Dow closes above 10,000 for 1st time in a year

October 14, 2009

DJ comeback: Stock market’s best-known barometer closes above 10,000 for 1st time in a year

By Sara Lepro and Tim Paradis, AP Business Writers
5:08 pm EDT, Wednesday October 14, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) — When the Dow Jones industrial average first passed 10,000, traders tossed commemorative caps and uncorked champagne. This time around, the feeling was more like relief.

The best-known barometer of the stock market entered five-figure territory again Wednesday, the most visible sign yet that investors believe the economy is clawing its way back from the worst downturn since the Depression.

The milestone caps a stunning 53 percent comeback for the Dow since early March, when stocks were at their lowest levels in more than a decade.

“It’s almost like an announcement that the bear market is over,” said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co. (JEF) in Boston. “That is an eye-opener — ‘Hey, you know what, things must be getting better because the Dow is over 10,000.'”

Cheers went up briefly when the Dow eclipsed the milestone in the early afternoon, during a daylong rally driven by encouraging earnings reports from Intel Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) The average closed at 10,015.86, up 144.80 points.

It was the first time the Dow had touched 10,000 since October 2008, that time on the way down.

“I think there were times when we were in the deep part of the trough there back in the springtime when it felt like we’d never get back to this level,” said Bernie McSherry, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Cuttone & Co.

Ethan Harris, head of North America economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC), described it as a “relief rally that the world is not coming to an end.”

The mood was far from the euphoria of March 1999, when the Dow surpassed 10,000 for the first time. The Internet then was driving extraordinary gains in productivity, and serious people debated whether there was such a thing as a boom without end.

“If this is a bubble,” The Wall Street Journal marveled on its front page, “it sure is hard to pop.”

It did pop, of course. And then came the lost decade.

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Bailed-out bankers to get options windfall: study

September 2, 2009

Wed Sep 2, 2009 11:14am EDT
By Steve Eder

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As shares of bailed-out banks bottomed out earlier this year, stock options were awarded to their top executives, setting them up for millions of dollars in profit as prices rebounded, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The top five executives at 10 financial institutions that took some of the biggest taxpayer bailouts have seen a combined increase in the value of their stock options of nearly $90 million, the report by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies said.

“Not only are these executives not hurting very much from the crisis, but they might get big windfalls because of the surge in the value of some of their shares,” said Sarah Anderson, lead author of the report, “America’s Bailout Barons,” the 16th in an annual series on executive excess.

The report — which highlights executive compensation at such firms as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Morgan Stanley (MS), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (C) — comes at a time when Wall Street is facing criticism for failing to scale back outsized bonuses after borrowing billions from taxpayers amid last year’s financial crisis. Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley have paid back the money they borrowed, but Bank of America and Citigroup are still in the U.S. Treasury’s program.

It’s also the latest in a string of studies showing that despite tough talk by politicians, little has been done by regulators to rein in the bonus culture that many believe contributed to the near-collapse of the financial sector.

The report includes eight pages of legislative proposals to address executive pay, but concludes that officials have “not moved forward into law or regulation any measure that would actually deflate the executive pay bubble that has expanded so hugely over the last three decades.”

“We see these little flurries of activities in Congress, where it looked like it was going to happen,” Anderson said. “Then they would just peter out.”

The report found that while executives continued to rake in tens of millions of dollars in compensation, 160,000 employees were laid off at the top 20 financial industry firms that received bailouts.

The CEOs of those 20 companies were paid, on average, 85 times more than the regulators who direct the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, according to the report.

(Reporting by Steve Eder; editing by John Wallace)


Investors dump brokers to go it alone online

July 24, 2009

Fri Jul 24, 2009 12:31pm EDT

By Rachel Chang

NEW YORK, July 24 (Reuters) – The collapse of Lehman Brothers (LEH) last September marked the start of a downward spiral for big investment banks. For a smaller fraternity of Internet brokerages, it has set off a dramatic spurt of growth.

Since the start of the financial crisis, $32.2 billion has flowed into the two largest online outfits, TD Ameritrade Holding Corp (AMTD) and Charles Schwab Corp (SCHW), company records show.

By contrast, investors have pulled more than $100 billion from traditional full-service brokerages like Citigroup Inc’s Smith Barney (C) and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BAC).

Of course, Americans still keep more of their wealth with established brokerages. According to research firm Gartner, 43 percent of individual investors were with full-service brokers last year, compared with 24 percent with online outfits.

And while figures for 2009 are not yet available, the flow of investors in the past 10 months has clearly been in the direction of the online brokerages, according to analysts both at Gartner and research consultancy Celent.

Joining the exodus is Ben Mallah, who says he lost $3 million in a Smith Barney account in St. Petersburg, Florida, as the markets crashed last year.

“I will never again trust anyone who is commission-driven to manage my portfolio,” said Mallah. “If they’re not making money off you, they have no use for you.”

This trend, a product of both the financial crisis and the emergence of a new generation of tech-savvy, cost-conscious young investors, is positioning online outfits as increasingly important in the wealth management field.

The numbers reflect a loss of faith in professional money managers as small investors dress their wounds from the hammering they took over the last year, the Internet brokerages say.

“There has been an awakening,” said Don Montanaro, chief executive of TradeKing, which reported a post-Lehman spike in new accounts of 121 percent. Investors now realize they alone are responsible for their money, he said.

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Private rescue of CIT marks shift in crisis

July 21, 2009

Denied federal bailout, CIT taps $3B private rescue; may be strategy for other troubled banks

By Daniel Wagner and Stevenson Jacobs, AP Business Writers
Tuesday July 21, 2009, 12:44 am EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — With bondholders coming to the rescue of troubled commercial lender CIT Group Inc. (CIT), and not the government, a new reality is setting in for investors.

With federal bailouts drying up and the economy still in distress, many more financial firms could face bankruptcy. When they do, it will be major private lenders that will have to decide whether to rescue the companies or allow them to fail.

It signals a return to the traditional path for financially troubled firms after nearly a year of government aid.

“It wasn’t clear that Treasury wanted this to be a turning point, but that’s the way it’s worked out,” said Simon Johnson, a former chief economist with the International Monetary Fund, now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Johnson said the markets took so kindly to CIT’s quest for private-sector cash that the government “would feel pretty comfortable about” threatening bankruptcy for firms with less than $100 billion in assets.

Bondholders’ $3 billion rescue of CIT marks the first time since the banking crisis erupted that private investors have stepped in to save a big financial firm without federal help or oversight.

The lifeline for CIT, whose clients include Dunkin’ Donuts franchises and clothing maker Eddie Bauer, aims to sustain the company long enough for it to rework its heavy debt load, which includes $7.4 billion due in the first quarter of next year. It does not guarantee CIT will avoid bankruptcy.

CIT said late Monday that the rescue includes a $3 billion secured term loan with a 2.5-year maturity, which will ensure that its small and midsized business customers continue to have access to credit. Term loan proceeds of $2 billion are committed and available immediately, with an additional $1 billion expected to be committed and available within 10 days.

The short-term financing comes at a high price — an interest rate of about 10.5 percent, said a person close to the negotiations who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

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U.S. clears 10 big banks to repay bailout funds

June 9, 2009

Tue Jun 9, 2009 6:09pm EDT
By Glenn Somerville

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – JPMorgan (JPM), Goldman Sachs (GS) and eight other top U.S. banks won clearance on Tuesday to repay $68 billion in taxpayer money given to them during the credit crisis, a step that may help them escape government curbs on executive pay.

Many banks had chafed at restrictions on pay that accompanied the capital injections. The U.S. Treasury Department’s announcement that some will be permitted to repay funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, begins to separate the stronger banks from weaker ones as the financial sector heals.

Treasury didn’t name the banks, but all quickly stepped forward to say they were cleared to return money the government had pumped into them to try to ensure the banking system was well capitalized

Stock prices gained initially after the Treasury announcement but later shed most of the gains on concern the money could be better used for lending to boost the economy rather than paying it back to Treasury.

“If they were more concerned about the public, they would keep the cash and start loaning out money,” said Carl Birkelbach, chairman and chief executive of Birkelbach Investment Securities in Chicago.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told reporters the repayments were an encouraging sign of financial repair but said the United States and other key Group of Eight economies had to stay focused on instituting measures to boost recovery.

MUST KEEP LENDING

Earlier this year U.S. regulators put the 19 largest U.S. banks through “stress tests” to determine how much capital they might need to withstand a worsening recession. Ten of those banks were told to raise more capital, and regulators waited for their plans to do so before approving any bailout repayments.

As a condition of being allowed to repay, banks had to show they could raise money on their own from the private sector both by selling stock and by issuing debt without the help of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp guarantees. The Federal Reserve also had to agree that their capital levels were adequate to support continued lending.

American Express Co (AXP), Bank of New York Mellon Corp (BK), BB&T Corp (BBT), Capital One Financial Corp (COF), Goldman Sachs Group Inc, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Morgan Stanley (MS), Northern Trust Corp (NTRS), State Street Corp (STT) and U.S. Bancorp (USB) all said they had won approval to repay the bailout funds.

In contrast, neither Bank of America Corp (BAC) or Citigroup Inc (C), which each took $45 billion from the government, received a green light to pay back bailout money.

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Countrywide’s Mozilo charged with fraud

June 4, 2009

Thu Jun 4, 2009 7:41pm EDT

By Gina Keating and Rachelle Younglai

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Angelo Mozilo, who built the largest U.S. mortgage lender, was charged with securities fraud and insider trading on Thursday, making him the most prominent defendant so far in investigations into the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis and housing bust.

Mozilo, 70, co-founder of Countrywide Financial Corp (CFC), was accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission with making more than $139 million in profits in 2006 and 2007 from exercising 5.1 million stock options and selling the underlying shares.

The sales were under four prearranged stock trading plans Mozilo prepared during the time period, the SEC said.

The accusations were made in a civil lawsuit filed by the SEC in Los Angeles on Thursday.

The SEC said that in one instance, the day before he set up a stock trading plan on September 25, 2006, Mozilo sent an email to two Countrywide executives that said: “We are flying blind on how these loans will perform in a stressed environment of higher unemployment, reduced values and slowing home sales.”

Those executives, then Countrywide President David Sambol, 49, and Chief Financial Officer Eric Sieracki, 52, were charged by the SEC with knowingly writing “riskier and riskier” subprime loans that they had a limited ability to sell on the secondary mortgage market.

The SEC said that all three executives failed to tell investors how dependent Countrywide had become on its ability to sell subprime mortgages on the secondary market. All three were accused of hiding from investors the risks they took to win market share.

At one stage, Countrywide was writing almost 1 in 6 of American mortgages. The lawsuit said that by September 2006, Countrywide estimated that it had a 15.7 percent share of the market, up from 11.4 percent at the end of 2003.

“While Countrywide boasted to investors that its market share was increasing, company executives did not disclose that its market share increase came at the expense of prudent underwriting guidelines,” the lawsuit said

Bank of America Corp (BAC) bought Countrywide last July 1 for $2.5 billion, less than a tenth of what it had been worth in early 2007.

“TWO COMPANIES”, EARLY WARNING SIGNS

“This is a tale of two companies,” the SEC’s director of enforcement, Robert Khuzami, told reporters. “One that investors from the outside saw. It was allegedly characterized by prudent business practices and tightly controlled risk.”

“But the real Countrywide, which could only be seen from the inside, was one buckling under the weight of deteriorating mortgages, lax underwriting, and an increasingly suspect business model,” Khuzami said.

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U.S. distressed debt best performer in 2009: report

June 2, 2009

Tuesday June 2, 2009, 1:19 pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. distressed debt, among the hardest hit asset classes last year, has become the best, with returns of 39.5 percent year to date as risk appetite improves, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said.

For the month of May, distressed debt was second only to emerging market equities after returning 25.4 percent, Bank of America Merrill said in a research note late on Monday.

Distressed issuers are those whose bond spreads trade at or above 1,000 basis points over comparable Treasuries.

Distressed issuers drove 95 percent of the strong performance of the U S. high-yield corporate bond market in May as a resurgence of new debt sales improved sentiment, the report said.

“Some deeply distressed issuers were able to access new issue markets and enjoyed significant improvements in pricing of their existing bonds as a result,” said Oleg Melentyev, lead author of the report.

Companies including Ford Motor Co’s (F) finance arm, Harrah’s Entertainment and MGM Mirage (MGM) sold more than $23 billion in junk bonds in May, the most since the credit crisis started in mid-2007, according to Thomson Reuters data.

The high-yield cash market outperformed high-yield derivatives by 2 percentage points in May, the report said. The main index of high-yield credit default swaps returned 5.1 percent while Merrill Lynch’s high-yield Master II index returned 7.1 percent.

The junk bond market has retraced all of the losses it sustained in the financial meltdown late last year, Melentyev said.

(Reporting by Tom Ryan; Additional reporting by Dena Aubin; Editing by James Dalgleish)


Stress test results lift cloud of uncertainty

May 8, 2009

Results show 10 big banks need $75 billion in new capital; hope rises for economy’s recovery

Daniel Wagner and Jeannine Aversa, AP Business Writers
Friday May 8, 2009, 1:09 am EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Government exams of the biggest U.S. banks have helped lift a cloud of uncertainty that has hung over the economy.

The so-called stress tests — a key Obama administration effort to boost confidence in the financial system — showed nine of the 19 biggest banks have enough capital to withstand a deeper recession. Ten must raise a total of $75 billion in new capital to withstand possible future losses.

“The publication of the stress tests simply cleared the air of uncertainty,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics. “The results were not scary at all.”

He said it will take a long time for the banks to resume normal lending. But the test results didn’t alter his prediction that economy is headed for a recovery in October or November.

A key indicator of economic health will be released Friday morning, when the government announces how many more jobs were lost in April and how high the unemployment rate rose.

The stress tests have been criticized as a confidence-building exercise whose relatively rosy outcome was inevitable. But the information, which leaked out all week, was enough to cheer investors. They pushed bank stocks higher Wednesday, and rallied again in after-hours trading late Thursday once the results had been released.

Among the 10 banks that need to raise more capital, Bank of America Corp. (BAC) needs by far the most — $33.9 billion. Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) needs $13.7 billion, GMAC LLC $11.5 billion, Citigroup Inc. (C) $5.5 billion and Morgan Stanley (MS) $1.8 billion.

The five other firms found to need more of a capital cushion are all regional banks — Regions Financial Corp. (RF) of Birmingham, Alabama; SunTrust Banks Inc. (STI) of Atlanta; KeyCorp (KEY) of Cleveland; Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB) of Cincinnati; and PNC Financial Services Group Inc. (PNC) of Pittsburgh.

The banks will have until June 8 to develop a plan and have it approved by their regulators. If they can’t raise the money on their own, the government said it’s prepared to dip further into its bailout fund.

The stress tests are a big part of the Obama administration’s plan to fortify the financial system. As home prices fell and foreclosures increased, banks took huge hits on mortgages and mortgage-related securities they were holding.

The government hopes the stress tests will restore investors’ confidence that not all banks are weak, and that even those that are can be strengthened. They have said none of the banks will be allowed to fail.

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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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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)


Treasury, Fed continue extensive bailout efforts

November 24, 2008

Monday November 24, 2:33 pm ET
By Christopher S. Rugaber, AP Business Writer

Nothing a few more billion can’t cure: Treasury, Fed take more steps to fight meltdown

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government’s latest effort to address the financial crisis is a $20 billion investment in banking giant Citigroup Inc. (C), along with an agreement to guarantee hundreds of billions of dollars in possible losses.

The step, announced late Sunday, is the latest in a long list of government moves to counter the financial meltdown:

–March 11: The Federal Reserve announces a rescue package to provide up to $200 billion in loans to banks and investment houses and let them put up risky mortgage-backed securities as collateral.

–March 16: The Fed provides a $29 billion loan to JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) as part of its purchase of investment bank Bear Stearns (BSC).

–May 2: The Fed increases the size of its loans to banks and lets them put up less-secure collateral.

–July 11: Federal regulators seize Pasadena, Calif.-based IndyMac (IMB), costing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. billions to compensate deposit-holders.

–July 30: President Bush signs a housing bill including $300 billion in new loan authority for the government to back cheaper mortgages for troubled homeowners.

–Sept. 7: The Treasury takes over mortgage giants Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE), putting them into a conservatorship and pledging up to $200 billion to back their assets.

–Sept. 16: The Fed injects $85 billion into the failing American International Group (AIG), one of the world’s largest insurance companies.

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Bailout becomes buy-in as feds move into banking

October 14, 2008

Tuesday October 14, 9:43 pm ET
By Jeannine Aversa, AP Economics Writer

Government moves into banking — to the tune of $250 billion — as the bailout becomes a buy-in

WASHINGTON (AP) — Big banks started falling in line Tuesday behind a rejiggered bailout plan that will have the government forking over as much as $250 billion in exchange for partial ownership — putting the world’s bastion of capitalism and free markets squarely in the banking business.

Some early signs were hopeful for the latest in a flurry of radical efforts to save the nation’s financial system: Credit was a bit easier to come by. And stocks were down but not alarmingly so after Monday’s stratospheric leap.

The new plan, President Bush declared, is “not intended to take over the free market but to preserve it.”

It’s all about cash and confidence and convincing banks to lend money more freely again. Those are all critical ingredients to getting financial markets to function more normally and reviving the economy.

The big question: Will it work?

There was a mix of hope and skepticism on that front. Unprecedented steps recently taken — including hefty interest rate reductions by the Federal Reserve and other major central banks in a coordinated assault just last week — have failed to break through the credit clog and the panicky mind-set gripping investors on Wall Street and around the globe.

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Europe puts more than US on the line for banks

October 13, 2008

Monday October 13, 4:48 pm ET
By Angela Charlton and Emma Vandore, Associated Press Writers

Europe puts $2.3 trillion, far more than US, on the line for banks and stocks soar

PARIS (AP) — Europe put $2.3 trillion on the line Monday to protect the continent’s banks, a figure that dwarfs the Bush administration’s $700 billion rescue program, in its most unified response yet to the global financial crisis after a stumbling start.

The pledges by Britain and the six countries that use the euro helped soothe stock markets, along with a promise by top central banks to provide unlimited short term dollar credits.

The action by Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Britain came after weeks in which the governments often acted at cross purposes and sniped at each other — a piecemeal approach that failed to stop steep and frightening slides on financial markets.

“The time of each one for itself is fortunately over,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said, following a Cabinet meeting that approved France’s spending in the framework of the plan.

“United Europe has pledged more than the United States,” added Sarkozy, who has taken a lead in getting the cooperation.

The pledged money will not go into a collective pot. Instead, governments were deciding individually how much to commit to supporting their own banks under broad guidelines agreed at a summit Sunday. The sums are considered a maximum, and might not all be spent if the financial crisis eases.

About $341 billion of the European pledges was earmarked to be spent on recapitalizing banks by buying stakes.

The pledges put a price tag on the package agreed to Sunday by the 15 countries that use the euro. They agreed to individually guarantee bank refinancing until the end of next year, rescue important failing banks through emergency cash injections, and take other swift measures to encourage banks to lend to each other again.

Stock markets rebounded Monday after the European decision and other weekend efforts to find solutions to the financial crisis, which has crushed major banks in both the U.S. and Europe and battered stock exchanges worldwide.

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The Next Meltdown: Credit-Card Debt

October 9, 2008

Rising rates are accelerating credit-card defaults and soured debt could further undermine the financial system

by Jessica Silver-Greenberg

The troubles sound familiar. Borrowers falling behind on their payments. Defaults rising. Huge swaths of loans souring. Investors getting burned. But forget the now-familiar tales of mortgages gone bad. The next horror for beaten-down financial firms is the $950 billion worth of outstanding credit-card debt—much of it toxic.

That’s bad news for players like JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC) that have largely sidestepped—and even benefited from—the mortgage mess but have major credit-card operations. They’re hardly alone. The consumer debt bomb is already beginning to spray shrapnel throughout the financial markets, further weakening the U.S. economy. “The next meltdown will be in credit cards,” says Gregory Larkin, senior analyst at research firm Innovest Strategic Value Advisors. Adds William Black, senior vice-president of Moody’s Investors Service’s structured finance team: “We still haven’t hit the post-recessionary peaks [in credit-card losses], so things will get worse before they get better.” What’s more, the U.S. Treasury Dept.’s $700 billion mortgage bailout won’t be a lifeline for credit-card issuers.

The big firms say they’re prepared for the storm. Early last year JPMorgan started reaching out to troubled borrowers, setting up payment programs and making other adjustments to accounts. “We have seen higher credit-card losses,” acknowledges JPMorgan spokeswoman Tanya M. Madison. “We are concerned about [it] but believe we are taking the right steps to help our customers and manage our risk.”

But some banks and credit-card companies may be exacerbating their problems. To boost profits and get ahead of coming regulation, they’re hiking interest rates. But that’s making it harder for consumers to keep up. That’ll only make tomorrow’s pain worse. Innovest estimates that credit-card issuers will take a $41 billion hit from rotten debt this year and a $96 billion blow in 2009.

Those losses, in turn, will wend their way through the $365 billion market for securities backed by credit-card debt. As with mortgages, banks bundle groups of so-called credit-card receivables, essentially consumers’ outstanding balances, and sell them to big investors such as hedge funds and pension funds. Big issuers offload roughly 70% of their credit-card debt.

But it’s getting harder for banks to find buyers for that debt. Interest rates have been rising on credit-card securities, a sign that investor appetite is waning. To help entice buyers, credit-card companies are having to put up more money as collateral, a guarantee in case something goes wrong with the securities. Mortgage lenders, in sharp contrast, typically aren’t asked to do this—at least not yet. With consumers so shaky, now isn’t a good time to put more skin in the game. “Costs will go up for issuers,” warns Dennis Moroney of the consultancy Tower Group.

Sure, the credit-card market is just a fraction of the $11.9 trillion mortgage market. But sometimes the losses can be more painful. That’s because most credit-card debt is unsecured, meaning consumers don’t have to make down payments when opening up their accounts. If they stop making monthly payments and the account goes bad, there are no underlying assets for credit-card companies to recoup. With mortgages, in contrast, some banks are protected both by down payments and by the ability to recover at least some of the money by selling the property.

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Wells Fargo agrees to buy Wachovia, Citi objects

October 3, 2008

Friday October 3, 6:19 pm ET
By Sara Lepro, AP Business Writer

Wells Fargo agrees to acquire Wachovia for $14.8 billion; Citigroup demands Wachovia nix deal

NEW YORK (AP) — A battle broke out Friday for control of Wachovia (WB), as Wells Fargo (WFC) agreed to pay $14.8 billion for the struggling bank, while Citigroup (C) and federal regulators insisted that Citi’s earlier and lower-priced takeover offer go forward.

The surprise announcement that Wachovia Corp. agreed to be acquired by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. in the all-stock deal — without government assistance — upended what had appeared to be a carefully examined arrangement and caught regulators off guard.

Wells’ original offer totaled about $15.1 billion, but since the value of its shares closed down 60 cents Friday, the deal is now valued at about $14.8 billion.

Only four days earlier, Citigroup Inc. agreed to pay $2.1 billion for Wachovia’s banking operations in a deal that would have the help of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The head of the FDIC said the agency is standing behind the Citigroup agreement, but that it is reviewing all proposals and will work with the banks’ regulators “to pursue a resolution that serves the public interest.”

Citigroup, which demanded that Wachovia call off its deal with Wells Fargo, said its agreement with Wachovia provides that the bank will not enter into any transaction with any party other than Citi or negotiate with anyone else.

Barring legal action, the future of Wachovia will be determined by the bank’s shareholders and regulators, which both have to approve a final deal.

It was clear which they preferred Friday, as Wachovia shares climbed as high as 80 percent.

The FDIC is talking out of both sides of its mouth, said Roger Cominsky, partner in law firm Hiscock & Barclay’s financial institutions and lending practice. The agency says it stands behind the deal with Citigroup because it hasn’t been nixed yet, he said. “But at the same time, they are saying they are reviewing all proposals.”

By law, he said the FDIC is required to find the least-costly resolution for taxpayers. The Wells Fargo deal would not rely on any assistance from the government.

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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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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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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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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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Citi, Merrill returning billions to investors, paying fine in deals over auction securities

August 7, 2008

Thursday August 7, 8:05 pm ET
By Marcy Gordon, AP Business Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Citigroup Inc. will buy back more than $7 billion in auction-rate securities and pay $100 million in fines as part of settlements with federal and state regulators, who said the bank marketed the investments as safe despite liquidity risks.

Citigroup will buy back the securities from tens of thousands of investors nationwide under separate accords announced Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and other state regulators. The buybacks from nearly 40,000 individual investors, small businesses and charities are not expected to cause significant losses for Citigroup; they must be completed by November.

Similar steps to buy back auction rate securities from customers are expected to be taken by other financial institutions. Bank of America Corp. revealed that it has received subpoenas and requests for information about its sale of the investments. Merrill Lynch & Co. said it will offer to buy back an estimated $12 billion in auction rate securities, though the company has already been actively reducing that amount.

Citi, the nation’s largest financial institution, said also will pay $50 million each in civil penalties to New York state and the North American Securities Administrators Association, which represents securities regulators in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The SEC also will consider levying a fine on Citigroup, the agency’s enforcement director Linda Thomsen, said at a news conference.

New York-based Citigroup agreed to reimburse investors who sold their auction-rate securities at a loss after the market for them collapsed in mid-February. Also under the SEC accord, Citigroup agreed to make its best efforts to liquidate by the end of next year all of the roughly $12 billion of auction-rate securities it sold to retirement plans and other institutional investors. Cuomo said his office will monitor that effort for three months and then decide on a timeframe.

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Wall Street’s credit crisis heads into second year

June 18, 2008

Wednesday June 18, 3:59 pm ET
By Joe Bel Bruno, AP Business Writer

More credit losses seen costing global banks $1 trillion as credit crisis hits second year

NEW YORK (AP) — There are new signs that the worst of the global credit crisis is yet to come, and that banks and brokerages caught up in the market turmoil may lose $1 trillion by the time it has passed.

Major U.S. investment banks this week announced yet another painful quarter amid the implosion of mortgage-backed securities and risky credit investments. Regional banks have scrambled to secure fresh capital to stay in business, and by Wednesday there was new talk that embattled investment bank Lehman Brothers might be forced into a sale.

With each passing quarter, Wall Street’s top bankers have indicated that the worst of the market turmoil was over — only to face more pain months later. The uncertainty has caused already battered investors to lose confidence in financial companies, and expectations have increased that more layoffs, asset sales and capital raising will be needed in the weeks ahead.

“We thought this was going to be the kitchen-sink quarter, and we’re finding out that CEOs and CFOs still don’t have a handle on the credit crisis,” said William Rutherford, a former state treasurer of Oregon who now runs Rutherford Investment Management. “We haven’t disinterred all the dead bodies. What else is out there?”

The deepening credit crisis could cost the global financial system some $945 billion by the time it is over, according to a report from the International Monetary Fund. So far, banks and brokerages have written down nearly $300 billion from bad bets on mortgage-backed securities and other risky investments.

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