Sunday, December 14, 2008

Looks like art, smells worse

Here's a nice graphic over at Slate showing how much money has been committed to assorted bailouts and how much has been actually spent. Totals: ~$5.6 trillion promised; ~$2.3 trillion spent.

Slate's Flash graphic looks very much like a slick, Pop version of a Kenneth Noland abstraction. That's utterly not relevant to anything, except writing the word "Pop" and Noland's name in the same sentence gave me a unnatural rush of naughty glee.

Meanwhile, the New York Times' profile of Harvey Miller, the $1,000/hour bankruptcy attorney in charge of winding down the fetid corpse that once was Lehman Brothers, offers this harsh observation:

From his perspective as Lehman’s undertaker, Mr. Miller believes that the fallout from the firm’s messy bankruptcy could have been avoided. Regulators could have stepped in, he says, not necessarily to save Lehman, perhaps, but to head off the meltdown that followed. “They totally missed it,” he says. “Look what happened.”

When companies rushed to terminate contracts with Lehman, he says, investor confidence plummeted in just about everything — securities and the markets they trade on, corporate debts and the assets backing them, the power of the government and its readiness to use it. In the days after Lehman filed for bankruptcy, he notes, demand for corporate debt utterly evaporated.

The failure of a Wall Street firm poses its own special risks, because other companies that rely on it — such as counterparties to complex financial contracts known as derivatives — are all financially exposed to its collapse.

That’s why Mr. Miller says it was crucial for the government to head off the wholesale termination by counterparties of all their transactions with Lehman before the firm was forced into bankruptcy. “If the Fed or the Treasury said, ‘Let’s say to Lehman, there’s no bailout, we’re not going to save the company,’ they could have supported an orderly unwinding of all the transactions over a period of months,” he says. “It probably would’ve cost the economy a lot less money.”
Lehman owes counterparties and creditors $640 billion. A little planning and order when dealing with that fact beforehand would seem a good idea.

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