Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Two Contrasting Views of The Impact of Lehman's Failure

Today's Wall Street Journal presented two starkly differing anniversary reviews of the failure of Lehman Brothers.

Two finance professors from the University of Chicago, John Cochrane and Luigi Zingales, argued, with hard, credible quantitative evidence, that it wasn't Lehman's demise, but Hank Paulson's and Ben Bernanke's panicked testimony to Congress a few days later, that caused financial markets to begin to fail, too.

On the other side of the argument, with little but hearsay and a few top-line numbers sizing the mutual fund market, is the Journal's own financial columnist, James B. Stewart. Augmenting Stewart's piece in the paper was an afternoon appearance on CNBC, wherein he went beyond his Journal article, contending that Lehman's failure was a financial system near-death event, and that no firm like Lehman should, or could, now, ever be safely allowed to fail.

Whom to believe?

Well, first, let's review the academics' piece. Cochrane and Zingales present a graph showing clearly that shortly after Lehman's bankruptcy, spreads of instruments like Libor-OIS rose only 18 points, whereas it rose more than three times that within two days after the Treasury Secretary and Fed Chairman sounded the general financial alarm and demanded that the TARP legislation be passed.

Since the TARP was never actually used as described, it wasn't even the source of any significant calming of the financial markets.

As to the importance of the Lehman failure, or its rescue, they wrote,

"Would a Lehman bailout have averted a panic? The news would still be that Lehman failed, and markets knew bailouts would not last forever. After all, the Bear Stearns rescue in February had just postponed worse trouble."

Cochrane and Zingales go on to contend that the real lesson in Lehman's bankruptcy "cannot be that the government must always bail out every large financial institution."

They cite the 1984 Continental Bank rescue, and others that followed, including LTCM, to demonstrate that none of these rescues have positively or constructively affected financial firms' appetite for risk. They write, near the end of their piece,

"The blame-it-on Lehman story leads to a dangerous complacency. If we can persuade ourselves that the fault was just one policy mistake, forced on the feds by silly legal restrictions and not enough bailout power, everything can go back the cozy way it was before.

This is a convenient story for large banks that dominate the lobbying and communication effort. And it absolves the Fed and Treasury of facing up to their long string of policy mistakes."

The two Chicago professors conclude that, while they don't claim to have the perfect answer, they would trust markets before trusting an overly-powerful government which has serially increased the stakes of each financial crisis which it has spawned through 25 years of bailouts.

In contrast to Cochrane's and Zingales' use of actual data to demonstrate that Lehman's failure did not panic markets, Journal writer James Stewart continues his usual misunderstanding of financial markets by claiming that Lehman's debt obligations, stuffed into so many mutual funds, required the government to guarantee those assets. Thus, by Stewart's reasoning, allowing Lehman to fail was a huge mistake which necessitated the assumption by the government of $4 trillion of mutual fund value.

On CNBC this afternoon, however, Stewart babbled on incessantly about how necessary it was that Lehman had been saved. That no similarly-sized financial firm can ever be allowed to fail again, because, although markets would have eventually corrected, Stewart solemnly judged that such correction would have taken us 'back to the iron age.'


That's precisely what the two professors convincingly demonstrate would not have happened. And did not happen.

The fact is that mutual fund investors take risks for extra return. Holding those assets meant investors chose to bet on the managements of those funds.

Have those funds now been cleansed of inept managers? No. The federal safety net saw to that. Just as Ken Lewis and Vik Pandit still run BofA and Citigroup, their incompetence notwithstanding.

I don't know if anyone else happened to notice this bizarre coincidence in today's Journal. It makes for an interesting comparison between savvy, analytical observers of last year's financial crisis, and a fear-mongering, large-government and -bank supporting financial beat flack with little in the way of evidence to sustain his contentions.

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