Administration moves against bad bank assets
By AP Writer Tom Raum
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration aimed squarely at the crisis clogging the nation's credit system Monday with a plan to take over up to $1 trillion in sour mortgage securities with the help of private investors. For once, Wall Street cheered.
The announcement, closely stage-managed throughout the day, filled in crucial blanks in the administration's financial rescue package and formed what President Barack Obama called "one more critical element in our recovery."
The coordinated effort by the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. relies on a mix of government and private money — mostly from institutional investors such as hedge funds — to help banks rid their balance sheets of real-estate related securities that are now extremely difficult to value.
The goal, said Obama, is to get banks lending again, so "families can get basic consumer loans, auto loans, student loans, (and so) that small businesses are able to finance themselves, and we can start getting this economy moving again."
It was a huge gambit and one that came like a tonic to Wall Street, which had panned an earlier outline of the program that lacked detail.
Stocks soared, the Dow Jones industrial average shooting up nearly 500 points, thanks to the bank-assets plan and a report showing an unexpected jump in home sales.
The introduction of the plan was closely choreographed so that the president — rather than Geithner — would be the first administration official to appear on camera at midday to discuss it. Geithner met earlier in the day, before markets opened, with a group of reporters at the Treasury Department to go over specifics. But cameras and broadcast-quality audio recorders were barred.
It was the reverse of what happened Feb. 10. Then, after Obama had helped raise expectations toward Geithner and the plan, the treasury secretary went before cameras and bombed. The Dow plunged about 300 points amid investor confusion about details.
The fleshed-out plan is designed to help fix a value on damaged mortgage loans and other toxic securities.
If the value of the securities goes up, the private investors and taxpayers would share in the gains. If the values go down, the government and private investors would incur losses.
"This will help banks clean up their balance sheets and make it easier for them to raise capital," Geithner said.
The plan will take $75 billion to $100 billion from the government's existing $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. The government will pair this with private investments and loans from the FDIC and the Fed to generate $500 billion in purchasing power.
Geithner said purchases eventually could grow to $1 trillion — roughly half of the estimated $2 trillion of toxic assets on bank books now.
On the hot seat, Geithner has a lot personally tied to the success of the new program. His performance in the Cabinet, including his slowness in learning about multimillion dollar executive bonuses paid by insurance giant AIG after taking bailout money, has been severely criticized by some in Congress.
Geithner testifies on Tuesday before the House Financial Services Committee.
Under a typical transaction, for every $100 in soured mortgages being purchased from banks, the private sector would put up $7 and that would be matched by $7 from the government. The remaining $86 would be covered by a government loan.
The plan was introduced ahead of a summit next week in London of 20 major and developing economies struggling with the global recession.
Obama is trying to get other wealthy countries to do more to stimulate their economies with government spending, as the United States has done. However, other countries, particularly ones in Europe, are resisting U.S. calls for more stimulus and would prefer to see more internationally coordinated bank regulation.
The administration was expected to outline its plan for financial regulation overhaul later this week.
Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair said she expects her agency will finance as much as $500 billion in purchases of residential and commercial real estate loans.
Bair said the program should help banks clean up their balance sheets and raise fresh capital, though she added that "there may be some banks beyond help." The agency has said before it expects more bank failures, she said.
A joint statement by the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department said the Fed should play a "central role" in preventing future financial crises. That implied a wish that Congress expand the Fed's authority in regulating all financial institutions, not just banks.
Geithner said taxpayers still could lose money on the deal to soak up bad assets but there was no fixing the system without risk.
Other options, such as having the government purchase the securities outright or letting them languish on bank balance sheets, would pose even greater vulnerabilities, he said, and it was important to find the right blend of risk versus reward.
"I am very confident this scheme dominates all the alternatives for trying to find that balance," he said.
The sentiment was echoed by congressional Democrats, who said risk seemed inevitable with any plan big enough to work.
But House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia called Obama's plan a "shell game" that hid the true cost.
He said he hoped the administration would consider instead an earlier Republican proposal to set up a government-sponsored insurance program for mortgage-related securities.
The administration plan "seems to offer little incentive for private investors to participate unless the subsidy is made so rich that it comes at the expense of the taxpayer," Cantor said in a statement.
The new program marks a return by the government to a strategy of acquiring toxic securities. Henry Paulson, who was treasury secretary in the final days of the Bush administration, abandoned plans to purchase these securities, largely because they were impossible to price.
The plan builds on earlier programs to pump money into banks, help some homeowners repay their mortgages and stimulate college, small business and other forms of lending.
"There's still great fragility in the financial systems, but we think that we are moving in the right direction," Obama said after meeting Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Obama said the plan will allow taxpayers to "share in the upside as well as the downside."
Treasury officials had no firm forecast on when the government would begin making the asset purchases although market expectations were that the process could begin within weeks.
AP writers Martin Crutsinger, Anne Flaherty, Christopher S. Rugaber and Jeannine Aversa contributed to this story.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street got the news it wanted on the economy's biggest problems — banks and housing — and celebrated by hurtling the Dow Jones industrials up nearly 500 points.
Investors added rocket fuel Monday to a two-week-old advance, cheering the government's plan to help banks remove bad assets from their books and also welcoming a report showing a surprising increase in home sales. Major stock indicators surged about 7 percent, including the Dow, which had its biggest percentage gain since October.
Analysts who have seen the market's recent false starts are still hesitant to say Wall Street is indeed recovering from the collapse that began last fall. But the day's banking and housing news bolstered the growing belief that the economy is starting to heal, and that is what had investors buying.
"It's just hard to argue that there isn't an improvement in economic activity on the horizon," said Jim Dunigan, executive vice president at PNC Wealth Management.
The market began turning around two weeks ago on news that Citigroup Inc. was operating at a profit in January and February. A spate of more upbeat economic reports helped the market build on its gains, although the rally stalled last Thursday and Friday.
Analysts said they saw more fundamental strength in Monday's buying than they saw at the start of the rally. Dave Rovelli, managing director of trading at brokerage Canaccord Adams, said there appeared to be less short covering, which occurs when traders are forced to buy to cover misplaced bets that stocks would fall. Short covering contributed to the market's surge after the Citigroup news.
"There is definitely new buying," he said. Rovelli also said the approaching end of the quarter can make money managers eager to buy into a market to make the statements they send to clients look stronger.
Stocks shot higher at the opening and kept going. The Treasury Department said its bad asset cleanup program would tap money from the government's $700 billion financial rescue fund and involve help from the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the participation of private investors.
The market had been waiting for weeks to hear details of the government's plan for helping banks get rid of bad assets. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced an outline of the program last month but provided few details then about how it would work, leading to a stock plunge that sliced 380 points from the Dow.
But while analysts were pleased with the market's performance Monday, they were also still cautious; Wall Street more than gave back its big yearend rally and continued falling during January and February.
Subodh Kumar, an independent investment strategist in Toronto, said the Fed's announcement that it would buy government debt and the details on plans to help banks are giving traders hope for recovery.
"The market is shedding some of its excess pessimism. That doesn't mean the market goes straight up," he said.
The National Association of Realtors' existing home sales report was overwhelmingly positive for investors although it showed a decline in home prices in February. Investors are embracing any sign that a glut in homes for sale may be easing. Monday's data followed a dose of good housing news last week as housing starts for February came in much better than expected.
The Dow rose 497.48, or 6.8 percent, to 7,775.86, its highest finish since Feb. 13. It was the biggest point gain for the blue chips since Nov. 13 when they rose 552 points and the biggest percentage gain since Oct. 28, when they rose 10.9 percent. It was the fifth-biggest point gain in the Dow's history.
Broader stock indicators also surged. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 54.38, or 7.1 percent, to 822.92, crossing the psychological milepost of 800. The Nasdaq composite index rose 98.50, or 6.8 percent, to 1,555.77.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 33.61, or 8.4 percent, to 433.72.
The Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 index, which reflects nearly all stocks traded in America, jumped 7 percent. That's a paper gain of about $700 billion.
More than 10 stocks rose for every one that fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to nearly 7.5 billion shares, about even with Friday's pace.
The Dow is now up 1,228 points, or 18.8 percent, from March 9, when it finished at its lowest point in nearly 12 years, although it's still down 1,000 points in 2009. The S&P 500 is up 21.6 percent in that time.
The Dow and the S&P 500 index remain more than 45 percent below their peak in October 2007.
Collapsing home prices and the damage they have caused banks are at the center of the economy's current problems and are a major focus for the stock market. Banks have sharply curbed lending after becoming weighed down with loans that have gone bad, especially mortgages.
Investors had been largely disappointed in the government's efforts to date to restore the banks to health, but finally seemed encouraged by the long-awaited announcement of details for the bad loan cleanup plan.
"The actions that we're getting from a policy standpoint are very helpful in removing the sand from the gears," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist at RidgeWorth Investments. "That is going to be good for the financials."
Shares of the country's largest banks, which have been pounded in recent weeks over concerns about their ability to weather the crisis, soared on Monday. Citigroup Inc. jumped 19.5 percent, and Bank of America Corp. added 26 percent.
Even banks seen as being on better footing posted big advances. JPMorgan Chase & Co. rose 25 percent, while Wells Fargo & Co. rose 24 percent.
Investors welcomed the rise in home sales Monday although the biggest jump in nearly six years came as first-time buyers pounced on deep discounts of foreclosures and other distressed properties. Analysts say it could be a nascent sign of recovery. But only weeks ago traders might have dwelled on the 15.5 percent drop in median prices.
"It's like putting on a different pair of glasses and you think you saw something different today than you saw yesterday," Dunigan said.
Bond prices were mixed as stocks rose. The moves were moderate as investors remained mindful of the Federal Reserve's plan announced last week to buy government debt to help drive down borrowing costs by reducing interest rates.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, rose to 2.68 percent from 2.64 percent late Friday. The yield on the three-month T-bill rose to 0.21 percent from 0.19 percent.
Oil rose $1.73 to settle at $53.80 a barrel and the dollar was mixed against other major currencies. Gold fell. The price of gold has risen in recent weeks as investors have worried about the faltering economy and a weaker dollar.
Overseas, Britain's FTSE 100 rose 2.9 percent. Germany's DAX index rose 2.7 percent, and France's CAC-40 rose 2.8 percent. Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 3.4 percent.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.