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8 Unlearned Lessons of Lehman

Two years after the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers, we still have a way to go.
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BOSTON (TheStreet) -- It has been two years since Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, the largest bank to do so in U.S. history.

The collapse, a catalyst for the financial meltdown that followed, was chock full of teachable moments. But did we get them?

Some good will come from the turmoil, perhaps from financial reforms enacted earlier this year. But there are plenty of lessons from Lehman that haven't sunk in. Here are some of them.

1. We still haven't reined in risk

New financial-reform regulations will create a government agency to monitor risk, a core cause of Lehman's failure, and make recommendations.

Yet, in doing so, the agency takes over that duty, presumably, from the Federal Reserve. Can it do a better job in tackling this too-big-to-ignore problem among too-big-to-fail institutions? Perhaps, but effective guidelines are key, as is the agency's ability to stay above the fray of political pressure and the influence of lobbyists. Can it coordinate the participation of various regulatory agencies needed to get the job done?

What we still haven't learned is why the Fed proved so inadequate in its duties. If the new agency has a chance to succeed, we need to better understand what went wrong.

Stricter corporate governance is still lacking. Lehman did impose internal risk limits. The problem was that the bank would simply change those limits -- without a peep from either its board or other overseers.

2. We haven't quenched our thirst for liquidity

The financial-reform package also addresses the issue of liquidity, though perhaps not in as meaningful a way as the Lehman collapse should have inspired.

In theory, forcing financial institutions to cover their bets with on-hand cash-like assets (such as Treasuries) is a good idea intended to keep the word "bailout" from being uttered for years to come. A large part of the Lehman collapse is traceable to its reliance on illiquid assets.

Regulators -- in the past and, so far, in the early days of financial reform -- have been reluctant to set clear, uniform liquidity guidelines, likely as a concession to the bottom line and to avoid untoward effects for investors.

While avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach for a complex array of financial institutions may sound logical, the reality is that without comprehensive, detailed regulations, any reform effort remains in the realm of mere suggestion and the most clever will find a way to obscure or circumvent rules the way Lehman did with its infamous Repo 105 instruments.

3. We still don't scrutinize ratings agencies enough

In the months leading up to Lehman's collapse, Investors Service and Standard & Poor's, two of the largest credit-rating firms, reported that the company's liquidity profile was "solid" and "very strong."

It clearly wasn't.

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Part of the problem, as was revealed in Congressional hearings, is that most of those agencies exist in a culture where little written documentation backs up their day-to-day affairs. The lack of transparency is balanced by a lack of scrutiny.

Two years after the demise of Lehman, we may have plenty of reason to question the motives and processes deployed by the agencies. Yet, so far, we still have no clear view of their behind-the-scenes role in the financial turmoil and whether they need to be better regulated.

4. We still don't know what to do with Fannie or Freddie

There are many who think Lehman Brothers' executives have a legitimate beef with the government's selective use of its intervention powers.

Case in point:

Fannie Mae


Freddie Mac

, which were taken over by the government and kept on a $200 billion-plus lifeline.

Lehman's risky assets included $12 billion in residential mortgages and $33 billion in commercial real estate loans it was frantically trying to offload prior to its collapse. While Lehman was hung out to dry, Fannie and Freddie were bailed out, and the big losers were taxpayers who will never see anything resembling a payback.

According to documentation made public by the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, in 2004, Freddie Mac's chief risk officer sent an e-mail to CEO Richard Syron urging the company to stop purchasing loans with no income or asset requirements "as soon as practicable." He warned that mortgage lenders were targeting "borrowers who would have trouble qualifying for a mortgage if their financial position were adequately disclosed" and that the "potential for the perception and the reality of predatory lending with this product is great."

"But Mr. Syron did not adopt the chief risk officer's recommendation," U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman wrote as part of his committee's investigation. "Instead, the company fired him. Taking these risks proved tremendously lucrative for the Fannie and Freddie CEOs. They made over $30 million between 2003 and 2007. But their irresponsible decisions are now costing the taxpayers billions of dollars."

So what to do about Freddie and Fannie? Some say they need to be liquidated. Others think they can be spared, but only after a comprehensive overhaul. There remains, however, no clear intent on the part of the government, no timeline and no plan to parse.

If Lehman was punished for its reckless bets, why weren't Fannie and Freddie?

5. They still haven't seen the error of their ways

Even two years after the Bear Stearns/Lehman fiascos snowballed into financial disaster, there still has not been much in the way of retribution. To date, there have been no indictments, no jail time and little in the way of fines.

There have been some colorful, but ultimately hollow, attempts to force testimony, but no real punishment of consequence has been meted out for the shady, law-bending behaviors that were widespread before, during and after the crisis.

There may be no love lost for the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld. But, despite rumors of an SEC investigation and the occasional demand for testimony, he too has escaped any meaningful punishment. Conversely, he has not shown remorse or acknowledged any culpability.

Consider the written statement he provided on Sept. 1 to Congress' Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Fuld blamed rumor, speculation and the government for Lehman's bankruptcy.

"Other firms were hurt by their plummeting stock prices and widening CDS

credit default swaps spreads," he wrote. "But Lehman was the only firm that was mandated by government regulators to file for bankruptcy. The government then was forced to intervene to protect those other firms and the entire financial system."

"An investment bank's very existence depends on confidence to consummate transactions, pledge collateral and repay loans," he added. "Without that confidence, no bank can function or continue to exist. This loss of confidence, although unjustified and irrational, became a self-fulfilling prophecy and culminated in a classic run on the bank that then led Lehman to file for bankruptcy four days later, in the early morning hours of Sept. 15."

Fuld makes an easy target, especially when he tries to insist all was well and federal intervention (or lack thereof) was the real villain. He is also the figurehead of a larger problem. Throughout the financial crisis there has been little in the way of admissions and confessions.

Even beyond carefully parsed words to avoid legal woes, there is a definite feeling that, like Fuld, most of Wall Street sees nothing to be ashamed of and no reason to apologize. The lack of comeuppance only reinforces the missing "moral of the story."

6. Wall Street still rewards itself, win or lose

There was, briefly, compensation restraint following the financial crisis. But the fact remains that even in its darkest hours, billions in salary and bonuses were still doled out irrespective of performance.

It has been said that the sky-high salaries and perks have made many on Wall Street oblivious to the real-world, street-level impact of their risky, profit-driven instruments and maneuvers. But the money keeps flowing and lessons remain unlearned.

7. Agencies need to play nice with one another

In his massive report to Congress, Anton R. Valukas, the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy examiner, laid significant blame at the feet of the SEC.

"The SEC told us that they were constantly monitoring Lehman's risk and liquidity," he wrote. "But there was little, if any, actual regulation. The SEC made a few recommendations or directions here and there, but in general it simply collected data; it did not direct action, it did not regulate."

He claims the SEC, Treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York all failed to adequately communicate with one another and work together to intervene with Lehman Brothers.

"Like most Americans, I was disturbed to learn after 9/11 that various intelligence agencies did not always share information with one another," he added. "I thought we learned something from that, but apparently not. The agency with the skill sets to regulate a financial institution like Lehman -- the Fed -- did not have the authority; and the agency with the authority -- the SEC -- may not have had the skills. And the two agencies were unable to smooth out the gaps because they failed to have full and open sharing of information."

Many months later, there is still little to convince us that multi-agency cooperation is any better or more effective.

8. We still chase bubbles

Lehman was undone by its all-in bet on the mortgage market, riding the housing bubble for every penny it could.

Main Street would do well to learn from Wall Street in that regard, but shows little sign of doing so. Bonds are the new bubble destined, perhaps, to burst. After that maybe it will be "green tech" or some other flavor of the month.

Diversification is a simple concept, but one that multibillion-dollar firms and 401(k) holders are slow to learn.

Investors would do well to heed other lessons from the Lehman debacle: Never invest in something you don't understand; don't assume safety in the fact that "everyone else is doing it"; and, when your plane is crashing, grab a parachute and jump.

--Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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