a deeply “negative expected value” to the lender. In English, that means that the average dollar lent on a liar’s loan creates a loss ranging from 50 – 85 cents.
That loss, however, may not be recognized for many years – particularly if the liar’s loans become so large that they help hyper-inflate a financial bubble. In the near-term, making massive amounts of liar’s losses loans creates a mathematical guarantee of producing record (albeit fictional) accounting income. (As long as the bubble inflates, the liar’s loans can be refinanced – creating additional fictional income and delaying (but increasing) the eventual loss. The industry saying for this during the S&L debacle was: “a rolling loan gathers no loss.”
Lehman Hid Its Insolvency
Lehman’s underlying problem that doomed it was that it was insolvent because it made so many bad loans and investments. It hid its insolvency through the traditional means – it refused to recognize its losses honestly. It could not resolve its liquidity crisis because it was insolvent and its primary source of fictional accounting income collapsed with the collapse of the secondary market in nonprime loans. If Lehman sold its assets to get cash it would have to recognize these massive losses and report that it was insolvent. Investors knew that Lehman was grossly inflating its asset values, so they were generally unwilling buy stock in Lehman or acquire it.
There is no way to “manage” the “risk” of making massive amounts of liar’s loans. Lehman was the world leader in making liar’s loans. As the name makes clear, Lehman’s top managers knew that their principal source of income was making fraudulent loans. It was necessary, therefore, that Lehman not document that its liar’s loans were frequently fraudulent. Lehman, instead, classified its massively fraudulent liar’s loans as “prime” loans. Its disclosures did not identify how many of the “prime” loans it held were actually liar’s loans. As I will discuss in more detail in response to your final question, Lehman personnel that pointed out the fraudulent liar’s loans were attacked, even fired, by Lehman’s management. Honest managers, of course, would be delighted if employees identified frauds.
That same pattern of conscious managerial indifference to pervasive mortgage and accounting fraud was the norm at other nonprime mortgage participants that have been investigated. I refer to it as the financial “don’t ask; don’t tell” policy.
Making liar’s loans is not risky – it is suicidal. That is why every significant lender specializing in liar’s loans failed. The pervasive fraud cannot be admitted – for Lehman’s entire business model was premised on massive sales of liar’s loans to others.
Lehman’s senior managers consciously chose to take the unethical path because they viewed it as extraordinarily profitable. ….
Black Accuses Geithner and the NY Fed of Willfully Ignoring Fraud
It was a painful, as a former regulator, to read the Valukas report’s discussion of the FRBNY staff’s open disdain for working cooperatively with the SEC to protect the public. The Valukas report exposes the sick relationship between the country’s main regulatory bodies and the systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs) they are supposed to be policing. The FRBNY, led by President Geithner, had a clear statutory mission — promote the safety and soundness of the banking system and compliance with the law – stood by while Lehman deceived the public through a scheme that FRBNY officials likened to a “three card monte routine”. …
Translation: The FRBNY knew that Lehman was engaged in fraud designed to overstate its liquidity and, therefore, was unwilling to loan as much money to Lehman. The FRBNY did not, however, inform the SEC, the public, or the OTS (which regulated an S&L that Lehman owned) of the fraud.
The Fed official doesn’t even make a pretense that the Fed believes it is supposed to protect the public. The FRBNY remained willing to lend to a fraudulent systemically dangerous institution (SDI). This is an egregious violation of the public trust, and the regulatory perpetrators must be held accountable. ….
The FRBNY acted shamefully in covering up Lehman’s inflated asset values and liquidity. It constructed three, progressively weaker, stress tests – Lehman failed even the weakest test. The FRBNY then allowed Lehman to administer its own stress test. Surprise, it passed.
The Fed’s defense of its disgraceful refusal to protect the public is meritless. It argues that it was not there in its regulatory capacity and that it sent only a few staffers that laced the capacity or the leverage to accomplish any supervisory goals. This is either a deliberate obfuscation or a confession of a core failure.
Structural Problems at the Fed
The Fed has inherent problems even in safety & soundness regulation due to its structure. First, the regional FRBs have boards of directors dominated by the industry. Congress already made the policy decision, in removing all regulatory functions from the FHLBs in the 1989 FIRREA legislation, that this is an unacceptable conflict of interest.
Second, supervision is, at best, a tertiary activity at the Fed and regional banks. Monetary policy gets all the emphasis, the credit windows come second, and economic research and safety & soundness regulation vie for a distant third place. (Consumer regulation is a bastard step child at the Fed and most agencies.)
Third, the Fed is far too close to the systemically dangerous institutions. The SDIs are in an ideal position to exploit opportunities for regulatory “capture.”
Fourth, the Fed is dominated by neo-classical economists that have no theory of, experience with, or interest in the complex financial frauds that are the dominant cause of our recurring, intensifying financial crises. Bernanke appointed an economist, Patrick Parkinson, with no examination or supervision experience to head all Fed examination and supervision.
Fifth, the Fed is addicted to opaqueness and its senior ranks believe the bankers when they claim that the people must never be allowed to learn the truth about asset losses. One of the conflicts of interest that a banking regulator must never succumb to is the temptation to encourage or allow the regulated entity to lie about its financial condition for the purported purpose of preventing a run on the bank. Geithner, unfortunately, embraced that temptation and stated it openly to the Bankruptcy Examiner.
It is very easy, psychologically, to believe that you are letting a bank lie to the public for a noble reason – protecting the public. The bankers always tell the regulators that the world will end if the banks tell the truth – but that is a lie. Regulators’ greatest asset is their integrity.
The relevant issue was never: can Lehman be saved? The relevant issue, one that the SEC and the Fed appear never to have even asked, was: how can we stop Lehman from serving as a vector spreading the epidemic of liar’s loans? They should have asked themselves that question — and acted — no later than 2001.
That is a very damning appraisal of the competence of Ben Bernanke and the entire Fed.
It is also grounds for indictment of Tim Geithner and the board of directors at Lehman. Assuming Bernanke was a willing conspirator in the ongoing coverup of Lehman, he should be indicted for criminal fraud as well.