It doesn't take a rocket scientist -- and certainly not an accountant -- to deduce one thing from the Lehman scandal. The misleading of regulators, investors and the public did not happen in isolation. Like Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Fannie/Freddie, CDOs, Bear, AIG, bond insurers, GM, Chrysler, CIT, California, Greece and the countless others wrapped up in this crisis, Lehman is symptomatic of a banking system bent on finding ways to hide risk from the investing public and regulatory community. Every time the truth was uncovered, investors fled and new investors demanded returns that compensated them for the new understanding of the known risks and for those that might remain hidden. In some cases, the cost of that new capital broke the firms.
Traditionally, banks and investment banks acted as principals or agents, matching capital in search of economic return with borrowers needing capital to earn a real return on economic activity. Today, they have turned to manufacturing artificial demand for financial products on false pretense. We have seen them act in such a manner on behalf of their debt-issuing clients. And in the case of Lehman, they have done so on their own behalf. We can expect that other firms used this and similar tactics to hide their true financial condition -- firms that are still in business and, to varying degrees, massaging or manipulating their numbers.
It should be clear to all that a deeper examination of the relationship between all the audit firms and their clients on the issue of risk-obfuscation is needed. Limiting any inquiry to Lehman alone is inadequate. To start, here are a few simple questions:
In the banking world, there are generally four types of risk; liquidity risk, credit risk, operational risk and reputational risk. Of these, only reputational risk failures threaten the entire value of the business and its goodwill. If our questions remain unanswered, the entire financial system will remain dangerously exposed.
Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.