The case against Lehman Brothers

Steve Kroft investigates the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which triggered a chain reaction that produced the worst financial crisis and economic downturn in 70 years.

(CBS News) It's hard to overstate the enormity of the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. It was the largest bankruptcy in history; 26,000 employees lost their jobs; millions of investors lost all or almost all of their money; and it triggered a chain reaction that produced the worst financial crisis and economic downturn in 70 years.

Yet four years later, no one at Lehman has been held responsible. Steve Kroft investigates the collapse of Lehman Brothers: what the SEC did and didn't know about the firm's finances, the role of a top accounting firm, and why no one at Lehman has been called to account.


The following script is from "The Case Against Lehman" which originally aired April 22, 2012, and was rebroadcast on August 19,2012. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. James Jacoby and Michael Karzis, producers.

On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank in the world, declared bankruptcy -- sparking chaos in the financial markets and nearly bringing down the global economy. It was the largest bankruptcy in history -- larger than General Motors, Washington Mutual, Enron, and Worldcom combined. The federal bankruptcy court appointed Anton Valukas, a prominent Chicago lawyer and former United States attorney to conduct an investigation to determine what happened.

Included in the nine-volume, 2,200-page report was the finding that there was enough evidence for a prosecutor to bring a case against top Lehman officials and one of the nation's top accounting firms for misleading government regulators and investors. That was two years ago and there have been no prosecutions. Anton Valukas had never given an interview about his report until we broadcast this story in April of this year.

Steve Kroft: This is the largest bankruptcy in the world. What were the effects?

Anton Valukas: The effects were the financial disaster that we are living our way through right now.

Steve Kroft: And who got hurt?

Anton Valukas: Everybody got hurt. The entire economy has suffered from the fall of Lehman Brothers.

Steve Kroft: So the whole world?

Anton Valukas: Yes, the whole world.

When Lehman Brothers collapsed, 26,000 employees lost their jobs and millions of investors lost all or almost all of their money, triggering a chain reaction that produced the worst financial crisis and economic downturn in 70 years. Anton Valukas' job was to provide the bankruptcy court with accurate, reliable information that the judges could use to resolve the claims of creditors picking over Lehman's corpse.

Steve Kroft: Had you ever done anything like this before?

Anton Valukas: I've never done anything like Lehman Brothers. I don't think anybody else has ever done anything like Lehman Brothers.

Steve Kroft: So your job, I mean, in some ways, your job was to assess blame?

Anton Valukas: Our job is to determine what actually happened, put the cards face up on the table, and let everybody see what the facts truly are.

Valukas' team spent a year and a half interviewing hundreds of former employees, and pouring over 34 million documents. They told of how Lehman bought up huge amounts of real estate that it couldn't unload when the market went south -- how it had borrowed $44 for every one it had in the bank to finance the deals -- and how Lehman executives manipulated balance sheets and financial reports when investors began losing confidence and competitors closed in.

Steve Kroft: Did these quarterly reports represent to investors a fair, accurate picture of the company's financial condition?

Anton Valukas: In our opinion, they did not.

Steve Kroft: And isn't that against the law?


UPDATE: A statement from Ernst and Young: Lehman's bankruptcy occurred in the midst of a global financial crisis triggered by dramatic increases in mortgage defaults, associated losses in mortgage and real estate portfolios, and a severe tightening of liquidity.

We firmly believe that our work met all applicable professional standards, applying the rules that existed at the time. Lehman's demise was caused by the global financial crisis that impacted the entire financial sector, not by accounting or financial reporting issues.

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