5-Year Anniversary: The Epic Collapse of Bear Stearns

A two-dollar bill taped over Bear Stearns' logo at its Madison Avenue headquarters just about said it all. On March 16, 2008, after a profound loss of confidence by Bear Stearns' lenders, circumstances -- and the federal government -- pushed the venerable investment bank into the arms of JPMorgan Chase  (NYSE: JPM  ) for a mere $2 per share.

Though the deal was later recut to $10 per share, it was cold comfort to employees and major Bear investors. The week prior, shares changed hands at $70. In January 2007, the stock had fetched more than $170.

Ask why Bear fell, and perhaps the best answer is the easiest: leverage. At the end of the last quarter before its fire-sale, the bank was levered at nearly 34-to-1. At that nosebleed level, a mere 3% drop in the value of its assets was all it would take to wipe out its entire equity base. 

In essence, Bear was betting the house on its traders, bankers, and managers being right... all the time... or else.

But while some versions of the pre-crisis Wall Street narrative suggest that banks -- and investment banks in particular -- got risky in the period just preceding the crisis, this penchant for balance-sheet risk-taking wasn't new at Bear. Look back over the decade preceding its collapse: Bear almost continually kept an end-of-year leverage ratio approaching, or above, 30. And at many Wall Street firms, the end-of-period leverage ratio is considerably lower than what they're running around with mid-quarter.

A Dangerous Addiction to Leverage | Create infographics.

It'd also be a mistake to say this was an infection of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though many -- including past Bear leadership -- point fingers at former CEO Jimmy Cayne, Bear was a swashbuckling outfit. The bank was full of high-octane financiers making a name for Bear by taking on trades and business lines that competitors often wouldn't. They were voracious card players. They were gamblers.

Bear Stearns had a long and successful history. But in many ways, it was a powder keg of risk, just waiting for the right crisis to blow the entire edifice to bits.

The leverage ratio, of course, no more tells the whole story of Bear's collapse than the Battle of Yorktown tells the whole story of the Revolutionary War. The nature of Bear's financing -- and that of its competitors -- played a significant role. With roughly a quarter to a third of its liabilities coming from short-term repurchase agreements, there was little guaranteed stability in the ground on which the firm stood.

The bank was likewise at the very heart of the structured-security business that suffered the most during the crisis. In 2006, $5 billion of Bear's $9 billion in total revenue came from principal trading -- nearly three-quarters of which came from fixed-income products like mortgage-backed securities, leveraged loans, and credit derivatives. Again, that wasn't a completely new development. In 1998, roughly a quarter of Bear's total revenue came from fixed-income principal trading.

There were also the personalities at Bear Stearns. A colorful crowd led by former scrap-iron salesman Jimmy Cayne, many at Bear relished the view of firm as rough-and-tumble "street fighters." While perhaps skilled traders, the leaders of Bear weren't always the best politicians -- Cayne's refusal to join the syndicate of major Wall Street firms bailing out Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 was likely not forgotten by others on The Street.

But the reason Bear Stearns' imploded -- even as close competitors Goldman Sachs  (NYSE: GS  ) and Morgan Stanley  (NYSE: MS  ) managed to navigate the storm -- can't be found in any one of these things. In the end, it was all of the above, and more. And even that caustic concoction didn't cause the collapse on its own. Those ingredients simply put Bear on the train tracks -- it took the screaming freight train of the once-in-a-generation financial panic to bring it all together into tragedy.

In the articles that follow, we take a look back at some of the specifics of Bear and its failure, as well as a look forward to the legacy that it's left and what we can learn from it.

  • How it happened: John Maxfield lays out the timeline of Bear's downfall.
  • The architect: Many blame former Bear CEO Jimmy Cayne for Bear's fate. Amanda Alix takes a closer look at the embattled financier.
  • Lessons learned: There's a lot that we can take away from what happened to Bear. Matt Koppenheffer details five potential lessons.
  • And then there was today: Matt Koppenheffer considers whether we could see a repeat of Bear Stearns today.

The bank that swallowed the Bear
In Bear's darkest hour, JPMorgan swooped in to take over the investment bank. While widely seen as a savvy deal on JPMorgan's part, does this mean JPMorgan is a buy today? To dig in, I invite you to read our premium research report on the bank. Click here now for instant access.


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