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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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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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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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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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).


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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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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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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Mean girls

July 15, 2008

Commentary: Pssst … rumor is truth on Wall Street
By David Weidner, MarketWatch
Last update: 12:01 a.m. EDT July 15, 2008

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — Wall Street, like a girl in junior high school, has come home crying.

It seems the Mean Girls in the marketplace keep spreading nasty rumors, and everyone’s cell phones are alight with SMS messages. “OMG did you hear Bear Stearns can’t meet its obligations?” they whisper. “Fannie (FNM) and Freddie (FRE) r FSBO.

“B4 the credit crunch Lehman used 2b QT, but has toxic balance sheet; it could go BNKRPT b4 2MORO,” they snicker.

The Mean Girls buy a bunch of short positions and then collect when the stock tumbles. On June 10, there were 90,000 puts in the first hour of trading in the option market against Lehman shares, after a rumor was floated that Pimco had pulled its business from the investment bank. Even though Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEH) has been a big put stock in recent weeks, the puts represented two-thirds of the average daily volume for the stock.

Until Pimco shot down the rumors, it was BBB (bye-bye, baby) for LEH.

News travels pretty fast around here. Text messages, cell phones and the old face-to-face method are the shovels used to move dirt. If recent insider cases are any indication, text messages and emails remain popular even though they are recorded.

It’s been a scandalous spring, but now the Mean Girls are getting some payback. First they’ve been exposed by Bryan Burrough in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. In that article, Burrough alleges that rumors either were transmitted to or originated from hedge funds SAC Capital Management, Citadel Investment Group and traders at Goldman Sachs Group (GS) . He suggests that Bear Stearns may have been ruined by rumors, a tactic that some call a “Bear raid.”

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Lehman Brothers removes finance, operating chiefs

June 12, 2008

Thursday June 12, 5:03 pm ET

By Joe Bel Bruno, AP Business Writer

Lehman Brothers shakes up top management as firm takes nearly $3 billion quarterly loss

NEW YORK (AP) — The hope at Lehman Brothers is that a management shakeup Thursday will contain the damage of a stunning quarterly loss — yet some on Wall Street fear this is one more step toward a more dramatic outcome for the embattled investment bank.

The ouster of Chief Financial Officer Erin Callan and Chief Operating Officer Joseph Gregory was an attempt to quell investor anger that Lehman’s leadership has failed them. But, with a four-day stock plunge that wiped $4.5 billion from the investment bank’s market value, it was unclear if the upheaval will be enough to satisfy critics.

“These people deserve to be fired,” said Dick Bove, an analyst with Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co. “Their mistakes cost their shareholders billions of dollars in wealth.” Lehman shares fell 4.4 percent Thursday to $22.70 and are down 30 percent this week. The decline is a blow to investors who bought into a stock offering at $28 earlier this week — including BlackRock Inc. and former AIG chief Hank Greenberg.

Richard Fuld, who took the company public in 1994, has kept a low profile in recent days by refusing interviews and commenting only through a statement about the dismissals. There is growing speculation that Fuld — the Street’s longest serving CEO — might scramble to find a major outside investor or negotiate a sale to avoid his own demise by Lehman’s board.

Names from private-equity firm Blackstone Group Inc. to global bank HSBC Holdings PLC have been bandied about as possible suitors should Fuld want to arrange a buyer, though none are commenting on the possibility. Most analysts are confident that Lehman can survive on its own without a suitor, given the underlying strength of its business.

And while Lehman might have bought itself some more time by shaking up its top ranks, the question remains how much it has left.

“I think they have a few options, but they are becoming more and more limited as the stock is pressured,” said Matthew Albrecht, financials analyst for Standard & Poor’s. “It is hard to rule anything out at this point. Confidence in the firm is the paramount issue, and if your counterparties and clients don’t have confidence then you can’t do business in this market.”

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Banks Say Auction-Rate Investors Can’t Have Money

June 6, 2008

By Darrell Preston June 6 (Bloomberg) — Franklin Biddar wants his money, and says Bank of America Corp. won’t let him have it. The 65-year-old real estate investor from Toms River, New Jersey, said he hasn’t had access to cash the bank invested for him in auction-rate preferred shares ever since the market seized up in mid-February. Even when Biddar agreed to sell $100,000 worth of the securities to Fieldstone Capital Group, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America wouldn’t release the bonds, saying the transaction wasn’t in his interest, he said.

“I can’t do anything,” said Biddar, who was so eager to unlock his money that he was willing to accept 11 percent less than what he paid for the securities. “Bank of America got me into these securities that are supposed to be as safe as a money market, and now they won’t get me out.”

Bank of America, UBS AG, Wachovia Corp. and at least four dozen other firms that sold $330 billion of securities with rates set through periodic bidding are thwarting attempts to create a secondary market that would allow investors to access their cash, according to investors. Dealers claim they are saving customers from needless losses on securities they marketed as similar to cash-like instruments.

“By allowing customers to sell at a discount, the banks allow customers to establish damages,” said Bryan Lantagne, the securities division director for Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin. Lantagne is head of a task force for nine states looking at whether brokers misrepresented the debt as an alternative to money-market investments.

Investor Lawsuits

At least 24 proposed class action suits have been filed since mid-March against brokerages over claims investors were told the securities were almost as liquid as cash.

Investors ranging from retirees to Google Inc. in Mountain View, California, have been trapped in auction-rate bonds for more than three months after dealers that ran the bidding suddenly stopped supporting the market as their losses mounted on debt linked to subprime mortgages. Before February, dealers routinely bought securities that went unsold, reassuring investors that they could get their money back on a moment’s notice.

About 99 percent of public auctions for auction-rate securities sold by student-loan agencies and closed-end funds fail, as do 48 percent of those for municipals, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. UBS, which cut the value of auction-rate securities held for its customers by 5 percent in March, said yesterday it plans to close its municipal bond business.

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Danger Ahead: Fixing Wall Street Hazardous to Earnings Growth

April 29, 2008

By Christine Harper and Yalman Onaran

April 28 (Bloomberg) — Wall Street’s money-making machine is broken, and efforts to repair it after the biggest losses in history are likely to undermine profits for years to come.

Citigroup Inc., UBS AG and Merrill Lynch & Co. are among the banks and securities firms that have posted $310 billion of writedowns and credit losses from the collapse of the subprime mortgage market. They’ve cut 48,000 jobs and ousted four chief executive officers. The top five U.S. securities firms saw $110 billion of market value evaporate in the past 12 months.

No one is sure the model works anymore. While Wall Street executives and regulators study what went wrong, there is no consensus solution for restoring confidence. Under review are some of the motors that powered record earnings this decade — leverage, off-balance-sheet investments, the business of repackaging assets into bonds through securitization, and over- the-counter trading of credit derivatives. Without them, it will be difficult to generate growth.

“Brokerages will have a tough time for a while,” said Todd McCallister, a managing director at St. Petersburg, Florida-based Eagle Asset Management Inc., which oversees $14 billion. “The main engine of its recent growth, securitization, will be curtailed. Regulation will be cranked up. Everything is stacked against them.”

Last month’s collapse and emergency sale of Bear Stearns Cos., the fifth-largest of the New York-based securities firms, demonstrated the perils of Wall Street business practices developed after the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. The change allowed investment banks and depository institutions to compete with each other.

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Is Wall Street ‘Full of Bull’?

April 24, 2008

A well-respected analyst for 32 years, Stephen McClellan describes how analysts’ advice is biased and misleading for individual investors

by Ben Steverman

Stephen McClellan is biting the hand that fed him for 32 years.

A top-ranked analyst at Salomon Brothers and Merrill Lynch (MER), McClellan was one of the first to cover the booming computer industry. In addition to being well-respected, he was one of the longest-serving equity analysts on Wall Street, with a career stretching from 1971 to 2003.

Now, the retired 65-year-old number cruncher is saying what he really thinks about Wall Street. In his new book, Full of Bull: Do What Wall Street Does, Not What It Says, to Make Money in the Market (FT Press, 2007, $22.99), McClellan, admits that price targets are “fiction,” and buy/sell/hold ratings aren’t taken seriously by professional investors. Analysts spend perhaps only 20% of their time on research and the rest on marketing and other tasks, he says. They create sophisticated computer programs to track a company’s earnings, revenue, and cash flow in close detail. But the results are “not accurate at all,” he says. In fact, analysts often miss big trends and have a terrible record as stockpickers.

Stiff Penalties
Research isn’t written for retail investors, but for institutions. Those institutions, including mutual funds and hedge funds, have far too much influence over an analyst’s research, McClellan says. Companies and executives are also too good at manipulating analysts.

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Level 3 Decimation?

October 29, 2007

Level 3 Decimation?

October 29, 2007

Martin Hutchinson is the author of “Great Conservatives” (Academica Press, 2005) — details can be found on the Web site http://www.greatconservatives.com

There’s a mystery on Wall Street. Merrill Lynch last week wrote off $8.4 billion in its subprime mortgage business, a figure revised up from $4.9 billion, yet Goldman Sachs reported an excellent quarter and didn’t feel the need for any write-offs. The real secret of the difference is likely to be in the details of their accounting, and in particular in the murky world, shortly to be revealed, of their “Level 3” asset portfolios.

Both Merrill and Goldman have Harvard chairmen – Merrill’s Stan O’Neal from Harvard Business School and Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Thus it’s pretty unlikely their approaches to business are significantly different – or is a Harvard MBA really worth minus $8.4 billion compared with a law degree? (The special case of George W. Bush may be disregarded in answering that question!)

We may be about to find out. From November 15, we will have a new tool for figuring out how much toxic waste is in investment banks’ balance sheets. The new accounting rule SFAS157 requires banks to divide their tradable assets into three “levels” according to how easy it is to get a market price for them. Level 1 assets have quoted prices in active markets. At the other extreme Level 3 assets have only unobservable inputs to measure value and are thus valued by reference to the banks’ own models.

Goldman Sachs has disclosed its Level 3 assets, two quarters before it would be compelled to do so in the period ending February 29, 2008. Their total was $72 billion, which at first sight looks reasonable because it is only 8% of total assets. However the problem becomes more serious when you realize that $72 billion is twice Goldman’s capital of $36 billion. In an extreme situation therefore, Goldman’s entire existence rests on the value of its Level 3 assets.

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