Bear Stearns & Enron

I wondered if folks would find my analogy from Bear Stearns to Enron I posted the other day stretched. 

Because Enron's demise came in exactly this sort of liquidity crisis,
and the situations are nearly entirely parallel, all the way up to and
including the CEO telling the world all is well just days before the
failure.  But no one understood Enron's business, so its failure seemed
"out of the blue" and therefore was attributed by many to fraud,
lacking any other ready explanation.   In the case of Bear Stearns, the
public was educated in advance as to the problems in their portfolio
(with mortgage loans) such that the liquidity crisis was less of a
surprise and, having ready source of blame (subprime loans) no one has
felt the need to apply the fraud tag.

Apparently, the Economist sees the same connection (via a reader):

For many people, the mere fact of Enron's collapse is evidence that
Mr Skilling and his old mentor and boss, Ken Lay, who died between his
conviction and sentencing, presided over a fraudulent house of cards.
Yet Mr Skilling has always argued that Enron's collapse largely
resulted from a loss of trust in the firm by its financial-market
counterparties, who engaged in the equivalent of a bank run. Certainly,
the amounts of money involved in the specific frauds identified at
Enron were small compared to the amount of shareholder value that was
ultimately destroyed when it plunged into bankruptcy.

Yet recent events in the financial markets add some weight to Mr
Skilling's story"”though nobody is (yet) alleging the sort of fraudulent
behaviour on Wall Street that apparently took place at Enron. The
hastily arranged purchase of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase is the
result of exactly such a bank run on the bank, as Bear's counterparties
lost faith in it. This has seen the destruction of most of its roughly
$20-billion market capitalisation since January 2007. By comparison,
$65 billion was wiped out at Enron, and $190 billion at Citigroup since
May 2007, as the credit crunch turned into a crisis in capitalism.

Mr Skilling's defence team unearthed another apparent inconsistency
in Mr Fastow's testimony that resonates with today's events. As Enron
entered its death spiral, Mr Lay held a meeting to reassure employees
that the firm was still in good shape, and that its "liquidity was
strong". The composite suggested that Mr Fastow "felt [Mr Lay's
comment] was an overstatement" stemming from Mr Lay's need to "increase
public confidence" in the firm.

The original FBI notes say that Mr Fastow thought the comment
"fair". The jury found Mr Lay guilty of fraud at least partly because
it believed the government's allegations that Mr Lay knew such bullish
statements were false when he made them.

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of
Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was in
trouble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let
alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit
line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank
alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble on
March 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its
"liquidity is very strong.")

Although it can do nothing for Mr Lay, the fate of Bear Stearns
illustrates how fast quickly a firm's prospects can go from promising
to non-existent when counterparties lose confidence in it. The rapid
loss of market value so soon after a bullish comment from a chief
executive may, judging by one reading of Enron's experience, get
prosecutorial juices going, should the financial crisis get so bad that
the public demands locking up some prominent Wall Streeters.

The article also includes more details of exculpatory evidence that was withheld from the Skilling team and will very likely lead to a new trial.  The Enron prosecution team has not had a very good record in appeals court scrutiny of their actions at trial:

For what it is worth, prosecutors have had a tougher time in the
appeals court with Enron-related cases than in the initial jury trials.
Convictions have been overturned in a case relating to Nigerian barges
that Enron sold to Merrill Lynch. The conviction of the chief financial
officer of Enron Broadband has also been vacated, after two trials. So,
too, was the decision to convict Enron's auditor, Arthur Andersen
(albeit too late to save the venerable firm from liquidation).

  • Marcus

    I certainly don't think the analogy is stretched in as far as leverage is concerned but the similarities end there. Enron leveraged themselves on the basis their stock price would remain high. If it did they would have been fine. It was a gamble that didn't pay off.

    Banks and the related SIVs didn't take any such gamble. They simply assumed the risk was appropriately priced based on the ratings from S&P and Moody's. The ratings turned out to be wrong which meant the risk had been mis-priced.

    It's not clear to me how much government pressure was placed on the ratings firms to rubber stamp bonds with higher ratings than they should have but I think it is clear there was quite a bit. Combine that with the mandates the administration put on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to push loans to low income people and that investors have no place to turn to except the government anointed rating firms (S&P and Moody's) and you end up with a boatload of MBS that aren't worth the paper they're printed on.