In 2003 and 2004, with the U.S. housing boom (read, bubble) well under way, Lehman acquired five mortgage lenders, including subprime lender BNC Mortgage and Aurora Loan Services, which specialized in Alt-A loans (made to borrowers without full documentation). Lehman's acquisitions at first seemed prescient; record revenues from Lehman's real estate businesses enabled revenues in the capital markets unit to surge 56% from 2004 to 2006, a faster rate of growth than other businesses in investment banking or asset management. The firm securitized $146 billion of mortgages in 2006, a 10% increase from 2005. Lehman reported record profits every year from 2005 to 2007. In 2007, the firm reported net income of a record $4.2 billion on revenue of $19.3 billion. (Check out the answer to our frequently asked question What is a subprime mortgage? to learn more about these loans.)
Lehman's Colossal Miscalculation
In February 2007, the stock reached a record $86.18, giving Lehman a market capitalization of close to $60 billion. However, by the first quarter of 2007, cracks in the U.S. housing market were already becoming apparent as defaults on subprime mortgages rose to a seven-year high. On March 14, 2007, a day after the stock had its biggest one-day drop in five years on concerns that rising defaults would affect Lehman's profitability, the firm reported record revenues and profit for its fiscal first quarter. In the post-earnings conference call, Lehman's chief financial officer (CFO) said that the risks posed by rising home delinquencies were well contained and would have little impact on the firm's earnings. He also said that he did not foresee problems in the subprime market spreading to the rest of the housing market or hurting the U.S. economy.
The Beginning of the End
As the credit crisis erupted in August 2007 with the failure of two Bear Stearns hedge funds, Lehman's stock fell sharply. During that month, the company eliminated 2,500 mortgage-related jobs and shut down its BNC unit. In addition, it also closed offices of Alt-A lender Aurora in three states. Even as the correction in the U.S. housing market gained momentum, Lehman continued to be a major player in the mortgage market. In 2007, Lehman underwrote more mortgage-backed securities than any other firm, accumulating an $85-billion portfolio, or four times its shareholders' equity. In the fourth quarter of 2007, Lehman's stock rebounded, as global equity markets reached new highs and prices for fixed-income assets staged a temporary rebound. However, the firm did not take the opportunity to trim its massive mortgage portfolio, which in retrospect, would turn out to be its last chance.