Nation/World

Wall Street crisis picks up steam

Lehman to file Chapter 11; BofA to buy Merrill Lynch; banks pool billions

NEW YORK – Lehman Brothers’ announcement early today that it intends to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy was the latest in a series of seismic shocks from Wall Street, including a government-brokered takeover of Merrill Lynch by the Bank of America for $50 billion.

A forced restructuring of the world’s largest insurance company, American International Group Inc., 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 was to prevent a worldwide panic on stock and other financial exchanges.

Ten banks – Bank of America, Barclays, Citibank, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and 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 this morning. Asian stock markets were also falling.

Samuel Hayes, finance professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, said the Bush administration may get a lot of blame for the situation, which could benefit Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign.

“Just the psychological impact of this kind of failure is going to be significant,” he said. “It will color people’s feelings about their well-being and the integrity of the financial system.”

In the collapse of Lehman Brothers, all potential buyers walked away after the U.S. Treasury refused to budge on its refusal to provide any takeover aid, as it had done six months ago when Bear Stearns faltered and earlier this month when it seized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Expectations that the 158-year-old Lehman would survive dimmed after Barclays PLC withdrew its bid to buy the investment bank. Barclays and Bank of America were considered front-runners to buy Lehman, which is foundering under the weight of $60 billion in soured real estate holdings.

Employees emerging Sunday night from Lehman’s headquarters near the heart of Times Square carried boxes, tote bags and duffel bags, rolling suitcases, framed artwork and spare umbrellas. Many were emblazoned with the Lehman Brothers name.

Merrill Lynch, another investment bank laid low by the crisis triggered by rising mortgage defaults and plunging home values, agreed to be acquired by Bank of America for $29 a share, according to a person briefed on the deal who spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement had not yet been finalized. That’s a premium to its closing price on Friday of $17.05, but only a fraction of its price of almost $100 a share early in 2007.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America has the most deposits of any U.S. bank, while Merrill Lynch is the world’s largest brokerage. A combination of the two would create a global financial giant to rival Citigroup Inc., the biggest U.S. bank in terms of assets.

Strategically, most industry analysts say it’s a good fit. If the deal goes according to plan, Bank of America will be able to offer Merrill’s retail brokerage services to its huge customer base. There is not a great deal of overlap between the two companies.

Where there is duplication, however, the combination of the two companies could result in more layoffs. Both Merrill and Bank of America have already cut thousands of investment banking jobs over the past year.

The deal would not come without risks, however. Merrill Lynch, like many of its Wall Street peers, has been struggling with tight credit markets and billions of dollars in assets tied to mortgages that have plunged in value. Merrill has reported four straight quarterly losses.

And Bank of America’s own finances are far from robust. As consumer credit deteriorates, the bank’s profits have declined, and the company is still in the midst of absorbing embattled mortgage lender Countrywide Financial, which it acquired in January.

Insurer AIG, hit hard by deterioration in the credit markets, said Sunday it is reviewing its operations and discussing possible options with outside parties to improve its business after a week when its stock dropped 45 percent amid concerns about the company’s financial underpinnings. It was working with New York Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo and a representative of the governor’s office through the weekend to craft a solution that protects policyholders, according to Dinallo’s spokesman David Neustadt.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was huddled through the weekend at the New York Federal Reserve’s fortresslike building in Manhattan with executives from major banks and investment houses to hash out the fate of Lehman Brothers and to staunch the bleeding on Wall Street that threatened to shatter investor confidence around the globe.

“It’s clear we’re one step away from a financial meltdown,” said Nouriel Roubini, chairman of the consulting firm RGE Monitor.

The meetings that began Friday night were a who’s who of financial heavyweights: Paulson, Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Fed, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, and a host of CEOs, including Vikram Pandit of Citigroup Inc., Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co., John Mack of Morgan Stanley, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and Merrill Lynch & Co.’s John Thain.

The end of Lehman may not stop the financial crisis that has gripped Wall Street for months, analysts said. More investment banks could disappear soon.

The independent broker-dealers “are going the way of the dodo bird,” said Bert Ely, an Alexandria, Va.-based banking consultant.

That’s partly because some of the firms, particularly Merrill, made bad bets on real estate. But several analysts said investment companies will need the deep pockets of commercial banks to survive the next few years.

Roubini said with no deal for Lehman, Merrill and the other investment firms would have been hit with a “run on the bank,” as hedge funds and other clients withdraw funds and banks become reluctant to lend to them. Many of the investment banks rely on short-term loans to finance their day-to-day operations.

The cost of insuring financial firms’ debt from default has been soaring.

A rise in the cost of the insurance, known as credit default swaps, indicates debt holders believe there is a greater chance of default by the financial companies. Especially over the past week, those insurance costs have been increasing rapidly as more debt holders fear companies like Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual Inc. could collapse and not be able to repay their debt.

Swaps on most financial firms are likely to get even worse during the upcoming week, analysts said.



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