NEW YORK/KETCHUM, Idaho (Reuters) - “You don’t have a gun; that’s good.”
That was how Richard Fuld greeted a Reuters reporter who had tracked him down to his country house in a bucolic setting beside a river and amid tree-covered slopes in Ketchum, Idaho last Friday.
The man vilified for the collapse of Lehman Brothers LEHMQ.PK almost a year ago, a failure that triggered the global economic crisis, seemed burdened but not crushed by the pressure of the upcoming anniversary.
Standing on his gravelly driveway wearing a black fleece vest, dark gray shorts and sandals, Fuld indicated he was torn about speaking out in his own defense, partly because of ongoing litigation but also because he felt the world was not ready to listen.
“You know what? The anniversary’s coming up,” he said. “I’ve been pummeled, I’ve been dumped on, and it’s all going to happen again. I can handle it. You know what, let them line up.”
Fuld again emphasized his concern about what will be said and written about him in the days leading up to the September 15 anniversary of the Lehman collapse but also stressed his ability to see it through.
“They’re looking for someone to dump on right now, and that’s me,” Fuld lamented and later added: “You know what they say? ‘This too shall pass.’”
Fuld, 63, took Lehman’s reins in 1994 when it was troubled and rebuilt it into the fourth-largest U.S. investment bank, a Wall Street powerhouse whose massively profitable mortgage banking machine inspired rivals’ envy. Even Goldman Sachs (GS.N) was nervous.
But it was forced to file the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history after it choked under the weight of souring assets and lost investor confidence, and as the U.S. government and Federal Reserve failed to find a buyer and decided not to come up with a rescue package.
Fuld was then humiliated before a Congressional panel last October as stock markets spiraled downwards. He was told by one politician that he was the designated “villain” of the day and screamed at by protesters who called for him to be jailed.
Since then, he has mostly ducked the spotlight, allowing an image of greed, arrogance and failure to cling unchallenged to his name.
In Ketchum on Friday, Fuld said he wanted to speak but didn’t see the point. “Nobody wants to hear it. The facts are out there. Nobody wants to hear it, especially not from me.”
The former CEO, who embraced the “gorilla” nickname that characterized his fierce and intimidating business style, looked and sounded sad as he lingered with the surprise visitor outside the house, which is beside a river in the Rocky Mountains.
Fuld, who said he had hiked up a nearby mountain earlier in the day, declined to speak about his current work.
But friends and acquaintances say he has started his own consulting firm named Matrix Advisors LLC, based out of an office on Third Avenue in New York. He is also doing some work for restructuring firm Alvarez and Marsal, helping to unwind Lehman free of charge, according to sources.
He commutes from his Greenwich, Connecticut estate into Manhattan about three to four times a week, and has been seen at breakfasts and lunches with former colleagues at top-class restaurants in New York and Greenwich.
“He’s keeping a low profile but doing a lot of power-lunches,” a top executive at a big investment bank said. “He’s keeping in touch with friends on Wall Street.”
But behind those power lunches is a man clearly worried about being slammed all over again.
He used to insist on facing the restaurant door; lately, he’s been seen facing the wall.
“He got such negative press — they made him out to be this devil,” said one past associate. “So I think he’s embarrassed to be seen in public, afraid someone is going to throw a pie in his face.”
The former CEO has been named in nearly 40 different legal actions since Lehman went bankrupt, most of which were filed by cities and pension funds that claim he and other Lehman executives led them into making bad investments.
More than a dozen suits were filed by former employees of the firm who claim that Lehman’s executives allowed imprudent investments in the firm’s stock for employee savings plans.
Fuld is also one of a dozen Lehman executives subpoenaed for three different grand jury probes charged with investigating Lehman’s collapse. He declined to comment on the state of those investigations.
Fuld was far from immune to the financial impact of the collapse. He is estimated to have lost more than $1 billion as Lehman’s shares sank, and in the months following the bankruptcy, Fuld and his wife, Kathy, began selling luxurious property and expensive art.
The Fulds own at least four properties — an estate in Greenwich; a mansion on Jupiter Island, Florida; a home in Middlebury; Vermont and the house in Ketchum.
They sold their apartment on New York’s Park Avenue for $25.87 million in August, having bought it for $21 million in January 2007 and done a multimillion dollar renovation.
A source close to the couple said Kathy, who was often seen shopping at places like Hermes, buying items such as bags and shawls that cost a few thousand dollars each, has not been seen at such stores in the past few months.
“It could be that they’re pulling back the spending or it could be that she doesn’t want to be seen spending, so she could be having someone else do the shopping for her,” the person said.
Kathy, who sits on the board of trustees for the Museum of Modern Art and is known for her love of drawings, has sold at least 16 drawings by artists such as Arshile Gorky and Barnett Newman for around $13.5 million.
“I know it’s been hard. From what I saw he was a wonderful father and a great husband,” said Paul Assaiante, who through the years played squash with Richard Fuld and tennis with Kathy.
But they haven’t played a single squash game since Lehman’s demise, said Assaiante, who coaches teams at Trinity College.
Over the same period, Fuld, who has two daughters and a son, has dropped off the boards of the Robin Hood Foundation, which supports New York City anti-poverty groups; the Partnership for NYC, an economic development network; and the Blind Brook Country Club in Purchase, New York.
Meanwhile, he has not been chartering private jets for his trips to Idaho — instead flying Delta Air, according to residents of Ketchum, a little town also known for residents such as actor Tom Hanks, and the place where Ernest Hemingway is buried.
Indeed, Fuld flew back to New York early Saturday morning on a Delta flight. He had connected through a SkyWest flight from Hailey, Idaho, to Salt Lake City, Utah that was also taken by the Reuters reporter.
On the twin turbo-prop jet, he was reading David Wessel’s book, “In Fed We Trust,” which looks at the Federal Reserve’s role in the financial crisis, and could be seen underlining various passages.
The book examines, among other things, why the U.S. authorities did not rescue Lehman while being prepared to bailout floundering insurance giant AIG.
When asked about his views of the key figures in that decision, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, he said the reporter should read that book and “go back to my testimony” before lawmakers.
Fuld had told the Congressional panel that he would wonder “until they put me in the ground” why the U.S. government did not rescue his firm, as it helped others.
In the testimony, he blamed a series of developments for Lehman’s downfall, including abusive short selling, false rumors, credit agency downgrades and loss of confidence by clients and counterparties.
Almost to a person, Lehman employees said in interviews they were still devastated by the demise of the 158-year-old firm. They were stunned, and now they are bitter, about a federal government that arranged shotgun weddings for Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, propped up AIG and bailed out Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley (MS.N) — but let Lehman die.
“They should never have let us go bankrupt. It was just a big, huge mistake,” said one executive who worked closely with Fuld.
While Fuld has his defenders, Lawrence McDonald, a former Lehman vice president of distressed debt and convertible securities trading, who wrote a book about the Lehman collapse — “A Colossal Failure of Common Sense” — called him arrogant and irresponsible.
“Fuld has a bunker mentality. He blamed the markets, blamed the short-sellers. The truth is, qualified people warned him several times and he wouldn’t listen,” McDonald told Reuters in an interview. McDonald said there was still “a lot of anger in the community out there” toward Fuld.
Others said that Lehman under Fuld certainly helped to create the conditions for its own demise.
“It was a series of small steps — rising leverage, retention of risky positions, delay of raising capital and reliance on ‘hot money’ for financing — that one by one took Lehman to the end of the plank,” said Brad Hintz, analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein and the CFO of Lehman in the late 1990s.
Lawrence McCarthy, who was head of distressed bond trading at Lehman and works for Rafferty Capital now, told Reuters he quit after warning, several times, that the real estate market was living on borrowed time and that Lehman was becoming too leveraged.
“Other than six or seven people, no one really knew him. It was like he was in his own world on the 31st floor,” McCarthy said of Fuld. “He was never in touch with the troops. In my four years there, he never came down to the trading floor. Not once.”
When Lehman’s risk committee said “hit the brake pedal, he was hitting the accelerator,” said McCarthy, who was quoted in McDonald’s book.
At his house in Ketchum, Fuld bristled at the perception. “What, do people think I’m an idiot, that suddenly I woke up two months before and suddenly things were a problem? No. No, the signs were there,” he said.
Speaking with the Reuters reporter the next day at the Salt Lake City airport, Fuld called McDonald’s book “absolutely slanderous,” adding: “You know, ‘Dick never left his office.’ Well, I left my office, I left my office plenty.”
“I’m not a defeatist,” he said. “I do believe at the end of the day that the good guys do win. I do believe that.”
Additional reporting by Joseph A. Giannone, Paritosh Bansal, Steve Eder, Emily Chasan; Editing by Richard Chang