Why Is Lehman Brothers Suing Georgetown from Beyond the Grave?

April 9, 2015

The ghost of Lehman Brothers is still haunting colleges and universities around the country, continuing to extract money from institutions even though the financial firm itself is long dead.

When Lehman Brothers Holdings declared bankruptcy in 2008, it was the fourth-largest investment bank in the United States. The giant’s collapse was felt in all corners of the global economy, but at least that collapse was thought to be a thing of the past. Now, it turns out that Lehman Brothers lingers on as a bankruptcy group trying to collect debts from the schools it already fleeced in 2008.

In St. Louis, the haunting is public: Lehman is suing St. Louis University because it doesn’t feel the school paid a fair market value (equivalent to the termination fee at a given time) on some interest rate swap derivatives in 2008.

Let’s look at that transaction: the school paid about $25 million in early termination fees on its interest rate swaps.* SLU didn’t necessarily want to bail out of these swaps, even though they were costing the school millions; it had to terminate them because Lehman Brothers, the counter-party to the deals, was going belly up. But in a lawsuit filed in December 2014, Lehman alleges that SLU’s termination payments were short of market value and that Lehman is in fact owed another $17.5 million on these swaps.

Let’s say that again: These swaps triggered in 2008 because of the Lehman bankruptcy. The school had to pay a termination fee because the firm that owned the swaps had effectively ceased to exist. And now that firm is suing the school because it wasn’t adequately compensated for its own failure.

Here’s where the story (and related research by the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network) gets really interesting: The ghost of Lehman isn’t just in St. Louis. Looking at the financial records of Georgetown University, there appears to be a similar story playing out in private but with even larger stakes.

Georgetown’s financials from 1998 onward are rife with big bond projects, but for now let’s focus specifically on auction rate security (ARS) bonds. These are economic devices where the interest rate paid on the bond is regularly reset through a public auction. The theory was that these auctions would allow the market to drive the interest rates to the lowest possible bidder each period; some even reset every week. These bonds were being marketed (sometimes by Lehman Brothers) as a highly liquid way to get some safe cash.

We’ve since learned that nothing could be further from the truth, as the rate markets for ARS bonds locked up in 2008 and borrowers like Georgetown were stuck paying double-digit interest rates. These bonds were more than simply investments that didn’t pan out; banks that sold the ARS bonds were also propping up the market by bidding on the rates in their own auctions, which created a false impression for buyers that the market was stable. These were bad deals made worse by illegal activity, and universities and municipalities across the country were suckered into them. When the banks eventually stopped keeping the market afloat, most such auctions failed, and the ARS market has been largely frozen since.

Although Georgetown is now almost entirely out of the ARS market and has brought down its variable-rate debt, getting rid of these increasingly expensive ARS bonds appears to have cost the schools millions in fees and even more in borrowing to pay off that debt.  Some of those bonds were underwritten by Lehman; some by other investment banks.

None of this even begins to capture the costs of the swaps, which is where this story started. The ARS bonds were cheap but had highly volatile interest rates. To mitigate these risky fluctuations, Georgetown bought interest rate swaps with Lehman Brothers. But like SLU, Georgetown did not realize it had made a deal with a potentially catastrophic downside. As the economy went into a tailspin in 2008, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to the bone and has kept them low since; money became available for next to nothing in an attempt to keep banks from freezing up completely. This also served to drive the fair value of interest rate swaps through the roof. The worse the economy got, the more the fair market value of Georgetown’s debt hedges grew. A final insult: As the ARS rates locked up ever higher, the floating index rates that the swaps were indexed to went down, so Georgetown was losing money on every part of every deal.

And finally, finally, Lehman Brothers, which had sold swaps to so many different colleges and universities around the country, went out of business, which resulted in Georgetown having to pay Lehman more than $53 million to terminate the seven swaps it had on May 12, 2009—again, swaps that were meant to hedge against the risky ARS bonds that were also, in some cases, sold by Lehman.

Fast forward to 2012, and a lawsuit from Lehman Brothers appears on Georgetown’s financial documents. This lawsuit is only mentioned in the financial statements and has not yet gone public, so we cannot say with certainty that the story is the same as in St. Louis. However, it appears as if the disparity between the “fair market value” calculation of what the swaps were worth in 2008 and the eventual payment Georgetown made to Lehman is about the same as in the SLU case.

For those keeping score at home, this means that Georgetown was hemorrhaging money to Lehman Brothers in at least four different ways:

  1. ARS bonds marketed by Lehman cost the university $6 million in interest rates and $8.34 million in debt restructuring costs.
  2. Approximately $77.8 million in payments on the seven interest rate swaps terminated in May 2009.
  3. More than $53.4 million in swap termination fees.
  4. Though still unconfirmed, all signs point to a lawsuit from Lehman to recoup what it claims are underpayments on the “market rate” of its swaps.

The full cost is probably even higher, as these calculations do not account for the fees Georgetown paid each time it got into a bond deal, nor for other deals that Lehman did not underwrite. Still, the bill is already north of $140 million, and we’ve only been looking at publicly available records.

It certainly seems as though Georgetown was hard done by in this case, and we plan to continue our research until we can present a full tally of how much Georgetown has lost and is continuing to lose to Wall Street.

Why does this matter? After all, Georgetown is a stable institution—not like Sweet Briar or liberal arts schools, where losses in the hundreds of millions could mean the difference between solvency and closing their doors. Neither is this a public institution, where public tax dollars are being funneled into Lehman’s grave. But even a storied private institution like Georgetown is feeling the pinch of millions of dollars being extracted, and that pinch is being passed on to students.

Tuition and fees will increase 4 percent at Georgetown next year, contributing to a nearly 40 percent increase since 2006 that shows no signs of slowing down. While there are many factors in the rapid rise of education costs borne by America’s students, including the “amenities arms race” and administrative bloat, the massive debt private colleges like Georgetown have accrued and the unbelievably expensive financial engineering that has come with it deserve a lion’s share of the blame. Lehman Brothers, having already managed to scrape more than $140 million from Georgetown’s coffers, is audacious in asking for more from beyond the grave. We must be equally audacious in demanding that Wall Street pay some part of the bill it’s left students since 2008.

Is your college or nonprofit involved in an ongoing lawsuit with Lehman Brothers? Let us know!

*Interest rate swaps are a type of derivative that allows an institution to lock in a loan at a fixed rate by “swapping” its existing variable-rate loan with a bank, an idea that becomes particularly toxic when the market crashes and interest rates plummet like they did post-2008. It’s the equivalent of taking out a mortgage at 5 percent a year and then finding out the next day that mortgages are now available at 1 percent. But, unlike mortgages, swaps cannot be refinanced or even “paid off” at will. To do so, one must pay an expensive termination fee equal to the total amount the bank expects to make over the entire life of the swap. It was a lose/lose proposition for the school once its bet that interest rates would stay high didn’t work out.

Thanks to Carrie Sloan and Alexandros Taliadoros for their contributions to this post.