Ten years ago this Saturday, Lehman Brothers collapsed in what was, and still is, the biggest bankruptcy in history.
Among many other things, the bankruptcy left in limbo Lehman's three exchange-traded notes (ETNs): the Opta Lehman Brothers Commodity Index (LBCI) Agriculture Pure Beta Total Return Index ETN (EOH); the Opta S&P Private Equity Index Net Return ETN (PPE); and the Opta LBCI Pure Beta Total Return Index ETN (RAW).
EOH, PPE and RAW were never investor darlings. Between the three of them, they only had $13.5 million in assets under management when Lehman filed for bankruptcy.
But investors who didn't get out when they could have spent more than a decade recovering just a fraction of their money, in a process that is still ongoing. As such, Lehman's ETNs—and their investors—have ended up a cautionary tale, one that has forever changed the once-promising growth prospects of the exchange-traded note.
What Is An ETN?
Though often lumped together, ETFs and ETNs are not the same instruments. Whereas an exchange-traded fund holds a basket of securities—stocks, bonds, futures, you name it—an exchange-traded note holds nothing.
Technically, an ETN is an unsecured debt obligation—an uncollateralized loan on your part to the issuing bank. In exchange, the bank promises to track the performance of a given index, less management fees. If the bank suddenly becomes unable to meet that promise, however, investors have little recourse to get their money back.
That's exactly what happened in the case of Lehman Brothers.
Few Warning Signs Before Collapse
In February 2008, seven months before Lehman declared bankruptcy, the investment bank launched its three Opta brand ETNs.
Even from the start, the notes struggled to accrue assets: As of Sept. 12, the Friday before the bankruptcy filing, the ETNs had gathered just $13.5 million in assets. Most of that was likely seed capital.
Though rumblings of trouble had plagued Lehman for months prior to its bankruptcy filings, few of those warning signs had emerged in the trading of RAW, EOH and PPE, which had actually proceeded fairly smoothly. The three notes carried a relatively low average trading premium to net asset value (NAV) of 0.28%; the largest, RAW, had just a 0.09% trading premium over the seven months prior to its closure (source).
Not only that, Lehman Brothers boasted stellar credit ratings with all three major ratings agencies right up to its Sept. 16 bankruptcy. Though widening spreads in credit default swaps had hinted at the trouble Lehman had found itself in, many investors either ignored or were unaware of those red flags, given Lehman's continued good standing with credit agencies.
Getting Out While You Could
Prior to Lehman's demise, investors in the Opta ETNs had the usual ways of unloading their shares: All investors could sell their notes on the open market, while particularly large institutional investors could redeem their notes for indicative value, directly with Lehman brothers.
But there was a catch. Like many ETPs, a lag was built into the Opta ETN redemption process. To file a redemption request, investors had to send a notice to Lehman no later than 11 a.m. ET on the business day before the day shares would be valued. They wouldn't have received their redemption money until the third business day after that.
This meant that, if an Opta ETN investor had wanted to redeem their shares and receive their cash before Lehman declared bankruptcy on Monday, Sept. 15, they ought to have done it no later than 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 8, a full week earlier.
But because the bankruptcy took many by surprise, few investors had done so. In fact, even up to the Friday before the bankruptcy, trading in the Opta ETNs remained light, with no perceivable rush to the exits (read: "Lehman Meltdown Raises ETN Questions").
After Lehman filed Chapter 11, trading in its ETNs was suspended two days later on the NYSE and three days later on the AMEX. Investors had lost their chance to get out.
Barclays No Savior For Opta ETNs
After the bust, EOH’s, PPE’s and RAW's remaining investors joined the long list of creditors making a claim on Lehman's assets—and they joined that line at the back, along with all the other holders of unsecured debt.
When Barclays PLC (BCS) purchased some of Lehman's business, including its investment banking and capital markets divisions, there was some optimism that the firm might shoulder Lehman's ETNs, too. After all, that was what happened when JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM) purchased Bear Stearns in March; the bank had also taken on Bear's two exchange-traded products, the BearLinx Alerian MLP Select Index ETN (BSR) and the Bear Stearns Current Yield Fund (YYY) (more on those in a minute).
But in the terms of the buy-ut, Barclays—which had its own line of iPath ETNs—stated it wanted no part of Lehman's structured products, including its ETNs.
The Opta ETNs delisted Oct. 1, just over two weeks after Lehman declared bankruptcy. They were the first ETNs ever to close.