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On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. With $639 billion in assets and $619 billion in debt, Lehman's bankruptcy filing was the largest in history, as its assets far surpassed those of previous bankrupt giants such as WorldCom and Enron. Lehman was the fourth-largest U.S. investment bank at the time of its collapse, with 25,000 employees worldwide. Lehman's demise also made it the largest victim, of the U.S. subprime mortgage-induced financial crisis that swept through global financial markets in 2008. Lehman's collapse was a seminal event that greatly intensified the 2008 crisis and contributed to the erosion of close to $10 trillion in market capitalization from global equity markets in October 2008, the biggest monthly decline on record at the time.
The History of Lehman Brothers
Lehman Brothers had humble origins, tracing its roots back to a small general store that was founded by German immigrant Henry Lehman in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1844. In 1850, Henry Lehman and his brothers, Emanuel and Mayer, founded Lehman Brothers.
While the firm prospered over the following decades as the U.S. economy grew into an international powerhouse, Lehman had to contend with plenty of challenges over the years. Lehman survived them all – the railroad bankruptcies of the 1800s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, two world wars, a capital shortage when it was spun off by American Express in 1994, and the Long Term Capital Management collapse and Russian debt default of 1998. However, despite its ability to survive past disasters, the collapse of the U.S. housing market ultimately brought Lehman Brothers to its knees, as its headlong rush into the subprime mortgage market proved to be a disastrous step.
The Prime Culprit
In 2003 and 2004, with the U.S. housing boom (read, bubble) well under way, Lehman acquired five mortgage lenders, including subprime lender BNC Mortgage and Aurora Loan Services, which specialized in Alt-A loans (made to borrowers without full documentation). Lehman's acquisitions at first seemed prescient; record revenues from Lehman's real estate businesses enabled revenues in the capital markets unit to surge 56% from 2004 to 2006, a faster rate of growth than other businesses in investment banking or asset management. The firm securitized $146 billion of mortgages in 2006, a 10% increase from 2005. Lehman reported record profits every year from 2005 to 2007. In 2007, the firm reported net income of a record $4.2 billion on revenue of $19.3 billion.
Lehman's Colossal Miscalculation
In February 2007, the stock reached a record $86.18, giving Lehman a market capitalization of close to $60 billion. However, by the first quarter of 2007, cracks in the U.S. housing market were already becoming apparent as defaults on subprime mortgages rose to a seven-year high. On March 14, 2007, a day after the stock had its biggest one-day drop in five years on concerns that rising defaults would affect Lehman's profitability, the firm reported record revenues and profit for its fiscal first quarter. In the post-earnings conference call, Lehman's chief financial officer (CFO) said that the risks posed by rising home delinquencies were well contained and would have little impact on the firm's earnings. He also said that he did not foresee problems in the subprime market spreading to the rest of the housing market or hurting the U.S. economy.