Lehman’s Derivative Portfolio

By Stephen Lubben, Seton Hall University School of Law

Derivatives themselves were likely at most a secondary cause of the Lehman’s collapse, and played a more central role in other firms caught up in the financial crisis, like AIG. But the late Harvey Miller suggested that derivatives were responsible for a massive loss in value suffered by Lehman post-bankruptcy. Bryan P. Marsal, the Lehman estate administrator, likewise asserted that as much as $75 billion in value was destroyed, largely as a result of the sudden termination of Lehman’s derivatives book.

The singular losses caused by Lehman’s derivative portfolio to Lehman’s bankruptcy estate come from these safe harbors and the system of closeout netting the safe harbors support. While the safe harbors have been thoroughly studied and debated in the abstract, a close look at Lehman’s experience provides important insights for the future.

In particular, the largest part of Lehman’s derivative portfolio shows how financial institutions will suffer when resolution is attempted in the traditional bankruptcy system, despite the Dodd-Frank Act’s professed preference for “normal” bankruptcy process over specialized insolvency regimes like the new “Orderly Liquidation Authority.”

And the abrupt closeout of Lehman’s cleared derivatives portfolio by CME, which Lehman’s examiner noted as the source of several obvious losses to the bankruptcy estate, also provides important insights, especially given Dodd-Frank’s strong preference for central clearing going forward.

My paper Lehman’s Derivative Portfolio, written as a chapter for a forthcoming book, looks at both issues, and suggests that the continuation of the safe harbors “as is” renders chapter 11 nonviable for larger financial institutions, and recent contractual attempts to work around the safe harbors are insufficient to solve the problem, while the increased role of clearinghouses in financial institution failures will force regulators to confront difficult choices. In short, the regulators will have to balance two competing systemic risks: the risk of an unruly resolution of the financial institution, balanced against increased risk to the clearinghouse.

The Roundtable has previously posted multiple items on the derivatives safe harbors: on selling Lehman’s derivatives portfolio, systemic risk issues, the safe harbors’ history, two posts on the ISDA derivatives stay protocols (here and here), and on congressional testimony.