Lipson on The BS That Didn’t Bark: Why Didn’t (Doesn’t) Bear Stearns Go Into Bankruptcy Part II

lipson.JPGThis post concludes my colleague Jonathan Lipson’s set of observations about Bear’s bailout. You can find part I, in which Lipson demonstrates some of the advantages of a bankruptcy for Bear, here. Check out also Ribstein’s response, here.

Why Didn’t Bear Bark?

So, if the standard arguments against a BS bankruptcy don’t stack up, and in fact it might produce a better result than the hastily structured, poorly-executed deal on the table, why no bankruptcy?

The answer may be that while bankruptcy might benefit shareholders, JPM and other stakeholders, it would not benefit the folks who are in fact most likely responsible for the current state of affairs—BS’ officers and directors, and the managers of the hedge funds with whom they were intimately involved.

In any BS bankruptcy, insider transactions with the company of at least the last year—and probably quite a bit longer—would almost certainly be subjected to a searching inquiry. Most likely, a chapter 11 examiner would be appointed to determine what happened at BS, just as Neal Batson did at Enron.

Batson produced a huge report in Enron. Some would say it was not worth the price—allegedly about $100 million. But others would respond that Batson’s investigation did two very important things that created far greater value. First, his report was used in countless litigations that are said to have brought many times that amount back into the bankruptcy estate.

Second, his report revealed at least some of what really happened at Enron. My research on the use of examiners in chapter 11 cases suggests that this “public” value was, at least in the case of Enron, important because it gave lawyers and other professionals guidance on acceptable conduct well beyond that case.

In BS, scrutiny is likely the last thing that senior managers want. The media assumes that management is suffering along with everyone else because people like CEO Cayne had large share holdings, the value of which has been slashed. But this glosses over two important questions.

First, what did BS senior managers—and the management of the hedge funds they supported—get from BS over the last couple of years, whether in stock they sold for far more than $2 (or $10) per share, or cash bonuses, or compensation of some sort from hedge funds within or proximate to BS? These questions become relevant in bankruptcy because these transactions would certainly be scrutinized, and some may be avoided for the benefit of the bankruptcy estate.

BS’s senior managers doubtless understand this. It may be that for them, keeping last year’s goodie basket is worth far more than what they lose in the JPM deal. In a JPM deal—no matter how bad it gets for today’s shareholders—last years’ executive compensation is safe. Bankruptcy may put some or all of that at risk.

Second, and ultimately more important, there is the simple, cleansing effect of public scrutiny. Today, the question that no one asks—the elephant in the room—is where, exactly, all the money went? Of course, not all of it was real money. There was a lot of marking-to-model, which means that some valuations never really involved cash.

But lots of investors bought toxic securities from or through BS or affiliated hedge funds. And they paid cash. So, where did all that money go? Answering that question could go a long way toward understanding what went wrong in the mortgage crisis generally, and perhaps understanding how to prevent similar problems in the future. Today, thanks to JPM and the Federal Reserve, we won’t know.

In some ways, this is really about Sherlock Holmes famous dog that did not bark. There, after all other explanations were eliminated, only one—silence—made sense. Here, it may be that there are plenty of sound reasons to keep BS out of bankruptcy. But so far, it just looks like only one: the insiders want to keep the muzzle on.

You may also like...