President Bush said some very nice things about the Federal Reserve’s rescue, once removed, of Bear Stearns, the wobbly investment bank.
“… We’ve taken strong and decisive action,” Bush said. “The Federal Reserve has moved quickly to bring order to financial markets. Secretary (Henry) Paulson is supportive of that action, as am I,” said Bush, referring to the Treasury Secretary.
Not everyone is joining Bush in singing the Fed’s praises. Some say the central bank’s actions violate notions of fairness. Why is a large investment bank rescued while homeowners are left to the rough justice of foreclosure and bankruptcy?
Then there’s the criticism that not allowing Bear Stearns to fail will only make it easier for other Wall Street companies to take other risks and hope to be saved from their misjudgments by the federales.
From the Wall Street Journal:
The past six days have shaken American capitalism.
Between Tuesday, when financial markets began turning against Bear Stearns Cos., and Sunday night, when the bank disappeared into the arms of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Washington policy makers, federal regulators and Wall Street bankers struggled to keep the trouble from tanking financial markets and exacerbating the country’s deep economic uncertainty.
The mood changed daily, as did the apparent scope of the problem. On Friday, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson thought markets would be calmed by the announcement that the Federal Reserve had agreed to help bail out Bear Stearns. President Bush gave a reassuring speech that day about the fundamental soundness of the U.S. economy. By Saturday, however, Mr. Paulson had become convinced that a definitive agreement to sell Bear Stearns had to be inked before markets opened yesterday.
Bear Stearns’s board of directors was whipsawed by the rapidly unfolding events, in particular by the pressure from Washington to clinch a deal, says one person familiar with their deliberations.
“We thought they gave us 28 days,” this person says, in reference to the terms of the Fed’s bailout financing. “Then they gave us 24 hours.”
In the end, Washington more or less threw its rule book out the window. The Fed, which has been at the forefront of the government response, made a number of unprecedented moves. Among other things, it agreed to temporarily remove from circulation a big chunk of difficult-to-trade securities and to offer direct loans to Wall Street investment banks for the first time.
The terms of the Bear Stearns sale contained some highly unusual features. For one, J.P. Morgan retains the option to purchase Bear’s valuable headquarters building in midtown Manhattan, even if Bear’s board recommends a rival offer. Also, the Fed has taken responsibility for $30 billion in hard-to-trade securities on Bear Stearns’s books, with potential for both profit and loss.
At 5 a.m. Friday, [Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Timothy] Geithner, Mr. Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, calling in from home, joined a conference call to debate whether Bear should be allowed to fail or whether the Fed should lend it enough money to get through the weekend. At 7 a.m. they settled on the lifeline option. Mr. Bernanke assembled the Fed’s other three available governors to vote for the loan, the first time since the Depression the Fed would use its extraordinary authority to lend to nonbanks.
Treasury Secretary Paulson knew that the day’s work wouldn’t be enough to keep Bear afloat over the long term. Still, Mr. Paulson, a former Goldman Sachs chief executive and the administration’s point man for financial markets, thought Bear Stearns would survive through the weekend.
That illusion was shattered Saturday morning, when Mr. Paulson was deluged by calls to his home from bank chief executives. They told him they worried the run on Bear would spread to other financial institutions. After several such calls, Mr. Paulson realized the Fed and Treasury had to get the J.P. Morgan deal done before the markets in Asia opened on late Sunday, New York time.
Mr. Paulson was frequently on the phone with Bear and J. P. Morgan executives, negotiating the details of the deal, the senior Treasury official said. Initially, Morgan wanted to pick off select parts of Bear, but Mr. Paulson insisted that it take the entire Bear portfolio, the official said.
This was no normal negotiation, says one person involved in the matter. Instead of two parties, there were three, this person explains, the third being the government. It is unclear what explicit requests were made by the Fed or Treasury. But the deal now in place has a number of features that are highly unusual, according to people who worked on the transaction.
The Fed spent the weekend putting together a plan to be announced Sunday evening, regardless of the outcome of Bear’s negotiations, that would enable all Wall Street banks to borrow from the central bank. Mr. Bernanke called the Fed’s five governors together for a vote Sunday afternoon. All five voted in favor, using for the second time since Friday the Fed’s authority to lend to nonbanks.
The steps were announced at the same time the Fed agreed to lend $30 billion to J.P. Morgan to complete its acquisition of Bear Stearns. The loans will be secured solely by difficult-to-value assets inherited from Bear Stearns. If the assets decline in value, the Fed — and therefore the U.S. taxpayer — will bear the cost.