March 15, 2008
The Federal Reserve’s unusual decision to provide emergency assistance to Bear Stearns underscores a long-building concern that one failure could spread across the financial system.
Wall Street firms like Bear Stearns conduct business with many individuals, corporations, financial companies, pension funds and hedge funds. They also do billions of dollars of business with each other every day, borrowing and lending securities at a dizzying pace and fueling the wheels of capitalism.
The sudden collapse of a major player could not only shake client confidence in the entire system, but also make it difficult for sound institutions to conduct business as usual. Hedge funds that rely on Bear to finance their trading and hold their securities would be stranded; investors who wrote financial contracts with Bear would be at risk; markets that depended on Bear to buy and sell securities would screech to a halt, if they were not already halted.
“In a trading firm, trust is everything,” said Richard Sylla, a financial historian at New York University. “The person at the other end of the phone or the trading screen has to believe that you will make good on any deal that you make.”
Commercial banks, mutual fund companies and other big financial firms with deep pockets would presumably weather such turmoil. Firms that traded extensively with Bear Stearns could be at great risk if the bank failed.
For individual customers, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insures deposits up to $100,000. Furthermore, when a Wall Street firm fails, the Securities Investor Protection Corporation steps in to take over customer accounts.
The Fed’s action was intended simply to keep the financial markets functioning. Since various trading markets seized up in August, credit conditions have steadily worsened, and interest rate cuts, the main tool central bankers use to bolster the economy, have become less effective.
Policy makers anticipated some of the problems now affecting the financial world. In 2006 and 2007, Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, asked major Wall Street institutions to gauge the impact on their portfolios if a large bank failed.
The volume of financial contracts that are not traded on any major exchanges has ballooned in recent years after the bailout of a big hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, in 1998. Now, much of the trading in derivative contracts tied to stocks and bonds takes place in unregulated transactions between financial institutions.Policy makers have been wrestling with questions about when and how they should provide assistance since the last major bailout of a tottering bank, Continental Illinois, in 1984. At the time, Continental was considered too big to fail without sending waves of losses through the financial system.
Regulators are facing an unprecedented and widespread deterioration in many markets. Last summer, the value of risky and exotic securities plummeted in value. Now, even top-rated securities once deemed as safe as Treasuries have hit the skids. Financial firms have written down more than $150 billion of their assets. Some analysts are predicting that losses in various credit markets will reach $600 billion.
Bear Stearns was one of the first firms to experience a direct blow from the subprime mortgage crisis when two of its hedge funds collapsed because of the declining value of mortgage-backed securities.
It is also among the biggest firms in the prime brokerage business, or the financing of hedge funds. In recent weeks, nervous fund managers have scrambled to protect themselves. Robert Sloan, who is the managing partner at S3 Partners, a financing specialist that works with hedge funds, has shifted $25 billion out of Bear Stearns accounts in the last two months, he said.
“The problem is the financing of the hedge fund industry is very concentrated and very brittle,” Mr. Sloan said. “If they go under, you will have thousands of funds frozen out,” he said, adding that everyone might then have to wait for a court to name a receiver before business could resume.
Hedge funds rely on Wall Street for a range of services from the humdrum, like holding their securities, to the critical, like providing loans they use to increase their bets. As Wall Street has buckled under multibillion-dollar write-downs, the firms have cut financing to hedge funds and asked the funds to put up more assets to back their borrowing, forcing managers to sell en masse.
This has caused a series of hedge fund blowups, including Carlyle Capital, an affiliate of the powerful private equity firm Carlyle Group; Peloton Partners, a hedge fund founded by former Goldman Sachs traders; and Drake Capital, a blue-chip fund that has been struggling.
A manager at one hedge fund that uses Bear Stearns as its prime broker said his firm had been nervously watching the situation. The manager, speaking on the condition that he or his fund not be identified, said the fund had lined up backup firms that could clear its trades and keep its portfolio, though as of Friday afternoon it had not left Bear Stearns.
Customer accounts at financial institutions are kept separate from banks’ and dealers’ own holdings to protect those funds if the broker has to seek bankruptcy protection.
But the bigger worry for hedge funds and others that do business with Bear Stearns is whether the firm will be able to honor its trades. Of particular concern are the insurance contracts known as credit default swaps in which one party agrees to guarantee interest and principal payments in case an issuer defaults on its bonds. Investors in such contracts with Bear Stearns are closely studying whether they can get out of them or have them transferred to a more stable firm.
Compounding the problem, some big investment banks this week stopped accepting trades that would expose them to Bear Stearns. Money market funds also reduced their holdings of short-term debt issued by Bear, according to industry officials.
“You get to where people can’t trade with each other,” said James L. Melcher, president of Balestra Capital, a hedge fund based in
Already, investors are considering whether another firm might face financial problems. The price for insuring Lehman Brothers’ debt jumped to $478 per $10,000 in bonds on Friday afternoon, from $385 in the morning, according to Thomson Financial. The cost for Bear debt was up to $830, from $530.