Deception is the essence of fraud. Bear Stearns deceived investors (and the markets generally) about crucial facts, including (a) the firm's management philosophy and approach to risk management, (b) performance of Bear's core mortgage businesses, and (c) the financial condition of the former investment bank.
Today, Wall Street Law Blog looks at one aspect of fraud at Bear Stearns - The Executive Committee lied time and again about risk management at the former investment bank.
Bear Stearns Umbrella "Risk Managed"
Risk Management LIES:
Please note that time and space limitations require us to list only a few material misrepresentations. But we assure you that we can, if necessary, go on for hundreds of pages and thousands of years (a little hyperbole is ok now and then)-
The risk management infrastructure and processes remain conservative and consistent with past practices. This structure and strong risk management culture has allowed the firm to operate for all of its history as a public company without ever having an unprofitable quarter.
By maintaining a strict approach to risk, and by allocating capital wisely, we have achieved one of the lowest levels of trading revenue volatility on Wall Street. At Bear Stearns, we know we cannot predict the future, but mitigating the risks ahead this part of the foundation upon which this firm was built....
True to our culture, we continue to search for ways to run our business more efficiently, always balancing risk and reward.
Our commitment to excellence and measured approach to balancing risk and reward has kept Bear Stearns focused...We continue to avoid short term trends by staying focused on the long term strengths of our businesses.
Our culture of risk management -- I just want to emphasize it is central to everything we do...So, risk management comes first and then growth.
The philosophy of creating value over the long term also drives our approach to product innovation and entering new businesses... This philosophy is evident in the disciplined approach we take to managing the firm's risk...
We're very proud of the way we do risk management. It's an integral part of our culture
dedication to risk evaluation and management that has given us the ability to expand carefully and conservatively.
The strict risk discipline imposed on our trading desks is reinforced by the strong sense of ownership that permeates the culture of the corporation.
You can expect us to continue to adhere to our core values, including this consistent and deliberate approach to risk...
And we could go on and on and on...
Risk Management TRUTHS:
AT THE SAME TIME BEAR STEARNS WAS BUSY REASSURING INVESTORS HOW GREAT THE FIRM WAS AT MANAGING RISK, SENIOR MANAGEMENT KNEW BEAR'S RISK MANAGEMENT SYSTEM SUCKED.
THE EVIDENCE (some of it)
February 4, 2008 - internal Bear Stearns email to members of Bear's management committee, with reminder of meeting with outside consulting firm Oliver Wyman and attached risk presentation entitled: "RISK GOVERNANCE DIAGNOSTIC, RECOMMENDATIONS, AND CASE FOR ECONOMIC CAPITAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN"
Really, the slide called "Gaps in Risk Management" says it all.
On that slide, consultant Oliver Wyman described a risk management system that was about as bad as it gets. Some of the risk management lowlights, according to the Wyman Report-
Bear Stearn's did not have any formal system for determining the company's risk-appetite. It seems to us that it just may be kind of hard to manage risk when there is no guidance about how much risk a business is willing to assume.
No uniform requirements or system for approval of trades. Again, it sure seems like a firm with 15,000 employees would need formal systems for things like trade approvals.
Risk management personnel frequently had little advance notice of proposed transactions. Worse, Bear's traders and business desks apparently did not feel compelled to provide very much information to the firm's risk managers. To us, this suggests that few people really wanted input from Bear's risk managers.
Bear's internal risk limits were often ignored or overridden by management without regard for additional risk exposure. To us, this suggests that risk limits were put in place to placate regulators rather than to actually manage risk.
Bear Stearns had no formal policies or procedures to evaluate risks of its business operations. Oliver Wyman used the term "ad hoc" to describe how Bear made strategic risk decisions.
Risk management personnel at Bear Stearns lacked "stature" (i.e., respect and authority). They were second class citizens with little influence over actual business practices.
In sum, Bear Stearns management did not articulate a risk-appetite for the company (or at least no specific guidelines for risk tolerance were communicated throughout the company); Bear Stearns did not listen to or respect its risk managers; Bear Stearns had no formal procedures for risk managers or business units to follow; and there was no real methodology for making risk management decisions.
Other slides from the presentations show that Bear had poor channels of communication regarding risk-taking and no effective plan for matching capital to risk (i.e., Bear did not determine its capital needs based on its risk exposures)
The Wyman Report is an exhibit introduced by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission during the FCIC'. In May 2010, five former Bear Stearns senior executives gave testimony before the FCIC (FCIC.gov), about the shadow banking system and the collapse of Bear Stearns.
In a recent post, Phil's Stock World reacted to the hearings so perfectly that, despite our best efforts, Wall Street Law Blog could not top Phil's summary. So, with all due credit given, we excerpted part of the post. Phil's Stock World pointed out that, during their testimony, Bear's former honchos seem to have blocked out some relevant stuff, including:
[Bear's ] insanely high leverage (up to 42:1), large holdings of MBS, poor risk management, and overnight borrowing from the repo market ($50 to $60 billion) had nothing to do with their collapse. They did nothing wrong and were the victims of a conspiracy of evil traders who seized upon their temporary lack of liquidity and sent them over the edge when investors irrationally lost confidence. Talking about an alternate universe, these folks should be sent to St. Helena to think about cause and effect for a while. Jimmy Cayne would probably just play bridge there."
The post from Phil's (you can read the rest here) had us hooked at "St. Helena."
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Bottom line here?
Bear Stearns deliberately promoted a supposed commitment to high quality risk management that, during the 2000's at least, was a total fiction. In other words, Bear Stearns constant touting of its risk management prowess was material and false.
Our favorite synonym for material misrepresentation is a word we like to call fraud. And - as we will show in future posts - Bear's fraud went much deeper than its false claims about risk management.
Part 4 of the series is in final edits... In case you want to catch up, you can read Part 1 of our series on bear stearns' securities fraud here; Part 2 of Wall Street Law Blog's securities fraud at Bear Stearns part 2, here)
The official story from the powers that (used to) be at Bear Stearns is that almost nobody called the housing bubble until it was too late. The FCIC rightly rejected this nonsense, and so should you.
The following excerpts are from a May 2005 report by a team of analysts led by Francois Trahan. Mr. Trahan was Institutional Investor's Number 1 Ranked Strategist in 2005. And he was similarly honored in 2006. Which company employed Francois Trahan as Chief Strategist in 2005 and 2006? Which company published the report excerpted below? Yep. You're right. BEAR STEARNS.
The report, published about 3 years before Bear Stearns collapsed, says it all -
And, in case you wonder whether this is the only warning sounded by Francois Trahan and his team at Bear Stearns, Wall Street Law Blog is happy to tell you that the answer is - Nope. At least 2 more reports followed in 2006, and with each report the warnings grew ever louder. (Click here to see excerpts from 2006 Bear Stearns report)
To remind readers why we still focus our attention on Bear Stearns, we gladly restate the reason - Because the biggest and most devastating financial fraud in history is, right now, the most successful financial fraud in history.
A Harvard University study reports that Bear Stearns' top 5 officers took home more than $1.4 BILLION in CASH from 2000 through 2008.
Most of the thousands of other Bear Stearns shareholders were not quite as fortunate as Jimmy Cayne and his top lieutenants (you may have heard something about this).
PART 2 - SECURITIES FRAUD AT BEAR STEARNS - A SPECIAL WALL STREET LAW BLOG SERIES
Only a short post is necessary here - A picture, after all, tells a thousand words.
According to the "official story" from Bear Stearns top executives -- Jimmy Cayne, Alan Schwartz, Warren Spector, Sam Molinaro -- almost no one (and certainly not Bear Stearns) was able to foresee the extent of the housing bubble and/or the possibility of disastrous consequences...
Well, here is the first page of a report Bear Stearns published in May 2006 (nearly two years before the investment bank failed).
Draw your own conclusions.
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PART 2 IN AN ONGOING SERIES ABOUT FRAUD AT BEAR STEARNS
Bear Stearns, among other, Sure Knew That Market Demand for MBS Backed by NonPrime Mortgages Could Disappear In the Blink of An Eye.
Two Meltdowns in 10 years, and yet the Denials Continue.
The future of the “entire subprime industry... [is] in doubt," reported trade magazine US Banker in an August 1999 article about the bankruptcy filing of leading subprime lender FirstPlus. “A host of... subprime and HLTV [high loan to value] lenders have collapsed in the past year...” “A Comet Falls, and Industry Shifts.” US Banker, August 1, 1999.
The article also reported that Bear Stearns (among others) was a warehouse lender to FirstPlus, and that Bear packaged FirstPlus mortgages into MBS. Id.
Why did FirstPlus fail? Because there was a rapid decline in investor demand for “securities backed by subprime and HLTV loans.”
The 1998 Asian and Russian crises and the fallout from those market shocks (think LTCM) produced a classic flight to quality.
In a flight to quality, markets for complex investments like MBS often run dry in periods of market turmoil, because frightened investors move their money to higher quality investments like US Treasuries and highly rated corporate bonds.
That is precisely what happened in 1998. Because of this flight to quality, market prices for some MBS fell as low as “50 to 60 cents on the dollar.” Id.
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To the staff of Wall Street Law Blog, something about this episode seems oddly familiar.