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Radical rescue: Hundreds of billions for bailout
President Bush, second from left, accompanied by, from left, Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman Christopher Cox, delivers a statement about the economy and government efforts to remedy the crisis, Friday, Sept. 19, 2008, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP PHOTO)

  WASHINGTON— Struggling to stave off financial catastrophe, the Bush administration on Friday laid out a radical bailout plan with a jawdropping price tag — a takeover of a half-trillion dollars or more in worthless mortgages and other bad debt held by tottering institutions.

   Relieved investors sent stocks soaring on Wall Street and around the globe. The Dow-Jones industrials average rose 368 points after surging 410 points the day before on rumors the federal action was afoot.

   A grim-faced President Bush acknowledged risks to taxpayers in what would be the most sweeping government intervention to rescue failing financial institutions since the Great Depression. But he declared, “The risk of not acting would be far higher.”

   The administration is asking Congress for far-reaching new powers to take over troubled mortgages from banks and other companies, including purchasing sour mortgage-backed securities. Administration officials and congressional leaders are to work out details over the weekend.

   Congressional officials said they expected a request for legal authority to buy up the bad loans, at a cost in excess of $500 billion to the government. Democrats were discussing whether to try to attach middle class assistance to the legislation, despite a request from Bush to avoid adding controversial items that could delay action. An expansion of jobless benefits was one possibility.

   In other major steps, the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve moved to give money-market mutual funds the same kind of federal protection, at least temporarily, that now applies to savings and checking accounts and certificates of deposit at banks. Money-market accounts sold through retail banks are already FDIC insured.

   The spreading global selling panic had started to threaten some money-market funds, usually thought of as rock-solid investments. Administration officials feared a run on these funds, held by millions of Americans.

   “Every American should know that the federal government continues to enforce laws and regulations protecting your money,” Bush said at the White House. The 75-year-old Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation now insures savings and checking accounts and certificates of deposit up to $100,000.

   Separately, the Securities and Exchange Commission acted to block short-selling in financial securities. That is a trading method that bets the value of stocks will go down. It has been blamed for accelerating the plunge in stock prices of banks and other financial institutions.

   “This is a pivotal moment for America's economy,” Bush said. “In our nation's history, there have been moments that require us to come together across party lines to address major challenges. This is such a moment.”

   Congressional leaders of both parties welcomed the administration's bold moves, after a series of ad hoc rescues.

   The talk on the presidential campaign trail, barely six weeks before the election, was of bipartisanship, too.

   Democrat Barack Obama said it was critical that leaders in both parties work in concert. “Truly, we are all in this together,” he said.

   GOP presidential nominee John McCain said leaders should put aside partisan differences and “any action should be designed to keep people in their homes and safeguard the life savings of all Americans.”

   The federal government already has pledged more than $600 billion in the past year to bail out, or help bail out, some of the biggest names in American finance. That includes the rescue of investment bank Bear Stearns in March, the takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac earlier this month and the takeover of the world's largest insurance company, American International Group, just this week.

   But the contagion continued to spread, bringing political consensus that drastic and comprehensive federal action was needed.

   There are precedents for such a federal takeover.

   In the late 1980s, the government created the Resolution Trust Corporation to tackle the savings and loan crisis. It acquired the defaulted mortgages, foreclosed real estate and other assets of nearly a thousand failed S&Ls, restoring order and stability to the system. Resolving that crisis took six years and $125 billion in taxpayer money — roughly equal to $200 billion in today's dollars.

   And there was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Depression-era relief program formed in 1932 by President Hoover that tried to revive the market by giving loans to banks and other businesses.

   On Friday, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gave few details about the structure of the new program. Asked about an overall price tag, he said, “hundreds of billions” of dollars.

   Congressional leaders said they were ready to move quickly but still needed details of the administration plan. For instance, there was no indication of what the government would get in return from financial companies for the federal assistance.

   Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke briefed lawmakers in both parties on the idea by conference call Friday.

   In a session with House Democrats, they described a plan where the government would in essence set up reverse auctions, putting up money for a class of distressed assets — such as loans that are delinquent but not in default — and financial institutions would compete for how little they would accept for the investments, said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who participated in the call.

   “You give them good cash; they give you the worst of the worst,” Sherman said of the plan, which he complained that Bush and his economic advisers were trying to panic lawmakers into rubber-stamping.

   Paulson rejected Democrats' calls to include tighter regulations, corporate reforms or limits on executive compensation as part of the measure, Sherman said. “He's doing his best to paint a picture of the sky falling, and then he says, because the sky's falling, you have to do it my way.”

   Paulson said the new troubled-asset relief program that he wants Congress to enact must be large enough to have the necessary impact while protecting taxpayers as much as possible.

   “I am convinced that this bold approach will cost American families far less than the alternative — a continuing series of financial institution failures and frozen credit markets unable to fund economic expansion,” Paulson. “The financial security of all Americans … depends on our ability to restore our financial institutions to a sound footing.”

   Bush said simply, “We must act now.”

   “America's economy is facing unprecedented challenges. We're responding with unprecedented measures,” Bush declared, standing in the White House Rose Garden with Paulson, Bernanke and Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

   Shortly after his remarks, Bush called congressional leaders with whom the administration will be working on the final plan. He spoke to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio.

   The administration wants to see a package emerge from the weekend, to lend calm to Monday morning's market openings, said Keith Hennessey, the director of the president's economic council. The goal is to have something passed by Congress by the end of next week, when lawmakers recess for the elections.

   Paulson said Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will step up their purchases of mortgage-backed securities to help provide support to the crippled housing market. He also said the Treasury Department will expand a program, announced earlier this month, to buy mortgage-backed securities, which have been badly hurt by the housing and credit crises.

   “As we all know, lax lending practices earlier this decade led to irresponsible lending and irresponsible borrowing. This simply put too many families into mortgages they could not afford,” Paulson said.

   Bush authorized Treasury to tap up to $50 billion from a Depression-era fund to insure the holdings of eligible money-market mutual funds. And the Federal Reserve announced it would expand its emergency lending program to help support the $3.4 trillion in total assets of the funds.

   On Wednesday alone, investors had pulled more than $89 billion from money-market funds, according to iMoneyNet, publisher of the newsletter Money Fund Report.

   The government's actions could help alleviate the uncertainty that has been sending the markets into tumult over the past week. Lending has come to a virtual standstill in the wake of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

   European Central Bank, Swiss National Bank and Bank of England also offered up more cash Friday. The three banks put a combined $90 billion into money markets.

   ———

   Associated Press writers Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Martin Crutsinger, Andrew Taylor, Marcy Gordon, David Espo and Jim Abrams in Washington and Joe Bel Bruno in New York contributed to this report.

  

Bush says government role essential to ease financial crisis

EARLIER STORY: WASHINGTON — President Bush said today extensive federal intervention in financial markets was both warranted and essential to halt the worst financial crisis in decades and that the risk “of not acting would be far higher.”

“America’s economy is facing unprecedented challenges. We’re responding with unprecedented measures,” Bush declared, standing in the White House Rose Garden with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“This is a pivotal moment for America’s economy,” Bush said. He said that a financial contagion that began with low-quality home mortgages had “spread throughout our financial system.”

“This has led to an erosion of confidence that has frozen many financial transactions including loans to consumers and to businesses seeking to expand and create jobs,” Bush said.

“As a result we must act now to protect our nation’s economic health from serious risk. There will be ample opportunity to debate the origins of this problem. Now is the time to solve it.”

He said steps being envisioned by the administration — which Paulson said earlier Friday could entail “hundreds of billions” of dollars — were not without risk.

“These measures will require us to put a significant amount of taxpayer dollars on the line. This action does entail risk, but we expect that this money will eventually be paid back,” Bush said.

“The risk … of not acting would be far higher. Further stress on our financial markets would cause massive job losses, devastate retirement accounts and further erode housing values, as well as dry up loans for new homes and cars and college tuitions. These are risks that America cannot afford to take.”

“Our system of free enterprise rests on the conviction that the federal government should interfere in the marketplace only when necessary. Given the precarious state of today’s financial markets, and their vital importance to the daily lives of the American people, government intervention is not only warranted, it is essential,” Bush.

The president appeared to go out of his way to reassure Americans that money in traditional checking accounts, savings accounts and certificates of deposit were not at risk.

“In this difficult time, I know many Americans are wondering about the security of their finances. Every American should know that the federal government continues to enforce laws and regulations protecting your money.”

He noted that, through the Federal Deposit Insurance Company, “every savings account, checking account and certificate of deposit is insured by the federal government for up to $100,000. The FDIC has been in existence for 75 years, and no one has ever lost a penny on an insured deposit, and this will not change.”

Bush said that “the vast majority of assets the government is planning to purchase have good value over time because the vast majority of homeowners continue to pay their mortgages.

It was the third time this week that Bush had spoken on the financial crisis in an effort to calm jittery consumers and markets.

He pledged to work with the Democratic-controlled Congress on a systemwide proposal to improve the health of U.S. financial institutions.

At the same time, he warned Democratic leaders against adding “controversial provisions” to the rescue package “that could delay action.

“This is not a time for partisanship,” Bush said.

He spoke after the administration said it would safeguard assets in money market mutual funds and temporarily banned short-selling of financial company stocks, a trading technique that bets on stocks declining in value. The Treasury Department has asked Congress to give it sweeping power to buy up toxic debt that has nearly paralyzed Wall Street.

Bush also has authorized Treasury to tap up to $50 billion from a Depression-era fund to insure the holdings of eligible money market mutual funds. And the Federal Reserve announced it will expand its emergency lending program to help support the $2 trillion in assets of the funds.

Bush spoke in unusually stark terms about what he called the “unprecedented challenges” facing the economy and the risks to ordinary Americans — not just Wall Street — of not acting.

He said “the gears of our financial system … were at risk of grinding to a halt.”

Stocks soar at opening after government rescue plan

EARLIER STORY: NEW YORK — Wall Street extended a huge rally today as investors stormed back into the market, relieved that the government plans to rescue banks from billions of dollars in bad debt. The Dow Jones industrials rose more than 400 points, giving them a massive gain of more than 800 points over two days.

A new ban on short selling, or placing bets that a stock will fall, was likely adding to the market’s gains. And Friday was a quarterly “quadruple witching” day, which marks the simultaneous expiration of options contracts, an event that often adds to volatility.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson will be speaking at 10 a.m. Eastern time about the rescue plan, which is expected to help alleviate the year-old credit crisis by removing soured real estate debt from financial institutions’ books.

If a plan is put in place to help the banking industry, it could help alleviate the uncertainty that has been sending the markets into tumult over the past week. Lending has grinded to a virtual standstill in the wake of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and the bailout of teetering insurer American International Group Inc.

The Federal Reserve said today it will expand its emergency lending and let commercial banks finance purchases of asset-backed paper from money market funds. The Fed will also buy short-term debt obligations issued by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks.

And to help calm investors’ anxieties, the Treasury Department has decided to use a Depression-era fund to provide guarantees for U.S. money market mutual funds. Money market mutual funds are typically considered safe, but many investors have been fleeing them due to worries about the funds’ exposure to the embattled financial industry.

To help limit the freefall in financial stocks, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced it is temporarily banning the short-selling of nearly 800 financial stocks. Short-selling is the common practice of betting against company stocks by borrowing its shares, selling them, and pocketing the difference when they fall.

“The federal government has been petitioned by Wall Street to take evasive action in the money markets, the stock and bond markets, to avoid a complete meltdown of the credit system,” said Joe Battipaglia, market strategist at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. “Once the credit system melts down, the economy falls. We can hand-ring about if this is the proper thing for the government to do, or if Wall Street pulled the panic button too soon, but that’s something for the historians to sort out.”

In the first minutes of trading, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 412.31, or 3.74 percent, to 11,432.00.

Broader stock indicators also surged. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 50.02, or 4.15 percent, to 1,256.53, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 85.82, or 3.90 percent, to 2,284.92.

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