Investment Banking, Hedge Funds, Leverage, Financing, Banking Crisis, Credit Crisis
Gary Parr, deputy chairman of Lazard Frères & 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?
An analysis of the fall of Bear Stearns facilitates an understanding of the difficulties affecting the entire investment banking industry: high leverage, overreliance on short-term financing, excessive risk taking on proprietary trading and asset management desks, and myopic senior management all contributed to the massive losses and loss of confidence. The impact on the global economy was of epic proportions.