Anniversary Stories, Lehman Brothers, and Bloomberg

We’re still wading through the anniversary stories in the business press, one year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the near-collapse of the financial system itself.

Unlike some folks, I have nothing against such stories (though, of course, the media, like they do elsewhere, very often push them past the overkill mark). In fact, I think they can be and often are a good thing. Humans mark anniversaries for a reason. They allow us to look back and take stock of what’s happened—a reflection point, so to speak.

In the specific case of the financial-meltdown anniversary, it’s a good idea to look back at where we were a year ago, where we’ve gone, and where we’ve ended up. Anniversaries very often serve as nice pegs for stories editors (and readers) otherwise might not have been so interested in.

And so look to Bloomberg, which ran a four-part series last week on the fallout from the fall of Lehman. I wrote about the first edition last week, but let’s look at the third now.

Reporters Mark Pittman (whom I interviewed several months ago) and Bob Ivry take the Lehman story and spin it in a new direction, looking at how the the Lehman collapse rippled across the globe. Of course, we know about the likes of Reserve Fund which “broke the buck” after Lehman defaulted. But what about Hong Kong, where a derivative product called minibonds was hawked aggressively by financial institutions (in this next case, ABN Amro), with this result?

Yu, who has a sixth-grade education, said she thought her money was in a savings account. She didn’t know she had lent it to a bankrupt American securities firm. Eventually, she found out that her HK$1.2 million ($155,000) nest egg was gone. Her children lost another HK$3.8 million because Yu had persuaded them to make similar investments.

“There is no way a person like me could understand any of this,” Yu said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue in a coffee shop in Hong Kong’s financial district. “Sometimes I feel like jumping off a building.”

What was a minibond? Well, um, Iet’s see. Actually, I’m not sure the salesmen actually knew:

Equity-linked notes combine attributes of both bonds and stock by investing part of the proceeds in share options and the remainder in fixed income. Minibonds are custom-made securities linked to the creditworthiness of companies, backed by collateralized-debt obligations and sold in denominations of $5,000. They functioned like credit-default swaps in reverse, where the investor stands to lose his principal when the firm named in the note can’t pay its debts.

Those… things, deceptively marketed as “bonds” were foisted on small-time investors. First of all, any financial adviser who tells someone, especially a crippled one with a sixth-grade education, to put 100 percent of their assets into one investment needs to be put in the public stocks.

But, second, why were the financial advisers on the ground in Hong Kong so keen on selling this minibond junk to investors? Follow the thread from New York to the Cayman Islands to Holland to Hong Kong:

The minibonds were all issued by a Cayman Islands-based entity called Pacific International Finance Ltd., set up by Lehman with trustees from London-based HSBC Holdings Plc. The notes were financial dumplings — derivatives contracts tied to the creditworthiness of major companies wrapped inside Lehman corporate bonds. Series 19 notes, for instance, were linked to securities dealers including Citigroup Inc. and Goldman Sachs. If any of those businesses or Lehman defaulted, the investor wouldn’t get paid.

In effect, investors in Series 19 notes bought the losing end of credit-default swaps, or insurance policies pegged to the survival of financial institutions. If any of those companies failed, the noteholders were the ones responsible for paying off the principal on the derivative.

Lehman took payments from investors in exchange for a guaranteed yield, then placed the cash in a Lehman-managed money market fund and issued commercial paper to borrow more money. Those funds were in turn used to invest in CDOs sold by Lehman off-balance-sheet entities in places such as Ireland and the Cayman Islands.

In other words, it was cheap leverage for the whole house of cards that was Wall Street circa 2007. Lehman wasn’t the only one doing this. Morgan Stanley, Bloomberg reports, did, too. Fortunately for its investors, the government stepped in before it could collapse.

What we have here is a yarn that weaves together several threads of the corrupt Wall Street story: Asian savings, securitization sausage factory, unnecessary complexity and resulting information asymmetry (“smart money” taking advantage of “dumb money”), globalization, dispersal of risk, enormous leverage, financial advisers breaching their fiduciary duty to customers—and to the extent they weren’t technically fiduciaries, all the more reason for that to be legally obligated now. I’m sure I’m missing several.

Bloomberg, with its deep pockets, makes this a human interest story, too, by going on the ground in Hong Kong. Not only do we have Ms. Yu, but we also get Sun Kwan, a retiree who lost nearly $300,000 in Lehman minibonds and joined the protests:

Raindrops beaded on the brim of his blue cap. A sign around his neck, hand-lettered in Chinese characters, read: “The Bank of China is a hooker. Give me back my money earned with blood and sweat”…

“It’s all gone,” Sun said in an interview conducted through a Chinese translator at the demonstration. “I almost wanted to kill myself. I’ve been crying for months, even though I am a man.”

He said he hadn’t yet told his 25-year-old son, Sun Chi Yan, what had happened to his nest egg, most of which came from a settlement when the government bought his family’s land.

But pro investors got taken in, too. See the COO of a private-equity firm in London who jumped in front of a train after Lehman’s failure tied up some of his firm’s assets.

And in what reads like a case of globalization run amok, a group of Chinese employees of an Israeli firm building a hotel in Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean took their bosses hostage after the project ran out of money when Lehman went belly up. Seriously.

What was that about anniversary stories?

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.