Dot-com deja vu in the subprime mess

June 28, 2007, 5:33 PM UTC
Fortune

I shuddered when I read the Wall Street Journal‘s backward-looking but fascinating look at Lehman Brothers’ (LEH) role in the subprime mortgage debacle on Wednesday. Here’s a snippet:

Critics say Wall Street firms helped create the mess by throwing so much money at the market that lenders had a growing incentive to push through shaky loans and mislead borrowers.

It reminded me EXACTLY of what happened in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. When I got here, a decade ago this month, I met all the bankers, who told me all about their high standards. If Goldman Sachs (GS) (or insert your other bulge-bracket investment bank here) was going to take a company public, you better believe it would be a high-quality, thoroughly vetted company, they said. Then, when their lesser competitors started taking companies public that the biggies previously wouldn’t have touched, Goldman and Morgan Stanley (MS) and Deutsche Bank and yes, Lehman, jumped right into the game. Standards? Hah. There was money to be made off commissions on IPOs. Reputation? Did I mention there was money to be made?

You get that same feeling reading the Journal‘s piece on Lehman, which included, by the way, vigorous defenses by Lehman of its behavior. Fees were fat from assembling packages of subprime loans, and if the loans went bad it was going to be someone else’s problem. The fact that that someone else is the client of the investment bank doesn’t seem to have registered.