Stocks tumble as bailout plan fails in House

September 29, 2008

Monday September 29, 5:05 pm ET
By Tim Paradis, AP Business Writer

Stocks plunge as financial bailout plan fails in House vote; Dow fall 777, biggest drop ever

NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street’s worst fears came to pass Monday, when the government’s financial bailout plan failed in Congress and stocks plunged precipitously — hurtling the Dow Jones Industrials (INDU) down nearly 780 points in their largest one-day point drop ever. Credit markets, whose turmoil helped feed the stock market’s angst, froze up further amid the growing belief that the country is headed into a spreading credit and economic crisis.

Stunned traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, their faces tense and mouths agape, watched on TV screens as the House voted down the plan in mid-afternoon, and as they saw stock prices tumbling on their monitors. Activity on the floor became frenetic as the “sell” orders blew in.

The Dow told the story of the market’s despair. The blue chip index, dropped by hundreds of points in a matter of moments, and by the end of the day had passed by far its previous record for a one-day drop, 684.81, set in the first trading day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The selling was so intense that just 162 stocks rose on the NYSE — and 3,073 dropped.

It takes an incredible amount of fear to set off such an intense reaction on Wall Street, and the worry now is that with the $700 billion plan fate uncertain, no one knows how the financial sector hobbled by hundreds of billions of dollars in bad mortgage bets will recover. While investors didn’t believe that the plan was a panacea, and understood that it would take months for its effects to be felt, most market watchers believed it was a start toward setting the economy right after a credit crisis that began more than a year ago and that has spread overseas.

“Clearly something needs to be done, and the market dropping 400 points in 10 minutes is telling you that,” said Chris Johnson president of Johnson Research Group. “This isn’t a market for the timid.”

The plan’s defeat came amid more reminders of how troubled the nation’s financial system is — before trading began came word that Wachovia Corp. (WB), one of the biggest banks to struggle due to rising mortgage losses, was being rescued in a buyout by Citigroup Inc (C). It followed the recent forced sale of Merrill Lynch & Co. (MER) and the failure of three other huge banking companies — Bear Stearns Cos. (BSC), Washington Mutual Inc. (WM) and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEH); all of them were felled by bad mortgage investments.

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House ignores Bush, rejects $700B bailout bill

September 29, 2008

Monday September 29, 4:07 pm ET
By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Associated Press Writer

House rejects $700B emergency bailout bill in stunning defeat ignoring warnings from Bush

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a stunning vote that shocked the capital and worldwide markets, the House on Monday defeated a $700 billion emergency rescue for the nation’s financial system, ignoring urgent warnings from President Bush and congressional leaders of both parties that the economy could nosedive without it.

Stocks plummeted on Wall Street, beginning their plunge even before the 228-205 vote to reject the bill was officially announced on the House floor. The Dow Jones Industrials sank nearly 700 points for the day.

Democratic and Republican leaders alike said they were committed to trying again, though the Democrats said GOP lawmakers needed to provide more votes. Bush huddled with his economic advisers about a next step.

In the House chamber, as a digital screen recorded a cascade of “no” votes against the bailout, Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley of New York shouted news of the falling stocks. “Six hundred points!” he yelled, jabbing his thumb downward.

Bush and a host of leading congressional figures had implored the lawmakers to pass the legislation despite howls of protest from their constituents back home. Not enough members were willing to take the political risk just five weeks before an election.

“No” votes came from both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle. More than two-thirds of Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats opposed the bill.

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US Mint suspends sale of 24-karat gold coins

September 26, 2008

Friday September 26, 2:57 pm ET
By Martin Crutsinger, AP Economics Writer

US Mint forced to suspend sales of American Buffalo 24-karat gold coins due to heavy demand

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Mint is temporarily halting sales of its popular American Buffalo 24-karat gold coins because it can’t keep up with soaring demand as investors seek the safety of gold amid economic turbulence.

Mint spokesman Michael White said Friday that the sales were being suspended because demand for the coins, which were first introduced in 2006, has exceeded supply and the Mint’s inventory of the coins has been depleted.

The Mint had to temporarily suspend sales of its American Eagle one-ounce gold coins on Aug. 15 and then later that month announced sales of the American Eagle coins would resume under an allocation program to designated dealers.

White said the Mint expected to soon start distributing available Buffalo gold coins through a similar allocation program.

Through Thursday, the day the Mint suspended sales of the American Buffalo, the Mint had sold 164,000 of the coins this year, up 54 percent from the same period a year ago.

“People are scared. Gold has become a safe haven,” said Michael Maroney, a vice president of sales at gold dealer Monex Precious Metals in Newport Beach, Calif.

Maroney said that demand for the one-ounce American Eagle coins was “through the roof.” He said Monex still had American Buffalos available Friday because the company had recently stocked up on them.

With the financial crisis gripping markets in recent weeks, investors have rushed to safe havens such as gold and Treasury securities. Demand for three-month Treasury bills last week pushed their yields down sharply to levels not seen in decades.

Investment advisers, however, caution that the volatility often seen in gold prices could make investments in this area more of a risky decision if gold prices suddenly begin to fall sharply.

As the financial crisis unfolded in the past few weeks, American Gold Exchange Inc. saw demand for coins go up about 50 percent, according to Bill Musgrave, a vice president of the Austin, Texas-based gold dealer.

The Mint introduced the American Buffalo gold coin, the country’s first 24-karat gold coin, in 2006. Congress authorized production of the coin in an effort to capture a portion of the global market for pure gold coins, competing with such coins as the Canadian Maple Leaf.


Bailout in chaos, feds seize WaMu

September 26, 2008

Fri Sep 26, 2008 3:07am EDT

By Tom Ferraro and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A rescue for the U.S. financial system unraveled on Thursday amid accusations Republican presidential candidate John McCain scuppered the deal, and Washington Mutual was closed by U.S. authorities and its assets sold in America’s biggest ever bank failure.

As negotiations over an unprecedented $700 billion bailout to restore credit markets degenerated into chaos, the largest U.S. savings and loan bank was taken over by authorities and its deposits auctioned off. U.S. stock futures fell by more than 1 percent.

The third-largest U.S. bank JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM) said it bought the deposits of Washington Mutual Inc (WM), which has seen its stock price virtually wiped out because of massive amounts of bad mortgages. The government said there would be no impact on WaMu’s depositors and customers. JPMorgan said it would be business as usual on Friday morning.

Had a bailout deal been reached in Congress, it may have helped the savings and loan, founded in Seattle in 1889. Efforts to find a suitor to buy WaMu faltered in recent days over concerns about whether the government would reach a deal to buy its toxic mortgages.

Earlier on Thursday, U.S. lawmakers had appeared close to a final agreement on the bailout, lifting world stock markets and sending the dollar higher. But things spun off course during an emergency White House meeting between Congressional leaders with U.S. President George W. Bush.

In advance of that meeting, which included the two men battling to succeed him, Democrat Barack Obama and McCain, a compromise bipartisan deal seemed imminent.

After the session, Congressional leaders said an agreement could take until the weekend or longer.

Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby bluntly told reporters, “I don’t believe we have an agreement.” He later said the deal was in “limbo.”

A group of conservative Republican lawmakers proposed an alternative mortgage insurance plan, eschewing the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout just weeks before the November 4 election as many lawmakers try to hold on to their seats.

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WaMu is largest U.S. bank failure

September 25, 2008

Thu Sep 25, 2008 11:24pm EDT

By Elinor Comlay and Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Washington Mutual Inc (WM) was closed by the U.S. government in by far the largest failure of a U.S. bank, and its banking assets were sold to JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) for $1.9 billion.

Thursday’s seizure and sale is the latest historic step in U.S. government attempts to clean up a banking industry littered with toxic mortgage debt. Negotiations over a $700 billion bailout of the entire financial system stalled in Washington on Thursday.

Washington Mutual, the largest U.S. savings and loan, has been one of the lenders hardest hit by the nation’s housing bust and credit crisis, and had already suffered from soaring mortgage losses.

Washington Mutual was shut by the federal Office of Thrift Supervision, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp was named receiver. This followed $16.7 billion of deposit outflows at the Seattle-based thrift since Sept 15, the OTS said.

“With insufficient liquidity to meet its obligations, WaMu was in an unsafe and unsound condition to transact business,” the OTS said.

Customers should expect business as usual on Friday, and all depositors are fully protected, the FDIC said.

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said the bailout happened on Thursday night because of media leaks, and to calm customers. Usually, the FDIC takes control of failed institutions on Friday nights, giving it the weekend to go through the books and enable them to reopen smoothly the following Monday.

Washington Mutual has about $307 billion of assets and $188 billion of deposits, regulators said. The largest previous U.S. banking failure was Continental Illinois National Bank & Trust, which had $40 billion of assets when it collapsed in 1984.

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New world on Wall Street

September 22, 2008

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to face more oversight from the Federal Reserve. Change provides more funding and opens door to more mergers.

By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney.com senior writer
Last Updated: September 22, 2008: 7:19 AM EDT

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — And then there were none.

Federal regulators converted Wall Street’s remaining stand-alone investment banks – Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS) – into bank holding companies Sunday night.

The move allows Goldman and Morgan to scoop up retail banks and to streamline their borrowing from the Federal Reserve. The shift also is aimed at removing them as targets of nervous investors and customers, who brought down their former rivals Bear Stearns (BSC), Lehman Brothers (LEH) and Merrill Lynch (MER) this year.

But it also puts Goldman and Morgan under the Fed’s supervision, increasing the agency’s regulatory oversight and possibly forcing them to raise additional capital. As banks, Morgan and Goldman will be forced to take less risk, which will mean fewer profits.

And it brings to a close the era of the Wall Street investment bank, a storied institution that traded stocks and bonds, advised mergers and showered lavish bonuses on its executives.

“The separation of investment banking and commercial banking has come to an end,” said Bert Ely, an independent banking consultant.

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Fed OKs Goldman, Morgan as bank holding companies

September 21, 2008

Sunday September 21, 9:53 pm ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve approved applications on Sunday from Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS) to become bank holding companies, putting them directly under the regulatory supervision of the U.S. central bank, the latest step to restore calm to chaotic financial markets.

To provide increased liquidity to the companies, the Fed agreed to lend to the firms’ broker-dealer subsidiaries on the same terms as the Fed discount window for banks and the central bank’s Primary Dealer Credit Facility lending window for investment banks.

It said it was making the same collateral deals available to the broker-dealer subsidiary of Merrill Lynch (MER).


List of government bailouts in past century

September 21, 2008

Sunday September 21, 5:18 pm ET
By The Associated Press

List of government bailouts in past century includes banks, corporations and industries

A look at some U.S. government interventions and bailouts in the past century:

1932 — The Hoover administration creates the Reconstruction Finance Corp. to facilitate economic activity by lending money in the Great Depression.

1933 — The Roosevelt administration creates the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. to buy $3 billion in bad mortgages from banks and refinance them to homeowners to stem a rise in foreclosures. The government makes a small profit.

1971 — Congress saves Lockheed Aircraft Corp., the nation’s biggest defense contractor, from bankruptcy by guaranteeing the repayment of $250 million in bank loans.

1979 — Congress and the Carter administration arrange for $1.2 billion in subsidized loans to bail out automaker Chrysler Corp., then the nation’s 10th-largest company. There ultimately was no significant cost to the government, since the loans were repaid.

1984 — Congress effectively takes over the ailing Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust, which failed with $40 billion of assets. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. injects $4.5 billion to buy bad loans.

1989 — Congress establishes the Resolution Trust Corp. to take over bad assets and make depositors whole. Resolving the S&L crisis takes six years and $125 billion in taxpayer money — roughly equal to $200 billion in today’s dollars.

1998 — The government brokers a $3.6 billion private bailout in the collapse of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund, although no government money is involved.

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Details of $700 billion financial rescue proposal

September 20, 2008

Saturday September 20, 12:26 pm ET
By The Associated Press

The Bush administration is asking Congress for $700 billion to buy up troubled mortgage-related assets from U.S. financial institutions. According to a draft obtained Saturday by The Associated Press, the proposal would:

–Give the treasury secretary broad authority to buy up to $700 billion in mortgage-related assets from any financial institution in the United States.

–Raise the $10.6 trillion statutory limit on the national debt to $11.3 trillion.

–Allow the treasury secretary to buy, hold and sell the assets in any way he sees fit. That includes the ability to go outside normal government contracting practices to hire private companies to manage them.

–Give the government power to designate financial institutions as “financial agents of the government” and require them to carry out any “reasonable duties” that entails.

–Require the government to report to congressional budget, tax-writing and financial services committees within three months of using the authority and every six months thereafter.

–Instruct the treasury secretary to consider both providing market stability and protecting taxpayers in using the bailout power.

–Expire two years after enactment.


Govt trading ban could have unintended results

September 19, 2008

Friday September 19, 5:07 pm ET
By Marcy Gordon and Stevenson Jacobs, AP Business Writers

Big SEC step to ban short-selling of financial stocks could have unintended consequences

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government’s unprecedented move Friday to ban people from betting against financial stocks might be a salve for the market’s turmoil but could also carry serious unintended consequences.

In a bid to shore up investor confidence in the face of the spiraling market crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission temporarily banned all short-selling in the shares of 799 financial companies. Short selling is a time-honored method for profiting when a stock drops.

The ban took effect immediately Friday and extends through Oct. 2. The SEC said it might extend the ban — so that it would last for as many as 30 calendar days in total — if it deems that necessary.

That window could be enough time to calm the roiling financial markets, with the Bush administration’s massive new programs to buy up Wall Street’s toxic debt possibly starting to have a salutary effect by then.

The short-selling ban is “kind of a time-out,” said John Coffee, a professor of securities law at Columbia University. “In a time of crisis, the dangers of doing too little are far greater than the dangers of doing too much.”

But on Wall Street, professional short-sellers said they were being unfairly targeted by the SEC’s prohibition. And some analysts warned of possible negative consequences, maintaining that banning short-selling could actually distort — not stabilize — edgy markets.

Indeed, hours after the new ban was announced, some of its details appeared to be a work in progress. The SEC said its staff was recommending exemptions from the ban for trades market professionals make to hedge their investments in stock options or futures.

“I don’t think it’s going to accomplish what they’re after,” said Jeff Tjornehoj, senior analyst at fund research firm Lipper Inc. Without short sellers, he said, investors will have a harder time gauging the true value of a stock.

“Most people want to be in a stock for the long run and want to see prices go up. Short sellers are useful for throwing water in their face and saying, `Oh yeah? Think about this,'” Tjornehoj said. As a result, restricting the practice could inflate the value of some stocks, opening the door for a big downward correction later.

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Hidden Credit Risks of ETFs

September 19, 2008

Friday September 19, 2:00 pm ET
By John Gabriel
Morningstar.com

Most exchange-traded products are index investments, backed by the actual portfolio of equities or bonds. Although an investor may be taking on the underlying risks of those portfolio holdings, they are not exposed to any risk from the issuer’s financial state. For example, if State Street (STT) were to go bankrupt (unlikely, even in these tumultuous times), investors in the SPDRs ETF (SPY) would be made whole by their claims on the underlying stock investments held by the unit trust.

However, not all exchange-traded products have this safety. Exchange-traded notes, or ETNs, are actually promissory notes with no claim on an underlying portfolio, so they are only as trustworthy as the debt of their backing bank. Morningstar’s director of ETF analysis, Scott Burns, recently wrote an article on ETNs and the credit risk that they face.

Besides ETNs’ inherent credit risk, some ETFs also posses a certain amount of credit risk. Some ETFs cannot invest directly in their underlying assets, relying on swaps, futures, or other derivatives to match the return on their index. These derivatives open those ETFs to counterparty risk, the risk that the institution on the other side of their trade will default, which could leave a fund with no return on its assets or even a loss. The ETFs vulnerable to counterparty risk fall into two major categories: leveraged funds and commodities funds.

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Stocks surge on report of entity for bad debt

September 18, 2008

Thursday September 18, 4:19 pm ET
By Tim Paradis, AP Business Writer

Stocks end sharply higher on report that government will create entity to hold banks’ debt

NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street rallied in a stunning late-session turnaround Thursday, shooting higher and hurtling the Dow Jones industrials up 400 points following a report that the federal government may create an entity that will take over banks’ bad debt.

A report that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is considering the formation of an entity like the Resolution Trust Corp. that was set up during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s left investors ebullient. Investors hoped a huge federal intervention could help financial institutions jettison bad mortgage debt and stop the drain on capital that has already taken down companies including Bear Stearns Cos. (BSC) and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc (LEH).

Worries about financial land mines on companies’ books have hobbled the world’s financial markets and led to the intense volatility in the markets this week.

“It’s going to take a lot of the bad debt off the balance sheets of these companies,” said Scott Fullman, director of derivatives investment strategy for WJB Capital Group in New York, commenting on the possibilities of an entity akin to the RTC. It could alleviate many of the pressures causing the credit crisis, he said, and open up the credit markets again. But Fullman noted, “the devil’s in the details.”

“Bear markets are very sensitive to news. And on a scale of 1 to 10, this one is a 13,” he said.

The report gave direction to a market that had bolted in and out of positive territory for much of the session as investors shuttled between the safety of Treasury bills and gold and the bargains posed by stocks that have been pounded lower.

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Stocks tumble after government bailout of AIG

September 17, 2008

Wednesday September 17, 5:54 pm ET
By Tim Paradis, AP Business Writer

Wall Street sinks again after Fed bails out AIG, Barclays buys Lehman businesses; Dow down 450

NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street plunged again Wednesday as anxieties about the financial system ran high after the government’s bailout of insurer American International Group Inc. (AIG) and left investors with little confidence in many banking stocks. The Dow Jones industrial average lost about 450 points, giving it a shortfall of more than 800 so far this week.

As investors fled stocks, they sought the safety of hard assets and government debt, sending gold, oil and short-term Treasurys soaring.

The market was more unnerved than comforted by news that the Federal Reserve is giving a two-year, $85 billion loan to AIG in exchange for a nearly 80 percent stake in the company, which lost billions in the risky business of insuring against bond defaults. Wall Street had feared that the conglomerate, which has extensive ties to various financial services industries around the world, would follow the investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEH) into bankruptcy. However, the ramifications of the world’s largest insurer going under likely would have far surpassed the demise of Lehman.

“People are scared to death,” said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist for PNC Wealth Management. “Who would have imagined that AIG would have gotten into this position?”

He said the anxiety gripping the markets reflects investors’ concerns that AIG wasn’t able to find a lifeline in the private sector and that Wall Street is now fretting about what other institutions could falter. Over the past year, companies including Lehman and AIG have sought to reassure investors that they weren’t in trouble, but as market conditions have worsened the market appears distrustful of any assurances.

“No one’s going to be believing anybody now because AIG said they were OK along with everybody else,” Stone said.

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The Shakeout After Lehman, Merrill, AIG…

September 17, 2008

As credit stays tight, power shifts to Bank of America, Barclays, hedge funds, and private equity—and regulators will keep a more watchful eye

by David Henry and Matthew Goldstein

Once-mighty Wall Street has turned into the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. From Bear Stearns (BSC) and Lehman Brothers (LEH) to Merrill Lynch (MER) and AIG (AIG), the punishment for years of bad decisions has been shockingly swift and brutal. As firms wobble, markets gyrate, and investors quiver, the question is: When will the pain end?

The signs aren’t encouraging. Sure, the Federal Reserve’s dramatic bailout of American International Group prevented the full-out global panic that might have unfolded with the collapse of the largest U.S. insurer. But AIG’s sudden lurch toward bankruptcy also showed how dangerously intertwined the financial system has become.

For years that interconnectedness masked enormous underlying risks, but now it’s amplifying them. As each new thread from the crazy web has unwound during the 13-month credit crisis, a fresh problem has emerged. How bad things will get from here depends on how cleanly the losing firms and toxic investments can be extricated from the rest. With each passing day the task seems to grow more difficult. By the end of the credit bust, the total losses, now $500 billion, could reach $2 trillion, according to hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. What’s likely to be left when the Great Unwind is finally complete? A smaller, humbler, highly regulated Wall Street barely recognizable from its heady past, where caution reigns and wild risk-taking is taboo.

Plenty of Skeletons

Merrill’s ties to AIG show just how difficult it might be to untangle the financial system. During the mortgage boom, Merrill churned out billions of dollars worth of dubious collateralized debt obligations, those troublesome bonds backed by pools of risky subprime mortgages. To cut down its own risk, Merrill bought insurance contracts from AIG called credit default swaps, which pay off if the mortgages blow up. Merrill holds $5 billion worth of guarantees from AIG alone. In all, AIG insures $441 billion of CDOs, including $58 billion with the subprime taint. It’s unclear which firms bought those guarantees, but AIG sold many to big European banks.

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Gold prices post biggest 1-day gain ever

September 17, 2008

Wednesday September 17, 4:31 pm ET
By Stevenson Jacobs, AP Business Writer

Gold makes biggest 1-day gain ever as investors flock to safe-haven assets

NEW YORK (AP) — Gold prices exploded Wednesday — posting the biggest one-day gain ever in dollar terms — as fears of more credit market turmoil unnerved investors and triggered a flood of safe-haven buying.

Gold for December delivery rose as much as $90.40, or 11.6 percent, to $870.90 an ounce in after-hours trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange after jumping $70 to settle at $850.50 in the regular session. That was the biggest one-day price jump ever; gold’s previous single-day record was a $64 gain on Jan. 29, 1980. In percentage terms, it was gold’s largest one-day advance since 1999.

The huge rally came after the government moved overnight to rescue troubled insurer American International Group Inc. (AIG) with an $85 million bailout loan. The Federal Reserve stepped in after AIG, teetering on collapse from losses tied to the subprime crisis and the credit crisis, failed to find adequate capital in the private sector.

The emergency measure came a day after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEH), a 158-year-old investment bank, filed for bankruptcy after failing to find a buyer.

Fearing more tightening of credit markets, investors reacted swiftly and began dumping stocks and socking money into gold, silver and other safe-haven commodities. Gold is especially attractive during times of crisis because the metal is known for holding its value.

Jon Nadler, analyst with Kitco Bullion Dealers Montreal, said buying accelerated as rumors spread across trading floors that another financial firm may be in trouble.

“The psychology right now has everyone asking, ‘Who’s next?,” Nadler said. “If another big bank falls, we could see an implosion and that has people very worried.”

A weaker dollar also boosted gold prices. A falling greenback encourages investors to shift funds into hard assets like gold and other commodities that are bought as hedges against inflation and weakness in the U.S. currency.

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Government announces $85 billion loan to save AIG

September 16, 2008

Tuesday September 16, 9:04 pm ET

Government announces $85 billion loan to rescue AIG to stave off further financial turmoil

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government has agreed to provide an $85 billion emergency loan to rescue the huge insurer AIG, The Federal Reserve said Tuesday.

The Fed said the U.S. Treasury Department was in full support of the decision.

The Fed determined that a “disorderly failure” of AIG could undermine already fragile financial markets.

The government will receive an 79.9 percent equity stake in AIG, the Fed said.


The perils of leverage

September 15, 2008

by Martin Hutchinson
September 15, 2008

The investment bank Lehman Brothers (LEH) spent last week teetering towards the sort of bankruptcy which like that of Bear Stearns (BSC), Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE), may require a “bailout” by the long-suffering US taxpayer. All four of these institutions shared a common feature: they had far too much leverage, i.e. they had borrowed far too much money to be compatible with their modest capital bases. Excessive leverage is currently a characteristic of the US economy as a whole, and we are in the process of paying the price for it.

Investment banks traditionally had a leverage limit (total assets to shareholders’ equity) of about 20 to 1. That limit was fudged to a certain extent with subordinated debt, but fudging was limited by investors’ unwillingness to buy subordinated debt of such intrinsically unstable institutions. However, while investment bank assets traditionally consisted of commercial paper, bonds and shares that trade every day and can be valued properly, they have now come to include investment real estate, private equity stakes, hedge fund positions, credit default swaps and other derivatives positions that do not even appear on the balance sheet. Thus even 20 to 1 in modern market conditions is excessive. Adding in subordinated debt, and claiming that say Lehman has an “11% capital ratio” works fine in bull markets, but not when things get tough.

Scaling that 20 to 1 up to 30 to 1, as Lehman had at its November 2007 year-end, is asking for trouble. Even if the off-balance sheet credit default swaps and other derivatives don’t lead to problems, and there are no assets parked in “vehicles” that have to be suddenly taken back on balance sheet, an institution that is 30 to 1 levered needs to see a decline of only 3.3% in the value of its assets before its capital is wiped out. Such a decline can happen frighteningly quickly – it represents only a 10% decline in the value of a third of the assets.

Lehman’s leverage is not exceptional among Wall Street investment banks. At the last quarterly balance sheet date (May or June) while Lehman’s leverage had been brought down to 23.3 times through asset sales, Morgan Stanley’s (MS) was still 30.0 times, Goldman Sachs’s (GS) 24.3 times and Merrill Lynch’s (MER) an astounding 44.1 times (or to be fair, 31.5 times at its December 2007 year-end, before new losses appeared.)

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Lehman rescue fails, BofA seen buying Merrill

September 14, 2008

Sunday September 14, 10:58 pm ET
By Joe Bel Bruno, Christopher S. Rugaber and Martin Crutsinger, AP Business Writers

As Lehman’s future dims, Fed and banks offer cash lifeline to financial system

NEW YORK (AP) — A failed plan to rescue Lehman Brothers (LEH) was followed Sunday by more seismic shocks from Wall Street, including an apparent government-brokered takeover of Merrill Lynch (MER) by the Bank of America (BAC).

A forced restructuring of the world’s largest insurance company, American International Group Inc. (AIG), also weighed heavily on global markets as the effects of the 14-month-old credit crisis intensified.

A global consortium of banks, working with government officials in New York, announced late Sunday a $70 billion pool of funds to lend to troubled financial companies. The aim, according to participants who spoke to The Associated Press, was to prevent a worldwide panic on stock and other financial exchanges.

Ten banks — Bank of America, Barclays (BCS), Citibank (C), Credit Suisse (CS), Deutsche Bank (DB), Goldman Sachs (GS), JP Morgan (JPM), Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley (MS) and UBS (UBS) — each agreed to provide $7 billion “to help enhance liquidity and mitigate the unprecedented volatility and other challenges affecting global equity and debt markets.”

The Federal Reserve also chipped in with more largesse in its emergency lending program for investment banks. The central bank announced late Sunday that it was broadening the types of collateral that financial institutions can use to obtain loans from the Fed.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the discussions had been aimed at identifying “potential market vulnerabilities in the wake of an unwinding of a major financial institution and to consider appropriate official sector and private sector responses.”

Futures pegged to the Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 300 points in electronic trading Sunday evening, pointing to a sharply lower open for the blue chip index Monday morning. Asian stock markets were also falling.

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Govt, Wall Street races to try to save Lehman

September 13, 2008

Saturday September 13, 4:57 pm ET
By Jeannine Aversa, AP Economics Writer

As financial world frets, government and brokerage leaders try to hash out Lehman rescue

WASHINGTON (AP) — The financial world held its collective breath Saturday as the U.S. government scrambled to help devise a rescue for Lehman Brothers (LEH) and restore confidence in Wall Street and the American banking system.

Deliberations resumed Saturday as top officials and executives from government and Wall Street tried to find a buyer or financing for the nation’s No. 4 investment bank and to stop the crisis of confidence spreading to other U.S. banks, brokerages, insurance companies and thrifts.

Failure could prompt skittish investors to unload shares of financial companies, a contagion that might affect stock markets at home and abroad when they reopen Monday.

Options include selling Lehman outright or unloading it piecemeal. A sale could be helped along if major financial firms would join forces to inject new money into Lehman. Government officials are opposed to using any taxpayer money to help Lehman.

An official from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Saturday’s participants included Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox. The New York Fed official asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the talks.

Citigroup Inc. (C)’s Vikram Pandit, JPMorgan Chase Co. (JPM)’s Jamie Dimon, Morgan Stanley (MS)’s John Mack, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.(GS)’s Lloyd Blankfein, and Merrill Lynch Co. (MER)’s John Thain were among the chief executives at the meeting.

Representatives for Lehman Brothers were not present during the discussions.

They gathered on the heels of an emergency session convened Friday night by Geithner — the Fed’s point person on financial crises.

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Merrill now in shorts’ sights as Lehman crumbles

September 12, 2008

Fri Sep 12, 2008 5:51pm EDT

By Elinor Comlay

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The crisis of confidence in Lehman Brothers (LEH) has led to fallout throughout the financial sector — especially for larger rival Merrill Lynch & Co Inc (MER).

The problem for Merrill is that short-sellers regard it as the next weakest investment bank after the crumbling Lehman and the crumbled Bear Stearns, which was sold at a firesale price in March.

“People are saying, ‘Who’s next on the list?'” said Matt McCormick, portfolio manager and banking analyst at Bahl & Gaynor in Cincinnati.

The result in the market was clear. Merrill Lynch shares lost about a third of their value this week, while peers Citigroup Co (C) and Morgan Stanley (MS) only lost 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

A Merrill Lynch spokesman declined to comment.

Like Lehman and Bear, Merrill has holdings of structured debt that are triggering write-downs and calling into question its overall capital position.

Merrill Lynch has been one of the hardest hit firms over the course of the year-old credit crisis, posting well over $40 billion in write-downs and credit losses and selling valuable assets to raise capital.

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Fed’s next move could be to lower rates

September 11, 2008

The central bank is likely to keep its key interest rate at 2% at its September 16 meeting but expectations are growing for a rate cut before year’s end.

By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer
Last Updated: September 10, 2008: 2:51 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — While the Federal Reserve is widely expected to once again hold a key interest rate at 2% when it meets on Tuesday, there is a growing sense that the Fed may have to cut rates by the end of the year.

If the Fed does so, it would mark a dramatic change in the central bank’s assessment of the economy. As recently as the Fed’s last meeting in August, Fed members indicated that their next move would be to hike rates at some undetermined point in the future in order to fight inflation.

The Fed typically lowers interest rates during an economic slowdown in order to stimulate more borrowing and looks to raise them when it is more concerned about inflation.

The Fed slashed its federal funds rate, an overnight bank lending rate that helps determine how much interest consumers and businesses pay on various types of loans, seven times from September of last year through April in an attempt to minimize the damage from the mortgage crisis and credit crunch.

But the Fed has left rates unchanged at its past two meetings and started to indicate that it was growing more worried about rising commodity prices, particularly oil.

However, the U.S. economy, which once seemed on the verge of a recovery in the second-half of the year, has recently shown signs of weakening further.

Inflation fears fade

The unemployment rate jumped to 6.1% in August, the highest level in nearly 5 years. Economic growth is also slowing overseas. That could cut demand for U.S. exports, which was a main driver of the economic growth in the second quarter.

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Fannie Mae, Freddie `House of Cards’ Prompts Takeover

September 10, 2008

By Dawn Kopecki

Sept. 9 (Bloomberg) — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used accounting rules that created a “house of cards” as the housing market descended into its worst slump since the Great Depression.

While the two largest mortgage-finance companies met regulatory requirements for their capital, reviews by the Treasury, the Federal Housing Finance Agency and the Federal Reserve found they probably wouldn’t weather the highest delinquency rates on record, lawmakers and regulators said.

“Once they got someone looking closely at Fannie and Freddie’s books, they realized there just wasn’t adequate capital there,” U.S. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, said after a briefing by Treasury officials. “They found out they had a house of cards.”

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and FHFA Director James Lockhart seized control of Fannie and Freddie less than a month after Lockhart, whose job is to oversee the companies, declared them “adequately capitalized” under law. The discrepancy highlights the flaws in legislation and in the regulatory oversight of Fannie and Freddie that didn’t demand they keep more assets as a cushion against losses, according to Joshua Rosner, an analyst with Graham Fisher & Co. in New York.

“Fannie and Freddie’s accounting during the housing crisis appears to have been more fantasy than reality,” said Rosner, who first highlighted problems in 2003, before the two companies were forced to restate about $11.3 billion in earnings.

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Back to the future again and it’s not pretty

September 10, 2008

This post is the latest in a series covering the correlation of S&P 500 price movement during the bear markets of 2001 and 2008.  Previously, Is it really 2001 again? highlighted a number of similarities for both indicators and chart patterns in addition to the timing and relative resistance levels observed by both markets.  This expanded on the first entry Here we are again? 2001 vs. 2008 which started the discussion by showing the two markets spending a similar amount of time above the 1400 level, meeting resistance at a similar level in the area of 1560, forming a similar double top including a final fall retest followed by an extreme decline and culminating in a spring washout setting up an early summer bounce.

The correlation remained tight as both markets failed their early summer bounce by late May in the area of the 200 day moving average and the 50% retracement level of the fall to spring decline.  The correlation weakened over the summer as the current market started a much more drastic decline from the May top than occurred in 2001.  This time the spring lows were broken by July instead of waiting for September as in 2001.  A solid bounce from the July lows this year brought the S&P 500 back to just above the March lows where resistance was encountered around the 50 day moving average in the month of August.  Suddenly the correlation has returned as the market failed in August of 2001 at the 50 day moving average also.  As the calender turned to September in 2001, volume picked up as the market went into free fall.  Of course the 9/11 attacks affected the market as the month progressed and forever after.

But this year, the month of September has not started off any better despite the Feds attempt to stop the bleeding in the credit markets by taking control of mortgage giants Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE).  High volume distribution has been the theme with the exception of some serious short covering following the announcement this past weekend (and late Friday for those in the loop).  The bad news for the Feds and everyone else is, even as impressive as the short covering rally was Friday/Monday, it still never reclaimed the 50 day moving average nor the March lows.  If the July lows at 1200 don’t hold here, a repeat of 2001 may yet be in the cards.  The S&P 500 didn’t bottom until dropping under 950 in 2001 and the final bottom in 2002 saw intraday trading under 775.  We’re not ready to say it will get that bad this time, but taking out the July lows would suggest scary days ahead.

For those brave longs an entry at the July lows around 1200 is a good place to start.  Lows for the year are regularly made in September/October.


Unraveling according to schedule

September 8, 2008

By Peter Brimelow, MarketWatch
Last update: 12:01 a.m. EDT Sept. 8, 2008

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — A Fannie-Freddie bailout fillip in financial markets? Maybe, but a megabear says it just shows the world is unraveling right on schedule.

Harry Schultz’ The International Harry Schultz Letter was posted last night right about the time the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac bailout was reported. But Schultz anticipated it, writing sarcastically:

“Flash: As we go to press, the US Government reveals plan to take over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the biggest bail-out by taxpayers in history. It also wipes out the shareholders! Sunday selected to avoid stock market action same day, just as bank closures are told after market close Friday. That tells you what shape markets are in when government and CEOs hide behind holidays.”

Schultz had earlier made his overview clear (I’m translating slightly from of his text-message style):

“Fed maneuver room approximately gone. Any $US injection big enough to avert a depression triggers runaway inflation. If not big enough: depression. US on knife-edge. Gold helps you either way.

“Which brings us to [Pimco bond king] Bill Gross. He went crazy last week, urging government to bail out everyone, to save the system. Either he is a closet socialist, a corporate fascist … or just trying to get government to bail him out of 61% of his toxic waste mortgage backed securities.”

Schultz suggests just two alternative scenarios, both equally appalling:

“If Bush bails them all out, the die would be cast for inflation unseen in the West since 1923 Germany. If no bail: Hello, 1929.”

Gee, thanks.

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US Government takes over mortgage giants

September 7, 2008

Sunday September 7, 9:51 pm ET
By Martin Crutsinger and Alan Zibel, AP Business Writers

US Government seizes control of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration’s seizure of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is potentially a $200 billion bet that it will help reverse a prolonged housing and credit crisis.

The historic move announced Sunday won support from both presidential campaigns, but private analysts worried that it may not be enough to stabilize the slumping housing market given the glut of vacant homes for sale, rising foreclosures, rising unemployment and weak consumer confidence.

Officials announced that both giant institutions were being placed in a government conservatorship, a move that could end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said allowing the companies to fail would have extracted a far higher price on consumers by driving up the cost of home loans and all other types of borrowing because the failures would “create great turmoil in our financial markets here at home and around the globe.”

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com predicted that 30-year mortgage rates, currently averaging 6.35 percent nationwide, could dip to close to 5.5 percent. That’s because investors will be more willing to buy the debt issued by Fannie and Freddie — and at lower rates — since the federal government is now explicitly standing behind that debt.

“Effectively, the federal government has now become the nation’s mortgage lender,” he said. “This takes a major financial threat off the table.”

Futures on all major stock indexes rose about 2 percent in electronic trading Sunday night, another sign of investor relief about the takeover plan

The companies, which together own or guarantee about $5 trillion in home loans, about half the nation’s total, have lost $14 billion in the last year and are likely to pile up billions more in losses until the housing market begins to recover.

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