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Lehman Fraudulently Cooked Its Books, Accounting Giant Ernst & Young Helped, Geithner and Bernanke Winked and Slapped Them on the Back

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Washington’s Blog
March 12, 2010

As William K. Black said a year ago, the government’s entire strategy now – as in the S&L crisis – is to cover up how bad things are (“the entire strategy is to keep people from getting the facts”).

Paul Krugman and others pointed out that Geithner has been trying to artificially prop up asset prices, but that such a strategy cannot succeed.

As I’ve pointed out numerous times, the stress tests were a total sham, with a pre-ordained passing grade for the banks.

As I’ve noted repeatedly over the last couple of years, the government has allowed the giant banks to hide their liabilities and maintain dizzying amounts of leverage by using off-balance-sheet gimmicks:

BIS slammed “the use of gimmicks and palliatives”, and said that anything other than (1) letting asset prices fall to their true market value, (2) increasing savings rates, and (3) forcing companies to write off bad debts “will only make things worse”.

This is, of course, what Marc Faber and many other economists have said for years.

But Bernanke and the other central bankers (as well as Treasury and the Council of Economic Advisors and Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and the others in control of American and British and French and Japanese and German and virtually every other country’s economic policy) ignored BIS’ advice in 2007 and 2008, and they are still ignoring it today.

Instead, they are doing everything they can to (2) prop up asset prices by trying to blow a new bubble by giving banks trillions, (2) re-write accounting and reporting rules to let the big banks and other giants keep bad debts on their books (or in sivs or other “second sets of books”) and to hide the fact that they are bad debts, and (3) encourage consumers to spend spend spend!

Fraud at Lehman

Now, Geithner and Bernanke have been busted letting Lehman cook its books to try to hide its problems.

The New York Times notes:

The examiner, Anton R. Valukas, also for the first time, laid out what the report characterized as “materially misleading” accounting gimmicks that Lehman used to mask the perilous state of its finances…

Lehman executives engaged in what the report characterized as “actionable balance sheet manipulation”….

A large portion of the [examiner's] nine-volume report centers on the accounting maneuvers, known inside Lehman as “Repo 105.”

First used in 2001, long before the crisis struck, Repo 105 involved transactions that secretly moved billions of dollars off Lehman’s books at a time when the bank was under heavy scrutiny.

Shahien Nasiripour explains:

The examiner … said in a report publicly released Thursday that senior officials failed to disclose key practices, opening them up to legal claims … the report concludes that the firm’s auditor, Ernst & Young, failed to meet “professional standards.”

The exhaustive report was unsealed today by Judge James M. Peck, who said the report reads “like a best-seller.”

The examiner, Anton Valukas, also found that parties have claims to pursue against JPMorgan Chase and Citibank in connection with their behavior regarding the modification of agreements with Lehman and their increasing collateral demands in Lehman’s final days. These demands had a “direct impact” on Lehman’s diminishing liquidity — its cash on hand — which was a prime reason behind the firm’s demise.

***

The examiner’s report notes:

The business decisions that brought Lehman to its crisis of confidence may have been in error but were largely within the business judgment rule.But the decision not to disclose the effects of those judgments does give rise to colorable claims [i.e. valid legal claims] against the senior officers who oversaw and certified misleading financial statements — Lehman’s CEO Richard S. Fuld, Jr., and its CFOs Christopher O’Meara, Erin M. Callan and Ian T. Lowitt.

There are colorable claims against Lehman’s external auditor Ernst & Young for, among other things, its failure to question and challenge improper or inadequate disclosures in those financial statements.

***

Lehman Fraudulently Cooked Its Books, Accounting Giant Ernst & Young Helped, Geithner and Bernanke Winked and Slapped Them on the Back 090310banner1

The examiner notes that the issue giving rise to these potential claims was Lehman’s creative use of repurchase agreements, otherwise known as repo. These are agreements between financial firms that essentially act as loans for cash — one firm pledges collateral to another in exchange for cash with a promise that they’ll buy back that collateral.

The examiner said the sole function of Lehman’s use of repo was “balance sheet manipulation,” according to the report:

Although Repo 105 transactions may not have been inherently improper, there is a colorable claim that their sole function as employed by Lehman was balance sheet manipulation. Lehman’s own accounting personnel described Repo 105 transactions as an “accounting gimmick” and a “lazy way of managing the balance sheet as opposed to legitimately meeting balance sheet targets at quarter end.” Lehman used Repo 105 “to reduce balance sheet at the quarter‐end.”

The reason for that, the report notes, was to lower Lehman’s leverage — a critical component of the firm’s credit rating.

In 2007‐08, Lehman knew that net leverage numbers were critical to the rating agencies and to counterparty confidence. Its ability to deleverage by selling assets was severely limited by the illiquidity and depressed prices of the assets it had accumulated.Against this backdrop, Lehman turned to Repo 105 transactions to temporarily remove $50 billion of assets from its balance sheet at first and second quarter ends in 2008 so that it could report significantly lower net leverage numbers than reality.

Lehman did so despite its understanding that none of its peers used similar accounting at that time to arrive at their leverage numbers, to which Lehman would be compared…

Lehman’s failure to disclose the use of an accounting device to significantly and temporarily lower leverage, at the same time that it affirmatively represented those “low” leverage numbers to investors as positive news, created a misleading portrayal of Lehman’s true financial health.

Colorable claims exist against the senior officers who were responsible for balance sheet management and financial disclosure, who signed and certified Lehman’s financial statements and who failed to disclose Lehman’s use and extent of Repo 105 transactions to manage its balance sheet.

But Lehman wasn’t alone in its gimmickry. The firm’s auditor, Ernst & Young, one of the four biggest auditing firms in the world, failed in its oversight role:

In May 2008, a Lehman Senior Vice President, Matthew Lee, wrote a letter to management alleging accounting improprieties; in the course of investigating the allegations, Ernst & Young was advised by Lee on June 12, 2008 that Lehman used $50 billion of Repo 105 transactions to temporarily move assets off balance sheet and quarter end.The next day ‐- on June 13, 2008 ‐- Ernst & Young met with the Lehman Board Audit Committee but did not advise it about Lee’s assertions, despite an express direction from the Committee to advise on all allegations raised by Lee.

Ernst & Young took virtually no action to investigate the Repo 105 allegations. Ernst & Young
took no steps to question or challenge the non‐disclosure by Lehman of its use of $50 billion of temporary, off‐balance sheet transactions.

Colorable claims exist that Ernst & Young did not meet professional standards, both in investigating Lee’s allegations and in connection with its audit and review of Lehman’s financial statements.

Tyler Durden slams the New York Fed, in a must-read essay:

There should be an immediate investigation into how many other banks are currently taking advantage of this artificial scheme to manipulate and misrepresent their cap ratio, and just why the New York Fed can claim it had no idea of this very critical component of the Shadow Economy.

As does Karl Denninger:

Remember, The Feral Reserve is supposed to by the “uber-regulator” and the “safety and soundness” manager for the financial system.

They did a great job, right? Well…

For example, when

the Examiner questioned Lehman executives and other witnesses about Lehman’s financial health and reporting, a recurrent theme in their responses was that Lehman gave full and complete financial information to Government agencies, and that the Government never raised significant objections or directed that Lehman take any corrective action.

True? Let’s see what the Examiner had to say:

Although various Government agencies had information that raised serious questions about Lehman’s reported liquidity and about the sufficiency of its capital and liquidity to withstand stress scenarios, the agencies generally limited their activities to collecting data and monitoring.

Oh. They looked but didn’t act. I see.

Indeed, they looked pretty closely….

After March 2008 when the SEC and FRBNY began onsite daily monitoring of Lehman, the SEC deferred to the FRBNY to devise more rigorous stress-testing scenarios to test Lehman’s ability to withstand a run or potential run on the bank.5753 The FRBNY developed two new stress scenarios: “Bear Stearns” and “Bear Stearns Light.”5754 Lehman failed both tests.5755 The FRBNY then developed a new set of assumptions for an additional round of stress tests, which Lehman also failed.However, Lehman ran stress tests of its own, modeled on similar assumptions, and passed.5757 It does not appear that any agency required any action of Lehman in response to the results of the stress testing.

So let’s see what we got here. They ran two sets of stress tests and the firm failed both. Not satisfied with the results they then designed a third set, which the firm also failed (we can reasonably presume the third had less stringent requirements than the other two!)

Instead of applying any of these three, FRBNY, which was run by one MR. TIMOTHY GEITHNER, NOW OUR TREASURY SECRETARY WHO REPORTED TO ONE BEN BERNANKE, instead took Lehman’s word that all was ok and did nothing.

Wait a minute. In the spring of 2009 we were told that all the big banks ran “Stress Tests” of Geithner’s design. But Treasury didn’t actually run them and didn’t actually get and process the data – they told the banks to do so.

Uh, that’s exactly what Lehman did, right? And Lehman passed its own “internally computed” stress test but failed all three of the externally-computed ones.

Do you still accept that all these other banks are solvent? What about the facts we do know – such as the inconvenient fact that between them the “big banks” have something like $150 billion of Home Equity lines behind an underwater and delinquent first mortgage, which is, by the way, worth zero yet being carried at or near full value……

Nor did it end there.

The SEC inspection revealed significant problems at Lehman. The SEC found that Lehman’s Price Valuation Group was understaffed; and it found that Lehman’s asset pricing function was overly “process driven.”5761 But the SEC did not release its findings or formally present them to Lehman prior to Lehman’s demise.

So The SEC knew, and they too did nothing.

It’s worse. While Geithner is implicated as being “concerned” about Lehman in the paper, the most-troubling part the narrative is here:

The challenge for the Government, and for troubled firms like Lehman, was to reduce risk exposure, and the act of reducing risk by selling assets could result in “collateral damage” by demonstrating weakness and exposing “air” in the marks.5823

Air?

Uh, that’s an apparent admission that FRBNY and Tim Geithner specifically knew that the marks that these banks were taking on their assets was materially and intentionally false.

Where have we seen this of late? Oh yeah – in all those banks that have failed of late, with 25-40% discounts to their claimed balance sheet values when the marks are actually reduced to losses to the deposit fund by the FDIC!

So let’s see here. We now have:

  1. Geithner, and presumably everyone under him, knew the marks on these assets were fictions months before Lehman failed, yet they intentionally concealed this fact from the market and took no action (nor did the SEC) to disclose this intentional misdirection.
  2. The misdirection and false claims in this regard are almost certainly continuing today, as evidenced by the FDIC seizures literally on an every-week basis.

How about Bernanke? While he maintains (as did Geithner) that primary responsibility lay with the SEC, he also said:

Our concern was about the financial system, and we knew the implications for the greater financial system would be catastrophic, and it was.”

Now What?

Now what?

Well, as I’ve noted time and again, Geithner and Bernanke’s strategies of covering up how bad things are, trying to paper over the severity of the problems of the financial giants by artificially inflating asset prices and allowing accounting tricks are doomed to failure.

Yves Smith points out that Geithner must be fired and that a full audit of the Fed – especially the New York Fed – must be conducted:

The key revelation is that Lehman as of late 2007 was routinely using repo transactions at the end of the quarter to mask how levered it truly was:

Lehman regularly increased its use of Repo 105 transactions in the days prior to reporting periods to reduce its publicly reported net leverage and balance sheet.2850 Lehman’s periodic reports did not disclose the cash borrowing from the Repo 105 transaction – i.e., although Lehman had in effect borrowed tens of billions of dollars in these transactions, Lehman did not disclose the known obligation to repay the debt.2851 Lehman used the cash from the Repo 105 transaction to pay down other liabilities, thereby reducing both the total liabilities and the total assets reported on its balance sheet and lowering its leverage ratios.

Yves here. The stunning bit is these “repos” were actually a conventional type of repo, despite the name, but Lehman was engaging in blatant misreporting, treating these “repos” (in which a bank still shows them on its balance sheet as sold with the obligation to repurchase) as sales. Note that at the time (as the report notes) analysts and others kept probing at the seeming miracle of Lehman’s deleveraging in a difficult market. This ruse may also square the circle on a Lehman leak we broke in 2007. A former Lehman MD had reported that most of the deleveraging that had occurred at the end of 2Q 2008 had resulted from the placement of $55 billion of assets with newly-formed entities in which Lehman retained a 45% ownership interest and were operated by former Lehman employees. To put it mildly, these were off balance sheet entities that strained the idea of independence. Bloomberg got hold of the story, and Lehman asserted that only $5 billion of assets had actually been transferred. I am now wondering whether the $55 billion were indeed transferred precisely as the source had said originally (he in turn had been told this by several people at Lehman) but that most of it was via this type of repo, and then re-materialized on Lehman’s balance sheet once the quarter end had passed (the Examiner’s report notes that the amount that Lehman moves off its balance sheet at the end of 2Q 2008 was $50.38 billion, which tallies with the difference between what the Lehman MD said had been moved off balance sheet versus what they fessed up to when asked by Bloomberg) .

Denninger raises one question: were other banks engaging in this type of accounting chicanery? But there is another question: did some of Lehman’s counterparties must have suspected what was going on, given that this took place on a large scale basis at the end of every quarter? How many had an idea that Lehman was engaging in massive window dressing and chose to play along?

But here is the part of the report that discussed how the Fed aided and abetted Lehman misconduct:

the Examiner questioned Lehman executives and other witnesses about Lehman’s financial health and reporting, a recurrent theme in their responses was that Lehman gave full and complete financial information to Government agencies, and that the Government never raised significant objections or directed that Lehman take any corrective action.

Yves here. So get this: even though Lehman dressed up its accounts for the great unwashed public, it did not try to fool the authorities. Its games playing was in full view to those charted with protecting investors and the financial system.

So what transpired? The SEC (which in all fairness, has never had much expertise in credit markets, this is a major regulatory problem) handed assessing Lehman over to the Fed, which bent over backwards to give it a clean bill of health:

After March 2008 when the SEC and FRBNY began onsite daily monitoring of Lehman, the SEC deferred to the FRBNY to devise more rigorous stress‐testing scenarios to test Lehman’s ability to withstand a run or potential run on the bank.5753 The FRBNY developed two new stress scenarios: “Bear Stearns” and “Bear Stearns Light.”5754 Lehman failed both tests.5755 The FRBNY then developed a new set of assumptions for an additional round of stress tests, which Lehman also failed.5756 However, Lehman ran stress tests of its own, modeled on similar assumptions, and passed.5757 It does not appear that any agency required any action of Lehman in response to the results of the stress testing.

Yves here. So get this: the stress tests were a sham. Only one outcome was permissible: that Lehman pass. So after the Fed was unable to come up with an objective-looking stress test that Lehman could satisfy, they permitted Lehman to devise a test with low enough standards to give itself a clean bill of health.

So why should we trust ANY government designed stress test, particularly when the same permissive grader, Timothy Geithner, was the moving force behind the ones dreamed up last year, which have been widely decried by banking experts, including Bill Black, Chris Whalen, and Josh Rosner? We linked to a simple analysis by Mike Konczal that demonstrates that for the biggest four banks alone, merely on their second mortgage portfolios, the stress tests of 2009 were too permissive to the tune of at least $150 billion.

Lehman type accounting, in other words, is being institutionalized, with the active support from senior government officials.

It is time for Geithner to go. He is not fit to serve as Treasury secretary.

And the time is overdue for a full audit of the Fed, and in particular the New York Fed, from the start of the Bear crisis through and including all the retrades of the AIG bailout.

This is the “last clear chance”.

If Geithner is not replaced by someone who will actually try to fix things instead of just covering up for the big banks, and if the Fed is not audited so that the air can be cleared, it will almost certainly spell doom for America, and end up being worse than the Great Depression.

This article was posted: Friday, March 12, 2010 at 5:39 am





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