Government unveils bold plan to rescue Citigroup

November 24, 2008

Monday November 24, 1:51 am ET
By Jeannine Aversa, AP Economics Writer

Government unveils plan to rescue Citigroup, including taking $20 billion stake in the firm

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government unveiled a bold plan Sunday to rescue troubled Citigroup (C), including taking a $20 billion stake in the firm as well as guaranteeing hundreds of billions of dollars in risky assets.

The action, announced jointly by the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is aimed at shoring up a huge financial institution whose collapse would wreak havoc on the already crippled financial system and the U.S. economy.

The sweeping plan is geared to stemming a crisis of confidence in the company, whose stock has been hammered in the past week on worries about its financial health.

“With these transactions, the U.S. government is taking the actions necessary to strengthen the financial system and protect U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. economy,” the three agencies said in a statement issued late Sunday night. “We will continue to use all of our resources to preserve the strength of our banking institutions, and promote the process of repair and recovery and to manage risks.”

The move is the latest in a string of high-profile government bailout efforts. The Fed in March provided financial backing to JPMorgan Chase’s (JPM) buyout of ailing Bear Stearns (BSC). Six months later, the government was forced to take over mortgage giants Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) and throw a financial lifeline — which was recently rejiggered — to insurer American International Group (AIG).

Critics worry the actions could put billions of taxpayers’ dollars in jeopardy and encourage financial companies to take excessive risk on the belief that the government will bail them out of their messes.

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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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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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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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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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