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Lehman's Worst Gamble Ever

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Lehman Brothers (NYSE: LEH  ) CEO Dick Fuld joined the firm in 1969 and rose through the ranks as a trader. Unfortunately, his trader’s instinct has looked completely dull during the credit crisis, and he may well have lost control of the most important trade of his career. The stakes: Lehman’s independence, which he so cherishes.

Three and a half weeks ago, I wrote of Lehman: “The longer you wait to make those decisions [to right a troubled firm], the narrower your set of choices. Those hard truths are looming like a freight train in front of Lehman and there’s no getting out of its way.”

With Lehman now scrambling to find an acquirer, that train is upon it. (Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) and Barclays are possibilities, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) look unlikely.)

The time for action was now
Following Tuesday’s rout, in which Lehman shares lost 45% of their value, the firm pre-announced earnings and discussed planned actions. The trouble is that everything is still up in the air: a partial sale of the asset management division and a spin-off of troubled real estate assets ... in fiscal 2009! At this stage, the market will accept nothing other than certainty -- i.e., completed actions.

(That reminds me of the reaction of the commander of the aircraft carrier in Top Gun, when he’s told it will take 10 minutes to launch an extra plane to join a battle with Soviet aircraft: “[Expletive deleted], 10 minutes! This thing will be over in two minutes -- get on it!”)

The market is here; Dick Fuld is over there
It is reported that at least one prior suitor, Korea Development Bank, walked away from investing in Lehman because of price. That’s just one example of the Grand Canyon-size gap that existed between Fuld’s perception of Lehman’s condition and the market’s.

This may be because Fuld had almost 40 years invested in the firm, and he probably lacked the detachment of incoming CEOs Vikram Pandit and John Thain at Citibank (NYSE: C  ) and Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER  ) . (He could have taken solace from the example of Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  ) veteran John Mack.) While that perception gap may finally have narrowed, Fuld overplayed a weak hand for far too long, giving any current suitor a better buying opportunity.

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Alex Dumortier, CFA, has no beneficial interest in any of the companies mentioned in this article. JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On September 12, 2008, at 1:25 PM, weiwentg wrote:

    The question, will anyone be crazy enough to buy Lehman at any price?

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