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Regulation and Compliance > Federal Regulation

Growling Pays

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So, it looks like Congress is going to want some answers to questions it has about the sweetheart deal, arranged by the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury Department, wherein JP Morgan Chase was able to buy a rapidly collapsing Bear Stearns for some $236 million.

Though it will probably come to nothing in the end, and only after a great deal of the kind of posturing that only senators have perfected, it should be interesting to see how the Fed and Treasury choose to portray their actions as the scenario continues to unfold.

One change has already taken place as a result of Bear shareholders growling.

There are all kinds of bears–from teddy to polar–as we know. But what happened after the deal was announced was that the $2 per share price Morgan was to pay brought out the grizzly in Bear shareholders, large and small.

The $2 per share price was way too low, they growled, and they would be better off financially if Bear declared bankruptcy. In truth, when I first heard the $2 figure I thought it was a joke and that somehow I’d gotten sucked into a surreal game of Monopoly.

But no, it was for real. And not only did Morgan get Bear for 2 bucks a share, but it got the Fed to be liable for $30 billion of Bear’s most risky assets.

When Morgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon went to Bear’s headquarters he no doubt felt like he was going into Grendel’s lair. Great the growling grew and gruesome grievances did Jamie greet.

So what did he do? He renegotiated the deal, giving the Bear shareholders $10 per share. The Fed, placed in a corner by its own maneuverings, could hardly call off the deal without looking like it was a master puppeteer (which, of course, it was). So instead of Morgan getting a $30 billion cushion from the Fed, it is now liable for the first $1 billion with the Fed now standing behind (only!) $29 billion.

But back to Capitol Hill. There, the two leading lights on the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., its chairman, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking minority member, wrote (as quoted in the Times), “Americans are being asked to back a brand-new kind of transaction, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. Congress has a responsibility to look at whether the taxpayers will lose money here.”

Senators, you already know the answer to that. Of course, the taxpayers are going to lose money. At this point the details of the deal–especially what assets the Fed took as collateral, how they were valued and what they might really be worth–are state secrets.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson defended the deal. “The Federal Reserve’s recent action should be viewed as a precedent only for unusual periods of turmoil,” he said in a speech last week.

He also pooh-poohed calls for stronger regulation of Wall Street firms and investment banks in light of what has gone down since the subprime crisis started to brew. My feeling, however, is that if they’re playing with our money we should know what they’re doing with it.

Meanwhile, no one in the Fed or Treasury seems to have much interest in the plight of homeowners whose finances got out of control. Perhaps they agree with Sen. John McCain, who railed against bailing out homeowners facing foreclosure because “speculation” was rampant among home buyers in the past few years.

Could it be that we’ve got it all wrong? Maybe Bear didn’t speculate after all. Maybe virtue was the reason for its rescue.

Come on, even senators know better.


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