Gretchen Morgenson's column today is worth quoting at some length:
But why save Bear Stearns? 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.
Recall, too, that back in 1998, when the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund required a Fed-arranged bailout, Bear Stearns refused to join the rescue effort. Jimmy Cayne, then chief executive at the firm, told the Fed to take a hike.
And so, Bear Stearns, a firm that some say is this decade’s version of Drexel Burnham Lambert, the anything-goes, 1980s junk-bond shop dominated by Michael Milken, is rescued. Almost two decades ago, Drexel was left to die.
Bear Stearns and Drexel have a lot in common. And yet their differing outcomes offer proof that we are in a very different and scarier place than in the late 1980s.
“Why not set an example of Bear Stearns, the guys who have this record of dog-eat-dog, we’re brass knuckles, we’re tough?” asked William A. Fleckenstein, president of Fleckenstein Capital in Issaquah, Wash., and co-author with Fred Sheehan of “Greenspan’s Bubbles: The Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.” “This is the perfect time to set an example, but they are not interested in setting an example. We are Bailout Nation.”
And so we are. After years of never allowing any of our financial institutions to fail, they have become so enormous that nobody will be allowed to sink beneath the waves. Otherwise, a tsunami would swamp the hedge funds, banks and other brokerage firms that remain afloat.
If Bear Stearns failed, for example, it would result in a wholesale dumping of mortgage securities and other assets onto a market that is frozen and where buyers are in hiding. This fire sale would force surviving institutions carrying the same types of securities on their books to mark down their positions, generating more margin calls and creating more failures.
As of last Nov. 30, Bear Stearns had on its books approximately $46 billion of mortgages, mortgage-backed and asset-backed securities. Jettisoning such a portfolio onto a mortgage market that is not operative would, it is plain to see, be a disaster.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Posted by John at 3/16/2008 10:39:00 AM