Drexel Burnham Lambert was the investment bank most responsible for the boom in private equity during the 1980s due to its leadership in the issuance of high-yield debt. The firm was first rocked by scandal on May 12, 1986, when Dennis Levine, a Drexel managing director and investment banker, was charged with insider trading. Levine pleaded guilty to four felonies, and implicated one of his recent partners, arbitrageur Ivan Boesky. Largely based on information Boesky promised to provide about his dealings with Michael Milken, the Securities and Exchange Commission initiated an investigation of Drexel on November 17. Two days later, Rudy Giuliani, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, launched his own investigation.
For two years, Drexel steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the criminal and SEC cases were based almost entirely on the statements of an admitted felon looking to reduce his sentence. However, it was not enough to keep the SEC from suing Drexel in September 1988 for insider trading, stock manipulation, defrauding its clients and stock parking (buying stocks for the benefit of another). All of the transactions involved Milken and his department. Giuliani began seriously considering indicting Drexel under the powerful Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), under the doctrine that companies are responsible for an employee's crimes.
The threat of a RICO indictment, which would have required the firm to put up a performance bond of as much as $1 billion in lieu of having its assets frozen, unnerved many at Drexel. Most of Drexel's capital was borrowed money, as is common with most investment banks and it is difficult to receive credit for firms under a RICO indictment. Drexel's CEO, Fred Joseph said that he had been told that if Drexel were indicted under RICO, it would only survive a month at most.
With literally minutes to go before being indicted, Drexel reached an agreement with the government in which it pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to six felonies – three counts of stock parking and three counts of stock manipulation. It also agreed to pay a fine of $650 million – at the time, the largest fine ever levied under securities laws. Milken left the firm after his own indictment in March 1989. Effectively, Drexel was now a convicted felon.
In April 1989, Drexel settled with the SEC, agreeing to stricter safeguards on its oversight procedures. Later that month, the firm eliminated 5,000 jobs by shuttering three departments – including the retail brokerage operation.
Meanwhile, the high-yield debt markets had begun to shut down in 1989, a slowdown that accelerated into 1990. On February 13, 1990 after being advised by United States Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas F. Brady, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Federal Reserve System, Drexel Burnham Lambert officially filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
In the 1980s, the boom in private equity transactions, specifically leveraged buyouts, was driven by the availability of financing, particularly high-yield debt, also known as "junk bonds". The collapse of the high yield market in 1989 and 1990 would signal the end of the LBO boom. At that time, many market observers were pronouncing the junk bond market “finished.” This collapse would be due largely to three factors:
The collapse of Drexel Burnham Lambert, the foremost underwriter of junk bonds (discussed above).
The dramatic increase in default rates among junk bond issuing companies. The historical default rate for high yield bonds from 1978 to 1988 was approximately 2.2% of total issuance. In 1989, defaults increased dramatically to 4.3% of the then $190 billion market and an additional 2.6% of issuance defaulted in the first half of 1990.