Would anyone wann bet that the big shots at Bear Stearns come out of this OK?
The current financial crisis in the US is likely to be judged in retrospect as the most wrenching since the end of the second world war. It will end eventually when home prices stabilise and with them the value of equity in homes supporting troubled mortgage securities.
For Just $2 a Share
In U.S.-Backed Deal
March 17, 2008; Page A1
Pushed to the brink of collapse by the mortgage crisis, Bear Stearns Cos. agreed -- after prodding by the federal government -- to be sold to J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. for the fire-sale price of $2 a share in stock, or about $236 million.
Bear Stearns had a stock-market value of about $3.5 billion as of Friday -- and was worth $20 billion in January 2007. But the crisis of confidence that swept the firm and fueled a customer exodus in recent days left Bear Stearns with a horrible choice: sell the firm -- at any price -- to a big bank willing to assume its trading obligations or file for bankruptcy.
"At the end of the day, what Bear Stearns was looking at was either taking $2 a share or going bust," said one person involved in the negotiations. "Those were the only options."
To help facilitate the deal, the Federal Reserve is taking the extraordinary step of providing as much as $30 billion in financing for Bear Stearns's less-liquid assets, such as mortgage securities that the firm has been unable to sell, in what is believed to be the largest Fed advance on record to a single company. Fed officials wouldn't describe the exact financing terms or assets involved. But if those assets decline in value, the Fed would bear any loss, not J.P. Morgan.
The sale of Bear Stearns and Sunday night's move by the Fed to offer loans to other securities dealers mark the latest historic turns in what has become the most pervasive financial crisis in a generation. The issue is no longer whether it will yield a recession -- that seems almost certain -- but whether the concerted efforts of Wall Street and Washington can head off a recession much deeper and more prolonged than the past two, relatively mild ones.
Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin last week described the situation as "uncharted waters," a view echoed privately by top government officials. Those officials have been scrambling to come up with new tools because the old ones aren't suited for this 21st-century crisis, in which financial innovation has rendered many institutions not "too big too fail," but "too interconnected to be allowed to fail suddenly."
Bear Stearns's sudden meltdown forced the federal government to come to grips with the potential collapse of a major Wall Street institution for the first time in a decade. In 1998, about a dozen firms, with encouragement from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, provided a $3.6 billion bailout of Long-Term Capital Management that kept the big hedge fund alive long enough to liquidate its positions. Bear Stearns famously refused to participate in that rescue.
The scale of the financial system's troubles are even bigger this time around. Since last summer, the Fed has lowered its target for the federal-funds rate, charged on low-risk overnight loans between banks, to 3% from 5.25%, and it is expected to cut the rate again this week. Last week, the Fed said it would lend Wall Street as much as $200 billion in exchange for a roughly equivalent amount of mortgage-backed securities.
But those moves have failed to soothe investors and lenders, who are worried about the true value and default risk of many debt securities or are hoarding cash to meet their own needs. As worries grew that failing to find a buyer for the beleaguered investment bank could cause the crisis of confidence gripping Wall Street to worsen across the financial system, federal regulators pushed Bear Stearns's board to sell the firm.