Saving Fannie and Freddie is so last weekend.
This weekend’s crisis is saving Lehman Brothers.
These banking soap operas affect the value of your Arizona home. The value of your Arizona home is determined by how much a buyer will pay you for it. Duh!
And if potential buyers find, because of disarray on Wall Street, that it is more difficult to get the money to pay you for your home, then you have fewer potential home buyers and the value of your home goes down.
As Lehman Brothers teetered Friday evening, Federal Reserve officials summoned the heads of major Wall Street firms to a meeting in Lower Manhattan and insisted they rescue the stricken investment bank and develop plans to stabilize the financial markets.
Timothy F. Geithner, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, called a 6 p.m. meeting so that bank officials could review their financial exposures to Lehman Brothers and work out contingency plans over the possibility that the government would need to orchestrate an orderly liquidation of the firm on Monday, according to people briefed on the meeting.
Flanked by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he gathered the executives in person to impress on them the need to work together to resolve the current crisis.
Policy makers fear its losses could ripple through the financial industry at a time when banks and securities firms are trying to overcome $500 billion in write-downs.
One observer briefed on the situation described the session as a ” game of chicken” between the government and the heads of the major banks.
Bank of America and two British firms, Barclays and HSBC, have expressed interest in bidding for Lehman Brothers, according to people briefed on the situation. But they have indicated that their bids are contingent upon receiving support from the government, just as it did with the rescues of Bear Stearns, and the government-sponsored agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
But Mr. Paulson and Mr. Geithner made it clear to the company, its potential suitors and to the meeting participants on Friday that the government has no plans to put taxpayer money on the line. The government is deeply worried that its actions have created a moral hazard and the Federal Reserve does not want to reach deeper into its coffers. Instead, Mr. Paulson and Mr. Geithner insist that Wall Street needs to come up with an industry solution to try to stabilize Lehman Brothers and calm the markets.
Still, some of the other Wall Street banks, facing billions of dollars in losses themselves, have resisted this approach. They argue that Lehman Brothers overreached and brought its current troubles on itself. If there are no bidders for Lehman Brothers, these banks say they can collect their collateral and liquidate the troubled firm’s assets. In this high-stake game, they may also be trying to call the government’s bluff, knowing that if push came to shove, it would provide financial support.
And in practice, taxpayers could still end up on the hook for at least as much money as they were in the case of Bear Stearns. Lehman’s successor will still be able to borrow from the Fed’s new lending program for major investment banks, which the Fed created in response to the collapse of Bear Stearns in March. If Lehman were to borrow money and then default on its loans, the Fed’s losses would reduce the amount of money it turns over to the Treasury.
For political and economic reasons, both the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department are loath to save financial institutions from their own folly.
But as the housing crisis has deepened, they have abandoned free-market orthodoxy, fearing that the collapse of institutions like Bear Stearns or either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac could cripple the financial markets, and perhaps the economy itself.
One of the biggest differences between the challenge facing Lehman and the one that faced Bear Stearns is the availability of the Fed’s emergency lending program for investment banks.
When confidence evaporated in Bear, with major hedge funds pulling their prime brokerage accounts, Bear’s financing ran out almost overnight, creating a panic situation. Lehman has had the power to plug any cash shortfalls by borrowing from the Fed, though it has not actually borrowed any money from the program since March.