Epsilon Theory is Dr. Ben Hunt’s ongoing examination of the narrative machine driving human behavior, political policy and, ultimately, capital markets—an unconventional worldview best understood through the lenses of history, game theory and philosophy.
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Wall Street veteran, pilloried over bank’s collapse, has said his firm didn’t have to die. A new book agrees. – Wall Street Journal (September 6, 2018)
Every time Dick Fuld’s publicists succeed in getting a “redemption story” published in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, I’m going to write an Epsilon Theory brief about Repo 105, the fraudulent scheme that Lehman Brothers ran for years to hide its deteriorating financial condition from investors and regulators alike.
Here’s what makes the world go round: you can borrow more money than you have in liquid assets.
That’s what a mortgage or an auto loan or a college loan is. You don’t have enough cash to buy that house or car or college tuition all at once, so the bank gives you the cash to make the purchase. But by the same token, banks are by necessity lending out more cash than they actually have deposited with them. This is both the gasoline and the oil for the modern economic engine, and if you and I didn’t go into debt and the banks didn’t lend more than they have in deposits, the engine would seize up and our entire economy would come to a screeching halt. This is, in fact, what causes Depressions.
But in exactly the same way that you or I might be in trouble if we borrowed a lot more money than we have stashed away in a bank account somewhere, a bank might be in trouble if it lends out a lot more money than its underlying customer deposits or invested capital or otherwise loan-supporting reserves warrant. And in exactly the same way that the banks review our financial records before giving us a loan to make sure we’re not borrowing too much money for the bank’s standards, so does the government review a bank’s financial records to make sure they’re not lending too much money for the government’s standards. And by government standards I mean laws.
Repo 105 was a multiyear scheme by Lehman to defraud the government and its own investors by falsifying the actual amount of loans it had on the books, making Lehman look safer than it actually was.
It worked like this. A few days before the end of the calendar quarter, Lehman would “sell” billions of dollars worth of loans to another bank. I put “sell” in quotation marks, because Lehman ALSO had an agreement with these other banks to buy the loans back a few days after the quarter ended for the same price as they were sold, plus enough money to cover whatever the going interest rate was on that cash for the few days it was in Lehman’s hands. This is what’s called a repurchase agreement, or repo, hence the name Repo 105 (the 105 refers to the 5% overcollateralization that counterparty banks required to lend the cash to Lehman even for a few days – they knew Lehman was in trouble). Since financial reporting happens at the end of the quarter, Lehman’s books would look like they had more cash and fewer loans than they actually did.
Surely, you say, no law firm would bless this blatant attempt to cook the books? And I say, don’t call me Shirley. I say, well … no US law firm would bless this, so naturally Lehman found a UK firm, Linklaters, to say that this was, in fact, technically a “true sale”. Even then, to pull this off Lehman had to run Repo 105 through their offshore subsidiaries, not through their US-chartered entities. It was really expensive for Lehman to run Repo 105. But also entirely necessary, or else the entire house of cards that WAS Lehman would have collapsed well before September, 2008.
What about Lehman’s auditors, you ask, surely no auditor would go along with this scheme? Again … Shirley. Again, Lehman found that Ernst & Young would indeed sign off on the program, in exchange, of course, for a sharp increase in fees. The state of New York filed civil fraud charges against Ernst & Young over Repo 105 in December, 2010. I believe they paid a (small) fine.
Dick Fuld claims that he knew nothing about the Repo 105 program. The only possible answer to this, and here I’ll apologize in advance for my language, but it’s really the best possible word – bullshit. Did I mention that Repo 105 was a really expensive program to run? Did I mention that Dick Fuld’s nickname was The Gorilla, that he was infamous for controlling everyone and everything at Lehman? Did I mention that Repo 105 was concealing existential risk for Lehman?
If you or I did what Lehman did with Repo 105, we would be charged and convicted of bank fraud. Happens all the time. It’s pretty much what Paul Manafort just got convicted on. This is a crime. It is not a minor crime. It’s an absolute slam-dunk case for any prosecutor in any jurisdiction in the country. And yet, with the exception of the civil fraud charges brought against Ernst & Young, no other charges – civil or criminal – were ever filed by the SEC or the Justice Department in connection with Repo 105.
When was I radicalized?
When Dick Fuld walked away scot-free from the wreckage of Lehman after getting half a billion dollars in cash comp and stock sales during his tenure.