Lehman: From Illiquidity to Insolvency to Bankruptcy to Liquidation
You’re likely familiar with the Lehman failure of 2008. The business model of Lehman and other investment banks relied on leverage of up to 50 to 1 (a 2% capital ratio) and its creditors’ belief that the collateral pledged for these borrowings would maintain its value.
The investment bank business model relies on the market to provide liquidity to allow the investment bank to carry billions of dollars of securities. When Lehman’s creditors began to doubt the value of the securities already pledged, they demanded more collateral.
This led to a liquidity problem; Lehman couldn’t get the cash it needed to operate. When Lehman ran out of collateral to pledge, it had a solvency problem. Bankruptcy and liquidation followed.
Understanding the Path to Illiquidity or Insolvency
An industrial business frequently relies on its bankers and other creditors to provide liquidity to operate through open accounts payable and lines of credit. That’s normal.
So long as the business cycle from purchases of raw material through production, distribution and collection remains on schedule, a business can continue to operate. If the schedule is disrupted however, a liquidity problem emerges. Now the business needs to find cash.
Working capital fixes include lengthening payment terms to vendors, offering prompt payment discounts to customers and finding external financing from a friend, a bank or a partner.
This will work until someone loses faith in the business and decides to stop participating in the extended payment terms, the prompt payment discount or the rolling over of bank debt. At this juncture, a new plan becomes critical.
What asset can the business convert to cash? What can it sell for cash now? Equipment, vehicles and real estate are all illiquid assets, but they all have value today—probably much less today than if you had six months to sell, but if you need cash now, you become a very motivated seller.
The end game starts when you discover that these illiquid assets are really illiquid.
Surviving Illiquidity or Insolvency
You can’t sell them fast enough or for enough money to save your business, for instance. If you collect all your receivables, sell all your equipment, all your real estate, all your inventory and still can’t cover your debts, you are now insolvent.
A liquidity problem can lead you to a reorganization filing in the bankruptcy court. Your business can survive a reorganization, perhaps with different owners, employees, and strategies, but insolvency will lead to liquidation.
Illiquidity can be temporary and fixed with relatively simple steps – but you must act quickly. First, identify what can be sold now, for cash.
Insolvency is more difficult; you need more capital, debt relief (forgiveness, payment holiday, etc.) or other more drastic help, and you don’t have a compelling story to attract this help.
Obviously you want to avoid both of these situations. Remember, though, you can survive illiquidity, but rarely insolvency.
What are your experiences with illiquidity and insolvency? Please ask any questions about these differences or what to do if they arise in the comments section below.