Huge stimulus bill passes House

January 28, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a swift victory for President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled House approved a historically huge $819 billion stimulus bill Wednesday night with spending increases and tax cuts at the heart of the young administration’s plan to revive a badly ailing economy.

The vote was 244-188, with Republicans unanimous in opposition despite Obama’s frequent pleas for bipartisan support.

“This recovery plan will save or create more than three million new jobs over the next few years,” the president said in a written statement released moments after the House voted.

The vote sent the bill to the Senate, where debate could begin as early as Monday on a companion measure already taking shape. Democratic leaders have pledged to have legislation ready for Obama’s signature by mid-February.

With unemployment at its highest level in a quarter-century, the banking industry wobbling despite the infusion of staggering sums of bailout money and states struggling with budget crises, Democrats said the legislation was desperately needed.

Republicans said the bill was short on tax cuts and contained too much spending, much of it wasteful, and would fall far short of administration’s predictions of job creation.

On the final vote, the legislation drew the support of all but 11 Democrats, while all Republicans opposed it.

The White House-backed legislation includes an estimated $544 billion in federal spending and $275 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses. The totals remained in flux nearly until the final vote, due to official re-estimates and a last-minute addition of $3 billion for mass transit.

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FDIC May Run ‘Bad Bank’ in Plan to Purge Toxic Assets

January 28, 2009

By Robert Schmidt and Alison Vekshin

Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) — The Obama administration is moving closer to setting up a so-called bad bank in its effort to break the back of the credit crisis and may use the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to manage it, two people familiar with the matter said.

U.S. stocks gained, extending a global rally, on optimism the bad-bank plan will help shore up the economy. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock Index (SPX) rose 3.1 percent to 871.70 at 2:40 p.m. in New York. Bank of America Corp. (BAC), down 54 percent this year before today, rose 84 cents, or 13 percent, to $7.34. Citigroup Inc. (C), which had fallen 47 percent this year, climbed 17 percent.

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair is pushing to run the operation, which would buy the toxic assets clogging banks’ balance sheets, one of the people said. Bair is arguing that her agency has expertise and could help finance the effort by issuing bonds guaranteed by the FDIC, a second person said. President Barack Obama’s team may announce the outlines of its financial-rescue plan as early as next week, an administration official said.

“It doesn’t make sense to give the authority to anybody else but the FDIC,” said John Douglas, a former general counsel at the agency who now is a partner in Atlanta at the law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. “That’s what the FDIC does, it takes bad assets out of banks and manages and sells them.”

Bank Management

The bad-bank initiative may allow the government to rewrite some of the mortgages that underpin banks’ bad debt, in the hopes of stemming a crisis that has stripped more than 1.3 million Americans of their homes. Some lenders may be taken over by regulators and some management teams could be ousted as the government seeks to provide a shield to taxpayers.

Bank seizures are “going to happen,” Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said in an interview after a meeting between Obama and Republican lawmakers in Washington yesterday. “I know it. They know it. The banks know it.”

Laura Tyson, an adviser to Obama during his campaign, said banks need to be recapitalized “with different management” so they start lending again. “You find some new sophisticated management unlike the failed management of the past,” Tyson, a University of California, Berkeley, professor, said today at the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Still, nationalization of a swath of the banking industry is unlikely. House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank said yesterday “the government should not take over all the banks.” Bair said earlier this month she would be “very surprised if that happened.”

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FOMC statement – January 28, 2009

January 28, 2009

Release Date: January 28, 2009

For immediate release

The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee continues to anticipate that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for some time.

Information received since the Committee met in December suggests that the economy has weakened further. Industrial production, housing starts, and employment have continued to decline steeply, as consumers and businesses have cut back spending. Furthermore, global demand appears to be slowing significantly. Conditions in some financial markets have improved, in part reflecting government efforts to provide liquidity and strengthen financial institutions; nevertheless, credit conditions for households and firms remain extremely tight. The Committee anticipates that a gradual recovery in economic activity will begin later this year, but the downside risks to that outlook are significant.

In light of the declines in the prices of energy and other commodities in recent months and the prospects for considerable economic slack, the Committee expects that inflation pressures will remain subdued in coming quarters. Moreover, the Committee sees some risk that inflation could persist for a time below rates that best foster economic growth and price stability in the longer term.

The Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote the resumption of sustainable economic growth and to preserve price stability. The focus of the Committee’s policy is to support the functioning of financial markets and stimulate the economy through open market operations and other measures that are likely to keep the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet at a high level. The Federal Reserve continues to purchase large quantities of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities to provide support to the mortgage and housing markets, and it stands ready to expand the quantity of such purchases and the duration of the purchase program as conditions warrant. The Committee also is prepared to purchase longer-term Treasury securities if evolving circumstances indicate that such transactions would be particularly effective in improving conditions in private credit markets. The Federal Reserve will be implementing the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility to facilitate the extension of credit to households and small businesses. The Committee will continue to monitor carefully the size and composition of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet in light of evolving financial market developments and to assess whether expansions of or modifications to lending facilities would serve to further support credit markets and economic activity and help to preserve price stability.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Elizabeth A. Duke; Charles L. Evans; Donald L. Kohn; Dennis P. Lockhart; Kevin M. Warsh; and Janet L. Yellen.  Voting against was Jeffrey M. Lacker, who preferred to expand the monetary base at this time by purchasing U.S. Treasury securities rather than through targeted credit programs.


FDA allows first test of human stem cell therapy

January 23, 2009

Fri Jan 23, 2009 2:32pm EST
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cleared the way for the first trial to see if human embryonic stem cells can treat people safely, a company involved in the controversial research on Friday.

Geron Corp (GERN), a California biotechnology company, said it plans a clinical trial to try to use the stem cells to regrow nerve tissue in patients with crushed, but not severed, spinal cords.

The issue of human embryonic stem cell research has been a political touchstone, with anti-abortion forces backed by former president George W. Bush arguing the technique involves the destruction of human embryos. Advocates say it could transform medicine.

“For us, it marks the dawn of a new era in medical therapeutics. This approach is one that reaches beyond pills and scalpels to achieve a new level of healing,” Geron Chief Executive Dr. Thomas Okarma said in a telephone briefing.

Shares of Geron rose more than 53 percent to $8 in mid-morning trading on Nasdaq after touching $8.38.

Geron will recruit eight to 10 recently injured patients and inject them with small numbers of human embryonic stem cells manipulated to become the oligodendrocyte cells that insulate nerves, and that produce compounds to stimulate the growth of nerve cells.

Okarma said there was no political significance to the announcement coming the same week as President Barack Obama took office. Obama has been widely expected to lift restrictions on federal funding and support of human embryonic stem cell research.

An FDA spokeswoman said, “Before FDA allowed the study to proceed, Geron worked with FDA to address important scientific questions.”

CHEAP AND EASY

Okarma said the treatment should eventually become cheap and easy to mass produce because the cells can be grown in vats. He believes the cells may be useful for other diseases such as multiple sclerosis, in which nerve cells are stripped of their insulating sheaths, and perhaps strokes.

Financial analysts celebrated. Stephen Brozak and Daniel Mallin of WBB Securities LLC said it could “as important to drug therapy as the discovery of … penicillin.”

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Merrill paid bonuses early as BofA deal closed: report

January 21, 2009

Wed Jan 21, 2009 10:43pm EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Merrill Lynch (MER) paid billions of dollars of bonuses to its employees, three days before completing its life-saving sale to Bank of America Corp (BAC), the Financial Times reported on its website on Wednesday.

The money was paid as Merrill’s losses were mounting, forcing Bank of America Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis last month to seek additional government support for the deal. Merrill’s compensation committee agreed to pay bonuses on December 29, at least one month earlier than usual, the paper said.

Yet within days of that committee meeting, the FT said, BofA officials became aware Merrill’s fourth-quarter losses would be much greater than expected.

Bank of America, in a statement, told the paper, “Merrill Lynch was an independent company until Jan 1. (Merrill CEO) John Thain decided to pay year-end incentives in December as opposed to their normal date in January. BofA was informed of his decision.”

Last week, Bank of America said it would receive $20 billion in U.S. Treasury investment on top of $25 billion earmarked last fall for a combined BofA-Merrill.

Bank of America said Merrill had a $21.5 billion operating loss in the fourth quarter.

Despite the massive losses, Merrill set aside $15 billion for 2008 compensation, 6 percent lower than a year earlier.

A person familiar with the matter told the FT about $3 billion to $4 billion of that compensation were annual bonuses. The bulk is comprised by salaries and benefits.

(Reporting by Joseph A. Giannone; Editing by Anshuman Daga)


Obama Plans to Keep Estate Tax

January 13, 2009

by Jonathan Weisman
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Democrats Want to Freeze Levy at Current Levels Instead of Letting It Expire Next Year

President-elect Barack Obama and congressional leaders plan to move soon to block the estate tax from disappearing in 2010, suggesting the levy might outlive the “Death Tax Repeal” movement that has tried mightily to kill it.

The Democratic stance on the estate tax contrasts with Mr. Obama’s reluctance to press forward with his campaign pledge to raise income-tax rates on top earners, which he worries could have an adverse economic impact during a recession.

But Democrats are determined to act quickly to prevent the estate tax’s scheduled repeal. Elimination of the levy on big inheritances was approved by Congress under President George W. Bush in 2001, with rollbacks phased in slowly and its full elimination slated to take effect next year.

The Senate Finance Committee will move within weeks on legislation to reverse that law, and Mr. Obama is expected to detail his estate-tax preservation proposal in his budget next month, congressional tax writers said.

Under the Obama plan detailed during the campaign, the estate tax would be locked in permanently at the rate and exemption levels that took effect this year. That would exempt estates of $3.5 million — $7 million for couples — from any taxation. The value of estates above that would be taxed at 45%. If the tax were returned to Clinton-era levels, it would exclude $1 million from taxation with the rest taxed at 55%.

In making their case for the restoration, Democrats contend that such a large additional tax break for the rich shouldn’t go into force halfway through Mr. Obama’s proposed economic-recovery package. They argue that the deficit is already in record territory, while their plan wouldn’t have any impact on the economy since it would merely keep the estate-tax rate at its current level. Mr. Obama and his party also say that the affluent already have benefited handsomely from the Bush tax cuts.

They also reason that if they don’t act now, it will be politically harder to go ahead with their plan to resurrect the estate tax once it has disappeared.

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U.S. budget deficit seen topping $1 trillion in 2009

January 6, 2009

Tue Jan 6, 2009 6:13pm EST

By Jeremy Pelofsky and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Politicians want American consumers to resume spending to pull the economy out of its tailspin, and the U.S. government is leading by example with a potential $1 trillion deficit in 2009 — even before a massive stimulus plan.

The Congressional Budget Office is set to release its projections on Wednesday for the fiscal 2009 budget deficit and experts believe it will not just set a new record beyond the $455 billion set in 2008, but could hit $1 trillion as the economic recession saps federal revenues.

While that figure likely includes some of the impact of a $700 billion bailout package for the financial industry and U.S. automakers, it does not include any of economic stimulus measures Congress hopes to pass, which could cost another $775 billion over two years.

President-elect Barack Obama is contemplating large tax cuts to the tune of about $300 billion and potentially as much if not more in infrastructure projects and other spending to try to jolt the economy out of recession.

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said that a $1 trillion deficit was not just a possibility for 2009, but that an average of $1 trillion could be added to the national debt annually over the next decade.

“We’re on an unsustainable course,” he said in an interview with Reuters, adding that he had not yet seen the CBO figures.

“It’s obvious we have to have a recovery package,” the North Dakota Democrat noted, but Congress must also address longer-term issues, such as the costs of the Medicare health care program and Social Security retirement system.

TOUGH CHOICES AHEAD

Obama said on Tuesday he expects to inherit a deficit approaching $1 trillion and his administration would have to make tough budget choices. But economists agree now is not the time for the country to tighten its belt.

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