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December 30, 2008

Those pesky unexpected consequences

AA017907 On the heels of this post from a couple of days ago that addressed Tyler Cowen's recent NY Times op-ed that speculated that expectations generated from the 1998 government bailout of Long Term Capital Management hedge fund were not such a good thing, this W$J article on the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy case bemoans the enormous cost attributable to lack of reorganization planning in connection with the Lehman Brothers case:

As much as $75 billion of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. value was destroyed by the unplanned and chaotic form of the firm's bankruptcy filing in September, according to an internal analysis by the company's restructuring advisers.

A less-hurried Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing likely would have preserved tens of billions of dollars of value, according to a three-month study by the advisory firm, Alvarez & Marsal. An orderly filing would have enabled Lehman to sell some assets outside of federal bankruptcy-court protection, and would have given it time to try to unwind its derivatives portfolio in a way that might have preserved value, the study says. [.  .  .]

"While I have no position on whether or not the federal government should have provided further assistance to Lehman, once the decision was made not to provide further assistance, an orderly wind-down plan should have been pursued. It was an unconscionable waste of value," said Bryan Marsal, co-chief executive of the advisory firm who now serves as Lehman's chief restructuring officer.

Mr. Marsal estimates that the total value destruction at Lehman will reach between $50 billion and $75 billion, once losses from derivatives trades and asset impairment are combined.

Losses are a natural part of the risk allocation that occurs in big reorganization cases. But anyone who has been involved in such cases knows that it takes at least a couple of months to prepare a big reorganization case properly.

Friends who are closely involved in the Lehman Brothers case have confided to me that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld never in his wildest imagination thought, after the precedent of Bear Stearns, that the Fed and the U.S. Treasury would fail to bail out Lehman Brothers. When that proved wrong, Lehman Brothers had to file its chapter 11 case on a relatively unplanned, emergency basis. That miscalculation cost creditors even more than they would have lost had Lehman's management taken the normal step of planning the case when they saw the writing on the wall. I've got my doubts that the additional losses are $50-75 billion as suggested by the consultant's report (could the Lehman-related parties be using that report as a liability shield?), but there is little question that an emergency bankruptcy filing generally costs creditors more than a properly planned one.

As John Carney notes, maybe the conventional wisdom is wrong that the Fed made matters worse by failing to bailout Lehman Brothers.

It's hard enough to evaluate the risk of insolvency in regard to a trust-based business under normal circumstances. It becomes a real crapshoot when there exists an expectation that the federal government will provide stop-gap financing for a big trust-based company's losses. And crapshoots generate some pretty bad risk-taking.

It really isn't rocket science.

Posted by Tom at December 30, 2008 12:01 AM |



Any asset is worth what someone is willing to pay for it at a given time. When Lehman filed for bankruptcy, it did not necessarily create or destroy any value. Rather, the assets of the firm were merely repriced in light of new information entering the equation. While the Lehman creditors were not privileged to capture the pre-bankruptcy valuation of the corporate assets, the equity holders of the entities acquiring the assets either captured wealth previously held by Lehman equity holders by buying assets at a discount or acquired the assets at a fair valuation.

While the former employees at Lehman may claim otherwise, the demise of Lehman was caused by the failure of the firm's employees to fairly value the et present value of the future cash flows of he assets being acquired. By overpaying for the assets held, Lehman neither created nor destroyed value. The company merely transferred wealth between parties.

Posted by: cmilford Author Profile Page at December 30, 2008 12:22 PM

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