Friday, March 21, 2008

Did The Fed Push Bear Into a Bad Deal?

DealJournal -, March 21, 2008:
There are a lot of things that look right in the heat of the moment, and highly problematic in hindsight. Is J.P. Morgan’s proposed takeover of Bear Stearns one of those things?
The Fed did not learn how bad Bear’s condition was until Bear and the SEC told the Fed late Thursday March 13, and at that point, the firm said it saw little option other than to file for bankruptcy by Friday morning. The Fed pushed Bear to find a private sector buyer before markets opened Friday, but Bear couldn’t. At 7 a.m. Friday the Fed, for the first time in its 95 year history, approved a direct loan to Bear, a step so extraordinary it required the use of two special loopholes in the Federal Reserve Act. The Fed’s priority wasn’t to minimize losses for Bear shareholders but to prevent uncertainty over Bear’s fate from causing the derivative and repo markets to dry up, which meant finding a buyer if at all possible before Monday. That you knew already; and if you didn’t, you can find the whole timeline here.
See all of Deal Journal’s posts on the fall of Bear Stearns. Plus, click here for continuing coverage from the Wall Street Journal.
Still, that’s cold comfort for shareholders. “We thought they gave us 28 days. Then they gave us 24 hours,” one person familiar with Bear told the Journal. J.P. Morgan’s deal for Bear Stearns has several unusual features that make the deal particularly favorable to J.P. Morgan and comes at the expense of Bear Stearns’s shareholders, who are losing billions on the $2.40 a share offer. It’s nearly impossible for any rival bidder to break it up, J.P. Morgan already has management oversight of Bear, J.P. Morgan can buy the building even if Bear’s board rejects the deal, and J.P. Morgan can buy up to 20% of Bear’s shares if any other buyer does the same. So in essence, the Fed didn’t just support a deal, it supported this deal, with this buyer, and anyone who doesn’t like the terms of the deal is naturally going to start dusting the Fed and Treasury for fingerprints. What might have looked like a bailout and rescue last week to many now looks like highway robbery to some.
There’s a big element of Monday-morning quarterbacking in the complaints about the deal. Remember where the regulator stood before the sale: As late as the morning of Wednesday, March 12, Bear CEO Alan Schwartz was on CNBC saying the firm’s liquidity was fine. Bear didn’t tell the Fed and the SEC that the firm was in trouble until 7:30 p.m on Thursday March 13, and at that point, the firm was threatening to file for bankruptcy by Friday morning. The Fed tried to find a private sector buyer Thursday night, but couldn’t. If Bear filed for bankruptcy, its counterparties could potentially panic and destroy the $4.5 trillion repo securities market, and potentially touch off massacres in the credit-default swaps market, too.

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