Monday, September 22, 2008

Worth A Look Back

Although saying, "I told you so," can be enjoyable, it's usually not very helpful. Because when you're up to your ass in alligators, reminding everyone that you warned them about the swamp just makes a bad situation worse.

And yet. Considering the current news and my lack of recent posts, there doesn't seem much reason not to give another look to this March 14th essay from my mirror blog entitled "Good Scares."


The Bear in Bear Stearns

Today, the United States Federal Reserve and JPMorgan Chase & Co. provided Bear Stearns with a 28-day emergency funding package that the Associated Press calls "a surprise, last-ditch effort to save the 86-year-old institution."

Amount and terms of the deal were not disclosed. At the time of this writing Bear Stearns stock has lost approximately 40% of its value.

Though rumors have been rampant that the venerable investment bank was in truly hot water over their losses related to subprime mortgage-backed securities, Bear Stearns CEO, Alan Schwartz, denied them until today when he revealed "our liquidity position in the past 24 hours had significantly deteriorated."

In a memo to staff, Schwartz said the loan would allow Bear Stearns to "get back to business as usual."

Let's hope not, since business as usual for Bear Stearns has often included aggressive operations on the fringes of the mortgage loan business. Instead, let's hope this lifeline allows Bear Stearns time to clean house and change its course before it's too late.

Observations aside about CEOs who either lie or ignore the writing on the wall for an entire week, then blithely refer to returning to the very same "business as usual" that got them into their current mess, this development doesn't bode well for the United States, our economy, Wall Street, the banking industry, the housing industry, or ordinary people like you and me.

Because when the fifth-largest bank in America doesn't have the prescience to know shaky investment vehicles when it sees them -- or even that it's going to run out of cash in five days -- the credit crisis some experts say may be coming to an end soon is probably just getting started.

However, I think we can all take comfort in the knowledge that no matter what happens, Bear Stearns's CEO, its board of directors and executive staff will be well taken care of. Anything less simply wouldn't be the American way.


3/16/2008 UPDATE: In today's Sunday New York Times business section, Gretchen Morgenson laments the Chase/Fed bailout of Bear Stearns and compares the current mortgage securities and credit crisis to the Drexel Burnham junk bond fiasco of the 1980s.

Among her more interesting -- and incisive -- observations is that
The beneficiary of this bailout, remember, has often operated in the gray areas of Wall Street and with an aggressive, brass-knuckles approach. Until regulators came along in 1996, Bear Stearns was happy to provide its balance sheet and imprimatur to bucket-shop brokerages like Stratton Oakmont and A. R. Baron, clearing dubious stock trades.

And as one of the biggest players in the mortgage securities business on Wall Street, Bear provided munificent lines of credit to public-spirited subprime lenders like New Century (now bankrupt). It is also the owner of EMC Mortgage Servicing, one of the most aggressive subprime mortgage servicers out there.

Bear’s default rates on so-called Alt-A mortgages that it underwrote also indicates that its lending practices were especially lax during the real estate boom. As of February, according to Bloomberg data, 15 percent of these loans in its underwritten securities were delinquent by more than 60 days or in foreclosure. That compares with an industry average of 8.4 percent.

Let’s not forget that Bear Stearns lost billions for its clients last summer, when two hedge funds investing heavily in mortgage securities collapsed. And the firm tried to dump toxic mortgage securities it held in its own vaults onto the public last summer in an initial public offering of a financial company called Everquest Financial. Thankfully, that deal never got done.
At the end of an excellent article, Morgenson concludes
But by offering to backstop firms like Bear, who were the very architects of their own -- and the market’s -- current problems, overseers like the Fed undermine a little bit more of that [investor] confidence.

Another worry? How many well-capitalized institutions remain at the ready to take over those firms that may encounter turbulence in the future? Banks just do not have the capital that is needed to rescue troubled firms.

That will leave the taxpayer, alas. As usual.

Scary stuff, indeed.

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