Monday, March 15, 2010

Lehman Bankruptcy Examiner’s Report

The Report of the Examiner in the Chapter 11 proceedings of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. provides details about certain transactions that were carried out in the company and the manner in which they were accounted for in its books. The key transaction is question is referred to as “Repo 105”, and the New York Times Dealbook’s White Collar Watch has a nice summary:

The examiner’s report gives us a new term for hiding problems on a corporate balance sheet that may become common parlance: “Repo 105.” Starting in 2001, Lehman Brothers engaged in repurchase agreements, called “repos,” which were described by DealBook as “what amounts to a short-term loan, exchanging collateral for cash up front, and then unwinding the trade as soon as overnight.” Repos are a common method for investment banks to finance their operations and are neither illegal nor questionable, at least when clearly accounted for.

Lehman Brothers went a step further by having the collateral exchange under the agreement worth 105 percent of the cash it received — hence, the “105” in the firm’s nomenclature. By doing so, that turned it into a sale for accounting purposes, so that the firm could move the assets it exchanged in the deal off of its balance sheet, at least for a short while.

As explained by DealBook, “That meant that for a few days — and by the fourth quarter of 2007 that meant end-of-quarter — Lehman could shuffle off tens of billions of dollars in assets to appear more financially healthy than it really was.” By timing Repo 105 transactions to the end of a quarter, the reports filed with the S.E.C. and reviewed by investors looked much better than what was going to be the case just a short time later. Enron did much the same thing with some of its assets, such as its notorious Nigerian barge deal.
There is discussion about similarities with Enron, as Ideoblog too notes. As commentators expect a flurry of litigation against Lehman’s former officers and outside advisors, the existing corporate governance norms including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 are likely to be put to intense testing. This would be particularly so with regard to the provisions pertaining to certification of financial statements and internal controls by the CEO and CFO.

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