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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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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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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Bailout in chaos, feds seize WaMu

September 26, 2008

Fri Sep 26, 2008 3:07am EDT

By Tom Ferraro and Richard Cowan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WaMu is largest U.S. bank failure

September 25, 2008

Thu Sep 25, 2008 11:24pm EDT

By Elinor Comlay and Jonathan Stempel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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