Monday, September 15, 2008

Behold a Pale Horse

Wow! What else can you say but, Wow! I thought that the Thursday-Sunday stretch this summer that UpDn-Merrillgobbled up Bear Stearns was breathtaking, I thought the disappearance of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were once in a lifetime events but this... this is a whole new order of magnitude. 

Two of the world's largest investment banks ceased to exist this weekend. And they weren't the 95-pound weaklings that Bear was either. They were behemoths. Lehman Brothers had 26,000 employees worldwide. Merrill Lynch had over 60,000. Between them they probably managed over a trillion dollars  worth of assets (yes, that's trillion with a 't').

Unlike the Fed, which did not see fit to save the 3rd and 4th largest investment banks in the world, the markets decided that that the failures of Lehman and Merrill were sufficiently cataclysmic events to shed 505 points - the largest single-day drop in the Dow Jones index since September 17, 2001, the day the markets re-opened after 9/11.

Merrill, of course made out much better than Lehman and it's pre-emptive sale to Bank of America for $50 billion (or about $30/ share) is a huge premium to where it's stock closed today ($17.06/ share). And then there is Merrill's crown jewel, it's fabled "Thundering Herd" of brokers, 17,000 strong, who will likely get absorbed into B of A. But that still leaves another 40-45,000 Merrill employees, a lot of whom (some say as much - or, at least! - half) could end up getting laid off. Not to mention the thousands of B of A employees who will get laid off through no fault of theirs - because they were actually good at their jobs.

And as for Lehman? Well, Lehman doesn't have an All-Blacks of a brokerage team to offer, only $40 billion is toxic real estate debt, and so for the 26,000 Lehman employees, this is the end of the road.

As bad as things got today, they have the potential to get much worse. AIG, the largest insurer in the world as little as a year ago, is on the verge of collapse, an event that would be an even bigger shock to the system (if such a thing is even possible anymore), if for nothing else than the fact that it is part of the Dow Jones index. Its stock price closed at less than $5/ share today, down from $65/ share a year ago, and rumors are that the Fed has asked Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase to lend $70 billion(!) to the insurer. Even if GS and JPM had that kind of money laying around, which they don't; or even if they could syndicate this debt, which they likely can't - is it really going to help at this stage? Or is this like sticking a finger in the dyke and hoping that the dam holds?

Then there is Washington Mutual,  whose stock is trading at less than $3.32/ share and whom S&P and Moody's downgraded to junk status. WaMu looks like it is ripe for failure as well and oh, by the way - it only has $180 billion of exposure to mortgages and related loans.

And finally, consider this: The brokerage subsidiaries of Lehman Brothers were not included in the bankruptcy filings today and remain open for business for the time being. So, the liquidation of Lehman hasn't even started and the already the markets are down 500 points.

So, if you see four horsemen riding about, be afraid. Be very afraid.


Hrishi said...

I understand what you mean.

- From someone in Lehman

Kautilya said...

I feel for you bro'. Hang tight though, this too shall pass.