I tweeted about this yesterday, but Matt Taibbi is a little more fiery, and amusing:
It took more than two years, but there might finally be some capital sentences handed out for crimes committed during the financial crisis. That’s metaphorically speaking, of course. Like the accounting firm Arthur Anderson, whose head was sacrificed during the Enron debacle, the once-proud financial auditing firm Ernst and Young now looks poised to take a spin down the toilet of history thanks to its role in the Lehman Brothers debacle.
New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is about to file civil fraud charges against E&Y for the work it did helping Lehman cook its books during 2007 and 2008. The short version of what happened goes something like this. Lehman Brothers, like all the other big banks on Wall Street in those years, was nearing insolvency and desperate for cash. In advance of its quarterly reports in 2007, the firm executed a series of something called Repo 105 transactions in an attempt to make their balance sheet look healthier than it was.
These Repo 105 transactions are just loans that Ernst and Young and Lehman Brothers conspired to book as revenue from sales. If I go to you and I ask you to lend me a hundred bucks to pay for Knicks tickets, that’s a loan, and you and I and the SEC and every investor on Wall Street all know I’m in debt to you, that I owe you a hundred bucks.
Here’s how Lehman Brothers paid for their Knicks tickets: a week before the game, they went to you and offered to you “sell” you their worthless puke-stained lava lamp for a hundred bucks, with the understanding that two days after the Knicks game, it would come back and “buy” the lamp back for the same $100 (plus a small commission for your trouble). And when Lehman pocketed that $100 from the initial transaction, they decided to call that not borrowing but a true sale, i.e. they booked that hundred bucks as revenue from an honest sale of a worthless piece-of-shit lava lamp.
In 2007 and 2008 Lehman would do this before the end of every quarter. They would “sell” billions of dollars of assets, typically bonds, to various companies, and use that money to pay down debt before the quarter’s end, so that they didn’t look so flat-ass broke to investors. Then, a week or so after the end of the quarter, they would go out and borrow more money, and then “buy” the assets back. The reasons they did this were myriad, but in most cases the assets they were “selling” were depressed in value at the time and could not have been sold at anything like face value had they really gone out on the market and tried. So instead of really “selling” these items on their balance sheet, they worked together with other companies to jury-rig these “repurchase” agreements that looked like sales but were actually loans.
The WSJ article I linked to begins:
New York prosecutors are poised to file civil fraud charges against Ernst & Young for its alleged role in the collapse of Lehman Brothers, saying the Big Four accounting firm stood by while the investment bank misled investors about its financial health, people familiar with the matter said.
State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is close to filing the case, which would mark the first time a major accounting firm was targeted for its role in the financial crisis. The suit stems from transactions Lehman allegedly carried out to make its risk appear lower than it actually was.
Lehman Brothers was long one of Ernst & Young’s biggest clients, and the accounting firm earned approximately $100 million in fees for its auditing work from 2001 through 2008, say people familiar with the matter.
The suit, led by Mr. Cuomo, New York’s governor-elect, could come as early as this week. It is part of a broader investigation into whether some banks misled investors by removing debt from their balance sheets before they reported their financial results to mask their true levels of risk-taking, a person familiar with the case said. The state may seek to impose fines and other penalties.
The transactions in question, known as “window dressing,” involve repurchase agreements, or repos, a form of short-term borrowing that allows banks to take bigger trading risks. Some banks have systematically lowered their repo debt at the ends of fiscal quarters, making it appear they were less risk-burdened than they actually were most of the time.
Lehman Brothers dubbed transactions of this type “Repo 105.” The maneuver came to light in March, when the bankruptcy examiner investigating the firm’s collapse more than two years ago found that it moved some $50 billion in assets off its balance sheet. Lehman labeled those transactions as securities sales instead of loans, which led investors to believe the firm was financially healthier than it really was.
The bankruptcy examiner’s report and the attorney general’s investigation found that Lehman Brothers carried out the Repo 105 transactions on a quarterly basis in 2007 and 2008 without telling investors. Mr. Cuomo’s investigation found that Repo 105 transactions started as far back as 2001, said the person familiar with the probe.
(click to continue reading Ernst & Young Faces Fraud Charges – WSJ.com.)