What happened to Lehman Brothers? The Lehman Brothers Failure Explained

On September 15, 2008, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings following an exodus of clients, share price depreciation, and devaluation of assets. With $613 billion in debt, it was the largest such filing in United States history and is generally accepted to have precipitated the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Founding and GrowthLehman Brothers, founded in 1850, was a prominent financial services firm and investment bank. The firm played a pivotal role in financing major infrastructure projects and corporations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its initial focus was on commodities trading and helping businesses secure capital for expansion. Over the decades, Lehman Brothers expanded significantly and diversified its operations, becoming one of the largest and most respected investment banks in the United States and globally. The firm’s reputation for innovation, sound financial practices, and prudent risk management made it a key player on Wall Street.
Expansion and DiversificationLehman Brothers’ expansion and diversification efforts allowed it to thrive in various economic environments. The firm moved beyond its initial focus on commodities and began offering a wide range of financial services, including underwriting securities, investment banking, and asset management. During the late 20th century, Lehman Brothers played a significant role in financing mergers and acquisitions, and it became known for its expertise in fixed-income trading. The diversification of its operations contributed to its status as a leading global financial institution.
Subprime Mortgage InvolvementLehman Brothers’ downfall can be traced back to its heavy involvement in subprime mortgage-backed securities. In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, the firm aggressively invested in these securities, believing that the U.S. housing market was immune to a significant downturn. The subprime mortgage market collapse exposed Lehman Brothers to massive losses and a liquidity crisis. The investments in subprime-related assets significantly eroded the firm’s balance sheet and capital reserves.
Financial Crisis of 2007-2008The subprime mortgage market collapse, which began in 2007, set off a chain reaction of events that would eventually lead to Lehman Brothers’ demise. As the value of mortgage-backed securities plummeted, Lehman Brothers experienced substantial write-downs and losses. Additionally, the firm faced difficulties in rolling over its short-term debt and securing necessary funding. Confidence in Lehman Brothers waned, and its stock price plunged. Investors and creditors grew increasingly concerned about the firm’s financial health and its exposure to toxic assets.
Desperate Survival MeasuresIn a desperate attempt to survive, Lehman Brothers pursued various measures. It explored potential merger deals with other financial institutions, seeking a lifeline to bolster its capital position. Potential suitors, including Barclays and Bank of America, considered acquiring Lehman Brothers, but negotiations faltered due to concerns about the extent of the firm’s distressed assets. Additionally, Lehman Brothers sought to sell valuable assets and raise capital through asset sales.
September 2008: Bankruptcy FilingDespite these efforts, Lehman Brothers was unable to secure the necessary capital or a suitable merger partner. On September 15, 2008, the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, marking a historic moment in financial history. This bankruptcy was the largest in U.S. history at the time, dwarfing previous cases in terms of its scale and impact. Lehman Brothers’ failure sent shockwaves through global financial markets, causing severe disruptions and exacerbating the ongoing financial crisis.
Global Financial CrisisLehman Brothers’ bankruptcy triggered a full-blown global financial crisis. Financial institutions worldwide were interconnected through complex financial instruments and derivative contracts, and the bankruptcy of a major player like Lehman had dire consequences. It created a crisis of confidence, leading to a severe credit freeze and liquidity crunch. Panic spread throughout the financial system, and institutions faced difficulties in valuing their assets and accessing short-term funding.
Government Bailout of Other InstitutionsIn response to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the broader financial crisis, the U.S. government intervened to prevent further turmoil. It provided financial support to institutions such as American International Group (AIG), Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. These actions were aimed at stabilizing the financial system and preventing the collapse of other major institutions.
Assets and DebtsAt the time of its bankruptcy filing, Lehman Brothers reported approximately $639 billion in assets and $619 billion in debt. The bankruptcy proceedings involved the sale and liquidation of Lehman’s assets to repay creditors. The complexity of Lehman Brothers’ operations and the vast number of creditors made this one of the most challenging bankruptcy cases in history.
Aftermath: Regulatory ReformsLehman Brothers’ bankruptcy had a profound and lasting impact on the financial industry and regulatory landscape. It highlighted the need for stronger oversight and risk management in the financial sector. In response, the U.S. government implemented significant regulatory reforms, including the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. These reforms aimed to enhance transparency, improve risk management practices, and prevent future financial crises.
Systemic ImplicationsLehman Brothers’ collapse exposed the interconnectedness of financial institutions and the systemic risks associated with the global financial system. The shockwaves from the bankruptcy led to a severe tightening of credit markets, making it difficult for businesses and consumers to access financing. The ensuing economic downturn resulted in widespread job losses, home foreclosures, and a prolonged recession.
Public and Political BacklashThe bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent financial crisis triggered public outrage and political backlash. Many Americans were deeply affected by the crisis, and there was a widespread perception that Wall Street had been reckless and irresponsible. This sentiment fueled discussions about income inequality, corporate greed, and the role of government in regulating financial institutions.
Lessons LearnedLehman Brothers’ downfall serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive risk-taking, inadequate risk management, and overreliance on complex financial instruments. It underscored the importance of effective regulation and oversight in the financial industry. The crisis prompted a reevaluation of risk assessment practices and a renewed focus on financial stability.
Impact on Individuals and EmployeesBeyond its systemic implications, Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy had a profound impact on its employees and their livelihoods. Tens of thousands of Lehman employees lost their jobs, and many faced financial hardships as a result. The collapse of the firm had a significant human cost, and it highlighted the personal toll that financial crises can take on individuals and families.
Long-Term Effects on Financial Services IndustryThe financial services industry underwent substantial changes in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy. The crisis accelerated the consolidation of some financial institutions and led to increased scrutiny of risk management practices across the industry. It also influenced consumer behavior and attitudes toward banking and investment.
Legacy and Historical SignificanceLehman Brothers’ bankruptcy is remembered as one of the defining moments of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent “Great Recession.” The event reshaped the global financial landscape and left a lasting legacy in terms of regulatory reforms and risk management practices. It serves as a reminder of the need for vigilance in the financial sector and the potential consequences of unchecked risk-taking.

What caused Lehman Brothers collapse?

Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. was a global financial services firm founded in 1847 by brothers Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer Lehman.

Lehman Brothers was the fourth-largest investment bank in the United States. The company had interests in investment banking, research, private equity, and fixed-income sales and trading, among other things.

With the advent of “innovative financial derivatives” thanks also to the macroeconomic policy of the Federal Reserves since the 2000s, to ease economic activities, these financial instruments were brought outside the balance sheets, thus making the overall risk of the financial system much more opaque.

This led to one of the greatest crises we had in the American and global financial history.

Subprime mortgage lending

Four years before the GFC, Lehman Brothers acquired five mortgage lenders including subprime lenders BNC Mortgage and Aurora Loan Services.

These organizations specialized in Alt-A loans which were made to borrowers without full documentation.

The company continued to successfully invest in securitized mortgages in the following years with record profits.

As the housing market started to crash, however, the company’s large stake in mortgage securities made it especially vulnerable.

In February 2007, Lehman Brothers reached a market capitalization of nearly $60 billion at a time when the U.S. housing market was showing signs of further weakness.

Defaults on subprime mortgages rose to a seven-year high in March, but the company publicly stated it was unworried by the developments.

The credit crisis deepens

In August 2007, the crisis deepened with the failure of two Bear Stearns hedge funds. 

Lehman Brothers terminated 1,200 mortgage-related jobs and shut down the BNC Mortgage unit it had acquired years earlier. 

Despite the housing market correction gaining momentum, Lehman Brothers continued to be active in underwriting mortgage-back securities.

The company amassed an $85 billion portfolio and its share price rebounded as global equity markets and fixed-income asset prices recovered.

Unfortunately, this recovery was only temporary. 

Last-ditch attempts

Exposed with its large mortgage securities portfolio, market sentiment turned negative after investors feared another Bear Stearns-like collapse.

Lehman Brothers announced billion-dollar losses in mid-2008, punctuated by multiple capital raisings which boosted liquidity to an estimated $45 billion.

The company also reduced its exposure to residential and commercial mortgages by 20% and decreased gross assets by over $100 billion.

By the summer of 2008, the writing was on the wall. Lehman Brothers attempted to secure further funding from investment partners, but none was forthcoming.

The market became spooked, causing the share price to decline by 77% in the first week of September.

A further decline of 45% occurred after the Korea Development Bank walked away from taking a stake in the company.

Hedge fund clients and short-term creditors then began abandoning the company, with Lehman Brothers announcing a $3.9 billion loss in its third-quarter fiscal report.

In a last-ditch effort to reverse its fortunes, Barclays and the Bank of America tried to facilitate a takeover of Lehman Brothers.

The takeover – which was facilitated by the U.S. government – was unsuccessful and bankruptcy was declared just two days later.

Key takeaways:

  • Lehman Brothers was a global financial services firm founded in 1847. After more than 150 years in operation, the company entered into the largest bankruptcy proceedings in U.S. history.
  • Lehman Brothers’ large stake in mortgage securities made it especially vulnerable to the looming credit crisis in 2007. It made a half-hearted effort to reduce its exposure in the industry but continued to be an active player after its share price experienced a temporary rebound.
  • Market sentiment turned against Lehman Brothers as investors questioned its heavy exposure to mortgage securities. Capital raisings, investment partnerships, and takeover attempts only delayed the inevitable bankruptcy in September 2008.

Quick Timeline

  • Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., a global financial services firm, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on September 15, 2008, with $613 billion in debt, making it the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history. This event is widely regarded as a key trigger of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).
  • The company’s collapse was caused by its heavy exposure to subprime mortgage lending. Four years before the crisis, Lehman Brothers had acquired subprime lenders, making it vulnerable as the housing market crashed.
  • Despite signs of weakness in the U.S. housing market, Lehman Brothers continued to invest in mortgage-backed securities, leading to temporary record profits before the crisis deepened in 2007 with the failure of two Bear Stearns hedge funds.
  • As the crisis worsened, Lehman Brothers faced billion-dollar losses and attempted to secure further funding from investment partners, but market sentiment turned negative. Hedge fund clients and short-term creditors abandoned the company, leading to bankruptcy.
  • Last-ditch efforts by Barclays and Bank of America to facilitate a takeover were unsuccessful, and Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy just two days later. The company’s collapse had significant implications for the global financial system, triggering a severe economic downturn.

Other Failure Stories

What Happened to WeWork

WeWork is a commercial real estate company providing shared workspaces for tech start-ups and other enterprise services. It was founded by Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey in 2010. WeWork’s business model was built on complex arrangements between the company and its landlords. There were also several conflicts of interest between Neumann and WeWork, which provided the impetus for the failed IPO and significant devaluation that would follow.

What Happened to Netscape

Netscape – or Netscape Communications Corporation – was a computer services company best known for its web browser. The company was founded in 1994 by Marc Andreessen and James H. Clark as one of the internet’s first and most important start-ups. The Netscape Navigator web browser was released in 1995 and became the browser of choice for the users of the time. By November 1998, it had been acquired by AOL, which tried unsuccessfully to revive the popularity of the web browser. Ten years later, Netscape was shut down entirely.

What Happened to Musical.ly

Musically, or Musical.ly as it is officially known, was a Chinese social media platform headquartered in Shanghai. After passing 200 million users in May 2017, the platform was shut down by tech company ByteDance in November. After its acquisition, ByteDance suggested Musical.ly would continue to operate as a standalone platform. Company representatives noted that it would be able to leverage ByteDance’s AI technology and enormous reach in the Chinese market. Musically was ultimately absorbed into TikTok in June 2018, with the app no longer available in August of the same year. Existing users were offered technical support and several new features as a sweetener.

What Happened to Vine

Vine was an American video social networking platform with a focus on looping video clips of six seconds in length, founded by Dom Hofmann, Rus Yusupov, and Colin Kroll in 2012 to help people capture casual moments in their lives and share them with their friends. Vine went on to become a massively popular platform. Yet by 2016, Twitter discontinued the mobile app, allowing users to view or download content on the Vine website. It then announced a reconfigured app allowing creators to share content to a connected Twitter account only. This marked the end of Vine.

What Happened to CNN Plus

CNN Plus was a video streaming service and offshoot of CNN’s cable TV news network that was launched on March 29, 2022. The service was ultimately shut down just one month after it was launched. Trouble began for the platform when parent company WarnerMedia merged with Discovery. The latter was unimpressed with paltry viewer data and, with $55 billion in debt to clear, was not interested in funding CNN+ moving forward. Other contributing factors to CNN Plus’s demise include a lack of compelling content and streaming service market saturation.

What Happened to Clubhouse

Clubhouse is a social app that allows thousands of people to communicate with each other in audio chat rooms. At one point, the company was worth $4 billion and boasted users such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Clubhouse declined because it rode the wave of pandemic lockdowns and suffered when people resumed their normal routines. The decision to remove the invite-only feature also caused a rapid influx of new members and removed any exclusivity. Clubhouse management also failed to define a business model and was unaware of the components of a successful social media site.

What Happened to Facebook


Main Free Guides:

About The Author

Scroll to Top