Gary Parr, deputy chairman of Lazard Fr res & Co. and Kellogg class of 1980, could not believe his ears. "You can't mean that," he said, reacting to the lowered bid given by Doug Braunstein, JP Morgan head of investment banking, for Parr's client, legendary investment bank Bear Stearns. Less than eighteen months after trading at an all-time high of $172.61 a share, Bear now had little choice but to accept Morgan's humiliating $2-per-share, Federal Reserve-sanctioned bailout offer. "I'll have to get back to you." Hanging up the phone, Parr leaned back and gave an exhausted sigh. Rumors had swirled around Bear ever since two of its hedge funds imploded as a result of the subprime housing crisis, but time and again, the scrappy Bear appeared to have weathered the storm. Parr's efforts to find a capital infusion for the bank had resulted in lengthy discussions and marathon due diligence sessions, but one after another, potential investors had backed away, scared off in part by Bear's sizable mortgage holdings at a time when every bank on Wall Street was reducing its positions and taking massive write-downs in the asset class. In the past week, those rumors had reached a fever pitch, with financial analysts openly questioning Bear's ability to continue operations and its clients running for the exits. Now Sunday afternoon, it had already been a long weekend, and it would almost certainly be a long night, as the Fed-backed bailout of Bear would require onerous negotiations before Monday's market open. By morning, the eighty-five-year-old investment bank, which had survived the Great Depression, the savings and loan crisis, and the dot-com implosion, would cease to exist as an independent firm. Pausing briefly before calling CEO Alan Schwartz and the rest of Bear's board, Parr allowed himself a moment of reflection. How had it all happened?
In recent years Lehman Brothers, one of the five largest investment banks in the United States, had grown increasingly reliant on its fixed income trading and underwriting division, which served as the primary engine for its strong profit growth. The bank had also significantly increased its leverage over the same timeframe, going from a debt-to-equity ratio of 23.7x in 2003 to 35.2x in 2007. As leverage increased, the ongoing erosion of the mortgage-backed industry began to impact Lehman significantly and its stock price plummeted. Unfortunately, public outcry over taxpayer assumption of $29 billion in potential Bear losses made repeating such a move politically untenable. The surreal scene of potential buyers traipsing into an investment bank's headquarters over the weekend to consider various merger or spin-out scenarios repeated itself once again. This time, the Fed refused to back the failing bank's liabilities, attempting instead to play last-minute suitors Bank of America, HSBC, Nomura Securities, and Barclay's off each other, jawboning them by arguing that failing to step up to save Lehman would cause devastating counterparty runs on their own capital positions. The Fed's desperate attempts to arrange its second rescue of a major U.S. investment bank in six months failed when it refused to backstop losses from Lehman's toxic mortgage holdings. Complicating matters was Lehman's reliance on short-term repo loans to finance its balance sheet. Unfortunately, such loans required constant renewal by counterparties, who had grown increasingly nervous that Lehman would lose the ability to make good on its trades. With this sentiment swirling around Wall Street, Lehman was forced to announce the largest Chapter 11 filing in U.S. history, listing assets of $639 billion and liabilities of $768 billion. The second domino had fallen. It would not be the last.