News & Current Affairs

September 28, 2008

‘Great progress’ in US bail-out

‘Great progress’ in US bail-out

US congressional leaders say they have reached the broad outline of a rescue plan for the American financial system.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “great progress” had been made – but details remain to be agreed.

The Bush administration wants $700bn (£380bn) to be able to buy bad debt that is freezing up financial markets.

A vote could be held in the House of Representatives as early as Sunday, with negotiators keen to reassure the markets before they reopen on Monday.

The deal proposes that the government would spend the $700bn to buy up bad mortgage-related debts from US banks, borrowing the cash from the money markets by issuing more government debt.

A White House spokesman welcomed the announcement and praised the efforts of the negotiators.

“We’re pleased with the progress tonight and appreciate the bipartisan effort to stabilise our financial markets and protect our economy,” said Tony Fratto.

The outline deal gives the treasury secretary powers to oversee the two-year plan, but critics have insisted on the inclusion of greater oversight and reporting.

The tentative agreement that appears to have been reached is thought to include a measure to limit the pay for executives of companies which seek financial assistance, which was a key demand of the Democrats.

At the request of Republicans, who have strongly criticised some elements of the administration’s proposal, the accord is believed to include the setting up an insurance program for mortgage-backed securities.

Payoff restrictions

A statement from Nancy Pelosi’s office said the new agreement would see $250bn issued immediately, and another $100bn when the president wanted to spend it.

But the the final $350bn would only be released after review and approval by Congress.

There would also be measures to protect taxpayers, who would be given an ownership stake and profit-making opportunities in relation to any assets that were sold.

It also puts new restrictions on executive compensation for participating companies, including no “golden parachute” payoffs.

Earlier on Sunday it was announced that the two-year project would be supervised by a board of officials, including the Federal Reserve chairman, and scrutinised by Congress’s investigative arm and an independent inspector general.

Finally, the government could use its power as the owner of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities to help more struggling homeowners modify the terms of their home loans.

‘All night’

US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who took part in the talks, said that Congressional leaders had been “working very hard”.

“We’ve made great progress toward a deal, which will work and will be effective in the marketplace, and effective for all Americans,” he told a news conference.

But Ms Pelosi said the deal had to be committed to paper before it could be formally agreed.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Congress hoped to be able to make an announcement on the deal later on Sunday.

“We’re committing it to paper tonight and our people will work all night long,” he said.

Congressional leaders are trying to finalise the deal in time for the opening of the Asian markets on Monday morning.

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September 14, 2008

Talks over sale of Lehman resume

Talks over sale of Lehman resume

Lehman Brothers headquarters

Lehman is the fourth largest US investment bank

Negotiations have restarted to find a buyer for troubled US investment bank Lehman Brothers, before a Sunday evening deadline.

Bank of America and UK lender Barclays are said to be the main candidates to buy all or part of the company.

Lehman is up for sale after it reported a $3.9bn (£2.2bn) quarterly loss last week amid concerns over its long term financial viability.

The firm’s share price has plummeted as fears over its future have mounted.

‘Rescue package’

The talks to sell Lehman are being led by senior officials from the US Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve.

Graph

It is understood that the US government wishes to arrange a bailout package under which other US investment banks – such as Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs – would contribute funds to a rescue deal which would see Lehman’s balance sheet cleaned up before its sale.

Although this is expected to cost the banks many millions, the alternative would likely be a sharp fall in their share prices if Lehman was to fail.

A number of sources report that US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is determined that no tax payers’ money will be used to help Lehman.

‘Difficult decision’

Former Federal Reserve boss Alan Greenspan said the US government faces “very difficult decisions” over Lehman if it cannot secure a rescue deal that does not involve public funds.

” “They [will then] have to make a very difficult decision as to whether or not they allow it to liquidate or they support it,” he said.

Yet Mr Greenspan said it would be “unsustainable” for the government to bail-out every US bank that got itself into difficulty.

Predicting that Lehman would not be the last to require rescuing, Mr Greenspan added that this would not necessarily pose a problem.

“The ordinary course of financial change has winners and losers,” he said.

Bad mortgage woes

Lehman could be sold off as one company, or else broken up into parts and sold separately.

While the firm got itself into financial difficulty due to extensive bad mortgage debts, its fund management business is in relatively good shape, analysts say.

Neither Bank of America or Barclays have made any comment.

Lehman’s shares lost 80% of their value last week, and its quarterly loss was the largest in its history.

The firm is the fourth-largest US investment bank.

Concerns over the fate of Lehman follow the bail-out last weekend of mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

The lenders were thrown into financial difficulty after the collapse of the US sub-prime mortgage market.

September 7, 2008

US lenders ‘face state takeover’

US lenders ‘face state takeover’

Home repossessed in US

US mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are set to be put under government control in an attempt to rescue the firms, media reports say.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson will outline government plans at a news conference at 1100 (1600 BST).

The move to shore up the shareholder-owned firms, which hold or guarantee half the US mortgage debt, would be the US’s largest ever financial bail-out.

In July, Congress approved a plan aimed

at offering them more liquidity.

This followed huge losses by the two firms as result of a big increase in defaults and repossessions in the US housing market.

‘Management told’

On Saturday, a senior politician, Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had told him the government would use its powers to ensure the continued and stable functioning of the companies.

The Washington Post, quoting senior administration sources, said the firms would be put under a legal status known as “conservatorship” which would greatly reduce the value of the two companies’ common stock.

BBC Business Editor Robert Peston
This is an event of profound significance for the global economy
BBC Business Editor Robert Peston

Other securities – including company debt and preferred shares – would be guaranteed by the government, the paper added.

The New York Times reported that senior executives at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were informed about the plan on Friday.

The Wall Street Journal said it would include changes in the top management.

There would also be quarterly infusions of cash to keep both firms afloat, the papers say. The total cost to taxpayers is not known but could amount to billions of dollars, they add.

The government was being forced to step in because it was dangerous for the US economy for doubts to persist about the two firms’ viability.

Struggling homeowners

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Government control over larger portions of the economy can only end badly

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The two contenders for the US presidency, Barack Obama and John McCain, have been briefed on the takeover by Mr Paulson.

“We’ve got to keep people in their homes,” said the Republican candidate, John McCain.

“There’s got to be restructuring, there’s got to be reorganisation, and there’s got to be some confidence that we’ve stopped this downward spiral,” he added, saying that the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must not benefit executives at the two companies.

The Democratic Party candidate, Barack Obama, said any action should be focused “on whether it will strengthen our economy and help struggling homeowners”.

“We must not allow government intervention to protect investors and speculators who relied on the government to reap massive profits,” he said, adding “we must protect taxpayers, not bail out the shareholders and management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac”.

Fragile

On Friday, America’s Mortgage Bankers Association reported that at the end of June, about four million homeowners with a mortgage – representing a record 9% – either were behind in their payments or faced repossession.

In the past year, the financial crisis has taken a heavy toll on both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The country’s two largest buyers and backers of mortgages lost a combined $3.1bn between April and June.

Both companies say they have the resources to weather the losses, but their shares have fallen sharply on fears that they could go bankrupt as borrowers default.

The rescue plan passed by Congress in July gave the US government the authority to buy shares and offer liquidity to companies to keep them afloat.

Many analysts believe their collapse would be a major shock to the already fragile global financial system.

Together, the two firms own or guarantee about $5.3 trillion worth of home loans – about half the outstanding mortgages in the US.

That is about 25 times as big as the obligations of Northern Rock – which was nationalised by the UK government earlier this year, and twice the size of the UK economy.

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