Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rescue in progress

Shades of LTCM -- a big rescue operation organized in the background by the Treasury.


Several of the world’s biggest banks are in talks to put up about $75 billion in a backup fund that could be used to buy risky mortgage securities and other assets, a move designed to ease pressure on a crucial part of the credit markets that threatens the broader economy.

Citigroup, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, along with several other financial institutions, have been meeting to come up with a plan to create a fund that could prevent a sharp sell-off in securities owned by bank-affiliated investment vehicles. The meetings, which began three weeks ago, have been orchestrated by senior officials at the Treasury Department, and the discussions have intensified in the last few days.

A broad framework for an agreement could be reached as early as tomorrow, according to people with knowledge of the discussions, but many important details still need to be hammered out. Another round of discussions is taking place this weekend, and it is still possible that the parties will not reach an agreement.

“Treasury is very serious about getting some solution in place to take away the fear hanging over the markets,” said Alex Roever, a credit analyst at JPMorgan Chase who has been following the discussions but is not involved in them. “It is a very challenging thing to do. There are so many parties involved and they all don’t agree.

The proposal echoes the 1998 bailout of the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, when a group of big banks came together to prevent the fund from collapsing after it made a series of bad bets. And the current round of crisis-driven collaboration illustrates the heightened level of concern among both government and financial players.

While there are signs that the broader credit markets have begun to stabilize after the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates last month, a pocket of the commercial paper market remains under siege: structured investment vehicles, known as SIVs. The fear is that problems with these vehicles could infect the broader economy.

SIVs, which issue short-term notes to invest in longer-term securities with higher yields, are often organized by banks but are not actually owned or held by them. They are supposed to be financed through the issuance of commercial paper backed by pools of home loans and credit card debt, but the loss of confidence in the quality of subprime mortgage bonds has also tainted these securities.

Analysts say that investors have all but stopped buying SIV-affiliated commercial paper, and the worry is that the 30 or so SIVs will unload billions of dollars of mortgage-related assets all at once. That would put intense pressure on prices. As Wall Street firms and hedge funds mark value of similar investments they held to their new lower values, they face potentially huge hits to their profits.

Still, the impact on the biggest banks is even more severe. In times of crisis, they are committed — either legally or to maintain their reputations — to stepping in to buy those securities. Banks have already been buying significant amounts of commercial paper in recent weeks, even though they did not have to. But if they are forced to bring those assets onto their balance sheets, they might be less willing to lend to businesses and consumers. That could set off a credit crunch and thrust the economy into a recession.

The proposal being floated calls for the creation of a “Super-SIV,” or a SIV-like fund fully backed by several of the world’s biggest banks to provide emergency financing. The Super-SIV would issue short-term notes to finance the purchase of assets held by the SIVs affiliated with the banks, with the hope of reassuring investors.

But whether the banks would buy the assets directly or just buy the short-term debt is still unclear, according to people briefed on the situation. So are other aspects, like the amount of capital each bank would need to contribute, how it would be administrated, and the fee structures and cost burdens.

The effort to create a backup fund began about three weeks ago, when the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson, called a meeting in Washington that included the chief executives of Citigroup, Bank of America, JPMorgan and other big banks. With Wall Street firms having almost no luck finding buyers for mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, Mr. Paulson wanted to see what could be done to relieve the bottleneck.

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