The following is a guest contribution by Alex Rodrigue, a math and economics major at Haverford College and my fantastic summer research assistant. This post, like many others I have written, discusses an NBER working paper, this one by Laurence Ball. Some controversy arose out of the media coverage of Roland Fryer's recent NBER working paper on racial differences in police use of force, which I also covered on my blog, since the working paper has not yet undergone peer review. I feel comfortable discussing working papers since I am not a professional journalist and am capable of discussing methodological and other limitations of research. The working paper Alex will discuss was, like the Fryer paper, covered in the New York Times. I don't think there's a clear-cut criteria for whether a newspaper should report on a working paper or no--certainly the criteria should be more stringent for the NYT than for a blog--but in the case of the Ball paper, there is no question that the coverage was merited.
In his recently released NBER working paper, The Fed and Lehman Brothers: Introduction and Summary, Professor Laurence Ball of Johns Hopkins University summarizes his longer work concerning the actions taken by the Federal Reserve when Lehman Brothers’ experienced financial difficulties in 2008. The primary questions Professor Ball seeks to answer are why the Federal Reserve let Lehman Brothers fail, and whether explanations for this decision given by Federal Reserve officials, specifically those provided by Chairman Ben Bernanke, hold up to scrutiny. I was fortunate enough to speak with Professor Ball about this research, along with a number of other Haverford students and economics professors, including the author of this blog, Professor Carola Binder.
Professor Ball’s commitment to unearthing the truth about the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and the Fed’s response is evidenced by the thoroughness of his research, including his analysis of the convoluted balance sheets of Lehman Brothers and his investigation of all statements and testimonies of Fed officials and Lehman Brothers executives. Professor Ball even filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in an attempt to acquire all available documents related to his work. Although the suit was unsuccessful, his commitment to exhaustive research allowed for a comprehensive, compelling argument to reject the justification of the Federal Reserve’s in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ financial distress.
Among other investigations into the circumstances of Lehman Brothers’ failure, Ball analyzes the legitimacy of claims that Lehman Brothers lacked sufficient collateral for a legal loan from the Federal Reserve. By studying the balance sheets of Lehman Brothers from the period prior to their bankruptcy, Ball finds “Lehman’s available collateral exceeds its maximum liquidity needs by $115 billion, or about 25%”, meaning that the Fed could have offered the firm a legal, secured loan. This finding directly contradicts Chairman Ben Bernanke’s explanations for the Fed’s decision, calling into question the legitimacy of the Fed’s treatment of the firm.
If the given explanation for the Fed’s refusal to help Lehman Brothers is invalid, then what explanation is correct? Ball suggests Secretary Treasurer Henry Paulson’s involvement in negotiations with the institution at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and his hesitance to be known as “Mr. Bailout,” as a possible reason for the Fed’s behavior. Paulson’s involvement in the case seems unusual to Professor Ball, especially because his position as a Secretary Treasurer gave him “no legal authority over the Fed’s lending decisions.” He also cites the failure of Paulson and Fed officials to anticipate the destructive effects of Lehman’s failure as another explanation for the Fed’s actions.
When asked about the future of Lehman Brothers had the Fed offered the loans necessary for its survival, Ball claims that the firm may have survived a bit longer, or at least for long enough to have wound down in a less destructive manner. He believes the Fed’s treatment of Lehman had less to do with the specific financial circumstances of the firm, and more with the timing of the its collapse. In fact, Professor Ball finds that “in lending to Bear Stearns and AIG, the Fed took on more risk than it would have if it rescued Lehman.” Around the time Lehman Brothers reached out for assistance, Paulson “had been stung by criticism of the Bear Stearns rescue and the government takeovers of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” If Lehman had failed before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or AIG, then maybe the firm would have received the loans it needed to survive.
The failure of Lehman Brothers’ was not without consequence. In discussion, Professor Ball cited a recent NYT article about his work, specifically mentioning his agreement with its assertion that the Fed’s allowance of the failure of the Lehman Brothers worsened the Great Recession, contributed to public disillusionment with the government’s involvement in the financial sector, and potentially led to the rise of “Trumpism” today.