Friday, March 14, 2008

Fed Invokes Little-Used Authority to Aid Bear Stearns (Update4)

By Scott Lanman

March 14 (Bloomberg) -- Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke invoked a law last used four decades ago to keep Bear Stearns Cos. from collapsing after the securities firm sought emergency funding from the central bank.

The loan to Bear Stearns required a vote today by the Fed's Board of Governors because the company isn't a bank, Fed staff officials said. The central bank is taking on the credit risk from Bear Stearns collateral, lending the funds through JPMorgan Chase & Co. because it's operationally simpler to accomplish than a direct loan, the staff said on condition of anonymity.

Bernanke took advantage of little-used parts of Fed law, added in the 1930s and last utilized in the 1960s, that allow it to lend to corporations and private partnerships with a special board vote. The Fed chief probably sought to stave off a deeper blow to the financial system from a Bear Stearns collapse, former Fed researcher Keith Hembre said.

``The Fed really doesn't have any obligation to help a non- bank aside from its role or responsibility to keep the financial markets functioning,'' said Hembre, who helps oversee $107 billion as chief economist at FAF Advisors Inc. in Minneapolis. ``They made a judgment, probably an accurate one, that they're not going to function very well if you've got a full-blown crisis with a major Wall Street firm.''

Unanimous Vote

The Fed said in a statement that it will ``continue to provide liquidity as necessary to promote the orderly functioning of the financial system,'' repeating reassurances the central bank has made often since credit strains arrived in August. The statement said the Fed Board unanimously approved the arrangement with JPMorgan and Bear Stearns.

The Fed Board, which met today at 9:15 a.m. Washington time, typically delegates such discount-window lending authority to its regional reserve banks when it comes to loans to banks.

``There's a clear realization among people both in the official sector and the financial markets that some of the institutions we have built over the last 100 years are not well adapted to the modern 21st century financial system,'' said former New York Fed research director Stephen Cecchetti. ``A lot of what we've been seeing have been creative innovations to deal with problems that the institutions were not built to handle.''

The senior staffers declined to describe how large the loan to Bear Stearns is, and whether a private-sector bailout was attempted first before the Fed extended credit through JPMorgan. The staff officials said the Fed used its authorization under the law several times in the 1960s though didn't immediately have further details.

Paulson's Support

Such votes require approval from five Fed governors. The seven-member Fed board currently has two vacancies, and one governor, Randall Kroszner, is serving past the Jan. 31 expiration of his term.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, in a separate statement, said ``there are challenges in our financial markets, and we continue to address them.'' Treasury is ``working closely'' with the Fed and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

``I appreciate the leadership of the Federal Reserve in enhancing the stability and orderliness of our markets,'' Paulson said. ``Our financial system is flexible and resilient and I am confident that the efforts of regulators and market participants will minimize disruption to the system.''

Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary who is now chairman of Citigroup Inc.'s executive committee, said at a conference today that the ``risks have reached a point that the right thing is to act and act in a very serious way.''

47% Plunge

Bear Stearns shares plummeted a record 47 percent on news of the bailout. The announcement, coupled with a report showing U.S. consumer prices were unchanged in February, led traders to place 56 percent odds that Fed policy makers will lower their benchmark interest rate by a full percentage point at their March 18 meeting, to 2 percent.

Yesterday, the odds of such a move were 0 percent.

A reduction of that size would be unprecedented since the overnight lending rate became the Fed's main policy tool around 1990, trumping the Jan. 22 emergency cut of 0.75 percentage point.

It's the first time since the financial turmoil intensified in August that Bernanke, 54, has publicly announced Fed assistance to a specific company instead of measures open to broader sets of banks or other financial institutions.

Most recently, the Fed on March 11 announced plans to lend $200 billion in Treasuries to primary dealers in exchange for debt that includes mortgage-backed securities. Last week, the Fed increased funds available through its so-called Term Auction Facility, set up in December to lend funds to banks in exchange for a wide variety of collateral, including mortgage debt.

`All the Problems'

``What they're doing now is going to help, but I don't know that it will solve all the problems out there,'' said Thomas Garcia, managing director of Thornburg Investment Management in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which oversees $50 billion.

Bear Stearns's liquidity problem ``definitely gives some doubt as to whether other firms are releasing all available information, and whether this credit crunch is really over,'' Garcia said.

Bear Stearns isn't alone among financial institutions stung by the credit squeeze to be bailed out. The U.K. government was forced to nationalize Northern Rock Plc last month after the first run on a British bank in more than a century and take on 100 billion pounds ($203 billion) in liabilities. Two German banks have also received emergency aid.

While U.S. authorities have been faster than their U.K. counterparts in announcing the rescue package for Bear Stearns, former Bank of England policy maker Willem Buiter says that doesn't make their course of action was the correct one.

``This creates the same moral hazard issues that we saw with Northern Rock,'' said Buiter, now a professor at the London School of Economics. ``This bank is being given access to public money, and we don't know what the terms are.''

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