The truth may set you free, or it may just send you to jail. Right now, Anton Valukas’s high profile 2,200 page report has unearthed a reeking stench surrounding a $50 billion fund shuffling scheme. Our legal system will ultimately determine the fate of Dick Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers (OTC:LEHMQ), and any potential co-conspirators. Anton Valukas, appointed by the U.S. bankruptcy court to get to the root causes of largest bankruptcy in history of the 158 year old investment banking institution, spearheaded the year-long investigation.
While most observers have not shed a tear over the grilling of Fuld in the media, onlookers shouldn’t feel sorry for Valukas either. His firm, Jenner & Blocker, was paid $38 million for its troubles in researching the report through January of this year. Completing the report was a Herculean task. Finishing the report involved narrowing down 350 billion pages of documents (spread across 2,600 systems) down to about 40 million pages, which were supplemented by interviews with more than 250 individuals, according to The Financial Times.
Repo 105 Crash Course
At the heart of the Valukas’s report is a unique accounting gimmick used by Lehman Brothers to conveniently shed billions in assets off its books at opportune times. The scheme distorted the firm’s financial position so Lehman Brothers could appear financially leaner than reality. This controversial practice is called Repo 105 (“repo” is short for “repurchase”). Here’s how it works:
a) The Right Way: In a typical legitimate repurchase transaction, widely used in the banking industry, a financial institution transfers assets (collateral) to a counterparty in exchange for cash. As part of the transaction, the institution that transferred the assets for cash agrees to repurchase the collateral from the counterparty in the future for the original value plus interest. These repurchase agreements are completely valid and function as an excellent short-term liquidity tool for the financial markets. What’s more, the transactions are completely transparent with the associated assets and liabilities in clear view on the publicly distributed financial statements.
b) The Crooked 105 Way: With toxic real estate values plummeting, and Lehman Brothers’ leverage (debt) ratios rising, Lehman executives became more desperate in hunting out more creative methods of hiding unwanted assets off the balance sheet. To satisfy this need, Lehman travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to court the legal opinion of a preeminent law firm, Linklaters, in order to have them sign off on the imaginative Repo 105 practice.
Under Repo 105, Lehman pledged assets equaling 105% of the cash received from a counterparty. Based on the Repo 105 design, the transaction was considered a “sale” and therefore wiped Lehman’s balance sheet clean of the assets. Cash temporarily received by Lehman could then be used to pay down debt. Lehman conveniently used this strategy to pretty up the books (“window dressing”) around critical periods when financial results were shared with the public and investors. Shortly thereafter, Lehman would take back the discarded assets for a cash and interest payment (similar to the previously described repurchase agreement).
In a way, this Repo 105 transaction is like a teenage boy selling a Playboy magazine to his friend for cash right before his mom comes home, then agrees to repurchase the magazine from his friend as soon as the boy’s mom goes back to work. Sneaky, but effective…until you get caught.
Where are the Cops?
With the fresh corporate scandal wounds from the likes of Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco (NYSE:TYC) still healing, a neutral observer might expect the auditors to more responsibly monitor the behavior of questionable client behavior. The death of accounting giant Arthur Andersen (former Enron auditor) was supposed to serve as a poster-child example of what can happen if irresponsible corporate behavior goes unchecked. Apparently Lehman Brothers’ “Big Four” auditor Ernst & Young didn’t learn a lesson from the carnage left behind by its deceased competitor. Not only did Ernst & Young sign-off on these transactions, but their neglect of whistle-blower allegations also serves to land E&Y in very hot water.
Frustratingly, this outcome wouldn’t be the first time a whistle-blower was ignored – Harry Markopolos the Bernie Madoff sleuth was rebuffed multiple times by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) before Madoff confessed his illegal Ponzi scheme crimes. Although the SEC may feel some more heat relating to Lehman’s Repo 105 accounting fallout, the agency may catch a little break since Lehman surreptitiously neglected to disclose any of this controversial accounting trickery.The SEC and multiple state Attorney Generals may investigate Valukas’ findings further to see if civil or criminal charges against Fuld and other Lehman executives are appropriate.
The Ignorance Defense
Will ignorance be an adequate defense for Lehman executives? So far, this tactic appears to be the leading approach of 40-year Lehman Brothers veteran, Dick Fuld. Fuld’s lawyer claims the CEO had no knowledge of Repo 105
nor did Lehman’s senior finance officers, legal counsel or Ernst & Young raise any concerns about the use of Repo 105 with Mr. Fuld.
The Lehman chief’s supposed unawareness becomes less credible in the midst of smoking emails such as the following one from a senior trader:
We have a desperate situation and I need another $2 bn [balance sheet reduction] from you either through Repo 105 or outright sales.
Other executives referred to Repo 105 as a “drug” that they needed to “wean themselves off.” When Bart McDade, a senior Lehman Brothers exec was asked about Fuld’s knowledge regarding the accounting gimmick, McDade had no qualms in explaining Fuld
knew about the accounting of Repo 105.
The sheer size of these multi-billion dollar off-balance sheet transactions won’t make Fuld’s innocence campaign any easier. I believe when courts discuss values exceeding $50 billion in size, ignorance will not qualify as an excuse you can hide under – even in the context of a company holding net assets of $328 billion in June 2008.
Valukas doesn’t mince any of his words in the report when the conversation moves to Lehman’s objectives:
The examiner has investigated Lehman’s use of the Repo 105 transactions and has concluded that the balance sheet manipulation was intentional, for deceptive purposes.
Time will tell how the ultimate judgment will fall upon Dick Fuld and his partnering Lehman Brothers executives, but one need not be a bloodhound to smell the stale fishy odor of Repo 105. Fuld better find some potent breath mints, to quickly fight off the horrible seafood scent, or he might end up as fish bait himself.
Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct position in TYC on any security referenced. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision.