Bear Stearns: What happened to the assets?
Interfluidity still has unfinished business with Felix Salmon, but that will have to wait. Usually we take great pleasure in disagreeing with Felix, but today he makes one point that is unassailable: Bear Stearns Needs English Lessons. The firm sent out a letter to its unlucky investors that managed to communicate almost nothing. Shorter Bear Stearns (my paraphrase): “You have lost all, or nearly all, of your money. But do entrust your wealth with us in the future. Ordinarily we don’t stiff our clients quite so badly. Besides, we hired some new guy, so everything is better now.”
If I were an investor, I might wish to console myself with some of the lurid details. In particular, I’d want to know what happened to the assets I used to own. To whom were they sold, under what circumstances, at what price? Were assets liquidated in arms-length transactions, or are fund managers still holding assets but reporting losses based on estimated valuations? How were the claims of creditors settled? Did the funds repay their debts in cash? Did creditors confiscate and liquidate assets, or in some kind of workout, did creditors accept collateral in lieu of repayment?
If creditors did accept repayment-in-kind, under present circumstances that might not be an arms-length transaction. (After all, the asset managers and creditors likely have continuing relationships unrelated to the two funds, and a shared interest in avoiding perceptions of conflict or disorder in the market.) As an investor in one of the funds, I’d want to know how much debt was extinguished for each of the assets surrendered, that is, what sort of valuations were implicit in the workout, and how they were arrived at. If the assets were not in fact auctioned, perhaps creditors paid less in terms of debt forgiven than the assets were in fact worth. Perhaps Bear’s interest in putting an embarrassing incident behind it without causing turmoil in a fragile market led it to drive less-than-a-hard bargain with creditors, who were after all in an exploitably poor bargaining position. Were fund managers gentlemanly among Wall Street colleagues, or fierce on behalf of their investors? I’d want to know.
If there was any repayment-in-kind, I’d also want to know about that if I had a position in one of the banks that were lenders to the funds. Perhaps Bear did drive a hard bargain, and my bank was forced to extinguish too much debt for the privilege of owning iffy securities. Perhaps my bank decided that accepting questionable collateral as full repayment was better than forcing the bankruptcy of the funds, because no matter what, the collateral was all it could hope to get, and calling it “repayment-in-full” avoided the embarrassment and potential loss of confidence associated with having been defaulted upon. In this case, risks and potentially outright losses have been transferred from the troubled fund to my bank, which may force a write-down of bank assets in the future. I would want to know.
Does anybody know these details? Thus far, all the reportage I’ve seen conveys very little more than Bear conveyed in its letter to investors. Which is to say, practically nothing at all.