Five years on, what can we learn from the collapse of Lehman Brothers? The conventional opinion is that we should have saved Lehman Brothers just like we saved the rest of the financial sector in the immediate aftermath of the Lehman collapse. But some critics assert that the decision to save Bear Stearns convinced everybody that Lehman would be saved when push came to shove. When this expectation was not met, chaos ensued.
Market data from March 2008 to September 2008 supports the critics. Lehman’s credit spreads halved between March and June 2008. Even when Lehman’s stock price started falling in May and June, its credit spreads barely reacted. The below graph (courtesy the WSJ) captures just how dramatically Lehman credit spreads fell in the aftermath of the Bear Stearns bailout:
The Bear Stearns bailout convinced everybody that Lehman would be treated no differently as a Wall Street Journal article from June 2008 explains:
The ouster of two top executives at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., including the person responsible for keeping the company’s books, sent the bank’s share price tumbling to a new six-year low, but the normally jittery bond market shrugged off the move.
While Lehman’s stock price fell 4.4%, investors were bidding up some of Lehman’s bonds, and the price of protection against default on Lehman debt ultimately declined on the day. It costs an investor $280,000 annually to protect against default on $10 million of Lehman debt for five years – down from $285,000 Wednesday, according to Phoenix Partners Group.
The tempered reaction in the bond markets underscores investors’ conviction the Federal Reserve won’t let a major U.S. securities dealer collapse and that Lehman Brothers may be ripe for a takeover. In March, when Bear Stearns was collapsing, protection on Lehman’s bonds cost more than twice as much as it does now.
Of course allowing Bear Stearns’ creditors to take a loss may just have brought forward the chaos of September 2008 to March 2008. Given that bank creditors had been bailed out in the United States since Continental Illinois this is entirely plausible. Nevertheless, the policy actions of 2008 made things worse. If an evil genius had taken over the world in March 2008 with the sole aim of causing financial chaos, he could not have done any better – bail out Bear Stearns, convince everyone that no failures will be allowed and then renege on this implicit promise six months later.