Thursday, September 18, 2008

U.S. Drafts Sweeping Plan to Fight Crisis As Turmoil Worsens in Credit Markets

WASHINGTON -- The government is working on a sweeping series of programs that would represent perhaps the biggest intervention in financial markets since the 1930s, embracing the need for a comprehensive approach to the financial crisis after a series of ad hoc rescues.

At the center of the potential plan is a mechanism that would take bad assets off the balance sheets of financial companies, according to people familiar with the matter, a device that echoes similar moves taken in past financial crises. The size of the entity could reach hundreds of billions of dollars, one person said.

Getty Images Bernanke, Paulson, Cox and Senate Banking Committee chair Dodd join other leaders from the House and Senate for a meeting at the U.S. Capitol.

Another proposal would be the creation of federal insurance for investors in money-market mutual funds, coverage akin to the insurance that currently safeguards bank deposits. The move is designed to stem an outflow of funds as consumers start to worry about even the safest of investments, a sign of how the crisis is spreading to Main Street. There is $3.4 trillion in money-market funds outstanding.

In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission is set to propose a temporary ban on short-selling. It's not clear how broadly the ban might extend, but it is expected to apply to financial stocks.

Details of the plan were still being worked out Thursday night and could be delivered to Congress in "hours," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The administration had been taking a patchwork approach to the financial crisis, putting each fire out one at a time. These moves represent an effort to take a more systematic approach, after a spiral of bad debts, credit downgrades and tumbling stocks brought down venerable names from investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. to insurance giant American International Group Inc. Banks have grown unwilling to lend to one another, a sign of extreme stress, because financial markets work only when institutions have faith in each other's ability to meet their obligations. (See articles on Pages A9 and C1.)

Word of the plan came the same day as the Federal Reserve and other major central banks offered hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to commercial banks to alleviate a deepening freeze in the world's credit markets. That step appeared to have moderate impact on lending among banks. Meanwhile, a wave of redemptions continued hitting money-market funds, causing a second large fund to shut to investors. In Russia, officials suspended stock-market trading for the second-straight day as the Russian government promised to inject $20 billion to halt a collapse in share prices. In China, government officials directed purchases of bank shares and encouraged companies to buy their own shares in efforts to prop up a falling market.

Still, word of a possible U.S. plan to address the crisis sent the stock market soaring, in one of its sharpest reversals in recent memory. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended up 3.9%, the index's biggest percentage gain in nearly six years, on record New York Stock Exchange volume.

The blue-chip index finished more than 560 points above its intraday low and reclaimed about 90% of its Wednesday losses. Nasdaq composite trading also saw trading volume set a new single-day high at 3.89 billion shares.

All 30 Dow component stocks closed higher, but financial companies were the biggest winners, racking up double-digit percentage gains after weeks of selling off.

The flurry of moves under discussion may bring the markets some breathing room, but it isn't clear whether they will amount to a long-term solution to the complex financial problems sweeping the market.

"The market wants to see a more systemic solution that doesn't leave us wondering day after day about the next institution that's the weakest link in the chain," said former Fed Board member Laurence Meyer, vice chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers, an economic research firm. Treasury Department officials have studied a structure to buy up distressed assets for weeks, but have been reluctant to ask Congress for such authority unless they were certain it could get approved. The intensified market turmoil may have changed that political calculus, even with less than two months left until the November elections.

A big question still to be answered is how the government will value the assets it takes onto its books. One possible avenue could be some sort of auction facility, so that the government would not have to be involved in negotiating asset values with companies. Financial companies would likely take big losses.

President George W. Bush met with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for 45 minutes Thursday to discuss "the serious conditions in our financial markets," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.

Messrs. Paulson, Cox and Bernanke later addressed Congressional leaders Thursday evening on their proposals. At the meeting, Mr. Bernanke began by laying out the severity of the crisis. Mr. Paulson "made the sale," said a top congressional aide.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat, said his panel could hold a vote on the package as soon as Wednesday.

"They said they would like legislation to do it, and there was virtually unanimous agreement that there would be legislation to do it," said Mr. Frank.

In a news conference after the meeting, Mr. Paulson described his effort as "an approach to deal with the systemic risk and the stresses in our capital markets." The "comprehensive" solution would deal with the souring real-estate and other illiquid assets at the heart of the financial crisis, he said.

Exactly how such an entity might be structured isn't yet clear. The possible plan isn't expected to mirror the Resolution Trust Corp., which was used from 1989 to 1995 during the savings and loan crisis to hold and sell off the assets of failed banks. Rather, a new entity might purchase assets at a steep discount from solvent financial institutions and eventually sell them back into the market.

European Pressphoto Agency President George W. Bush arrives to make a statement regarding the economy in the Oval Office Colonnade at the White House Thursday.

Instead, the program is expected to look more like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Depression-era relief program formed in 1932 by President Hoover that tried to inject liquidity into the market by giving loans to banks and other businesses.

According to a top congressional aide, the Treasury department wants authority to either control the program or have it be a separate division of the government.

A series of veteran policy makers, including former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and former Fed Chief Paul Volcker, has pushed in recent weeks for such a government agency that would attempt a comprehensive solution to the markets crisis.

The idea would be to steady the market so that investors regain confidence in financial institutions and resume conducting business normally with them.

"By stepping in here and getting the markets to function again, the government could deliver the Sunday punch to this financial turmoil," said former Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig, who is now chief executive of Promontory Financial Group, and a big proponent for the idea. "By taking the first step and making a market the new government entity could take fear out of marketplace," he added.

Thursday, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain sought a broad expansion of government regulation over financial institutions, including the formation of a body to both assume distressed mortgages and help failing investment banks.

Saying the government cannot "wait until the system fails," Sen. McCain called for the creation of an entity that would essentially help companies sell off bad loans and other impaired assets. It is unclear how the body, dubbed the Mortgage and Financial Institutions trust, would operate, including whether or not institutions would seek help or whether the government would intervene on its own behalf.

His rival, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was less specific about what steps he would take, offering broader outlines of policy proposals that included a "Homeowner and Financial Support Act." The measure, which would inject capital and liquidity in the financial system, is designed to provide a more coordinated response than "the daily improvisations that have characterized policy-making over the last year."

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