Highly Leveraged Financial Companies Sometimes Fail

Bear Stearns is being bought for a price that is barely indistinguishable from zero:

Just four days after Bear Stearns Chief Executive Alan Schwartz assured
Wall Street that his company was not in trouble, he was forced on
Sunday to sell the investment bank to competitor JPMorgan Chase for a
bargain-basement price of $2 a share, or $236.2 million.

The stunning last-minute buyout was aimed at averting a Bear Stearns
bankruptcy and a spreading crisis of confidence in the global financial
system sparked by the collapse in the subprime mortgage market. Bear
Stearns was the most exposed to risky bets on the loans; it is now the
first major bank to be undone by that market's collapse.

This is what happens to a highly leveraged company when there is a liquidity crisis.  Fears about the company's health caused most lenders to withhold short term capital, which then in turn brought those fears to reality. 

While I suspect that we may find a lot of stupid blunders (at least in hindsight) and poor decisions, my sense is that this has nothing to do with fraud of any sort.  Which raises some interesting questions about Enron.  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.  (It also did not help that Lay and Skilling kept a higher profile than Schwartz at Bear Stearns, so that they were an easier target for vilification. 

I never really had the time to fully understand all the charges against Skilling at Enron (though I do think he deserves a new trial) but I always thought that it was unfair to try to ring either Skilling or Lay up for fraud because they were out trumpeting the health of the company shortly before its collapse.  Because it is clear from the Bear Sterns collapse that liquidity crises have everything to do with confidence, and you could see the Bear Stearns CEO out there in the last few days trying to boost confidence.  Was that fraud?  Or was that his very legitimate duty and obligation given his fiduciary responsibility to shareholders?   Why is Schwartz at Bear Stearns fighting for shareholders when he is trying to build confidence in the company in a liquidity crisis but Lay and Skilling at Enron defrauding shareholders when they were doing exactly the same thing? 

  • A person

    Hm...where are the usual comments against socialism? This seems to me a case where some individuals get the rewards of high risk, but expect the taxpayer to pay the costs.

  • mpkomara

    I think the original post should read "barely distinguishable from zero".

  • Larry Sheldon

    Be sure and run a survey here in Omaha about what ought to be done with the Enron folks before you make any "everybody says" pronouncements.

    Assuming you were going to make soem.

  • Deflation has as many good effects as bad


    Here's question your answer to which I'd be interested to hear: why should one be more interested in preventing deflation than one is interested in preventing inflation?

    If either or both periodically occur in a gold-standard economy, by what standard is deflation judged to be "worse" than inflation?