Opening Bell: The Roof Is On Fire

Bear Stearns tumbles; Freddie and Fannie teeter; Blackstone’s burden; Schadenfreude on the Street

While Wall Street was busy celebrating the sudden fall of its crusading nemesis, Eliot Spitzer, yesterday, shares of one of its top five banks were taking a dive on rumors that the company is out of cash, while mortgage backers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also took a beating as the stock market punished companies with heavy exposure to mortgages.

The Financial Times notes on its front page that Bear Stearns tumbled 11 percent, helping push the S&P 500 to its lowest point in more than a year and a half, while a Barron’s cover piece that asked, “Is Fannie Mae Toast?” helped wipe out 13 percent of its value.

Bloomberg reports that Bear Stearns’ CEO had to publicly announce that his company—one of the five big Wall Street banks&mdah;wasn’t going under— something that doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary in the current environment, but would have been astonishing a year ago—after a credit-rating outfit downgraded its mortgage bonds. Bear was the No. 2 underwriter of mortgage securities in 2007.

”There’s an insolvency rumor and concerns on liquidity, that they just have no cash,” said Michael Mainwald, head of equity trading at Lek Securities Corp. in New York.

The Wall Street Journal reports that debt-insurance markets are implying a 33 percent increase since Friday in the likelihood that Bear Stearns will go into default. That number is also up 300 percent since September.

Worries that Bear might run into difficulty in gaining enough access to capital or even deeper troubles sent investors scrambling to buy credit protection against a debt default by the firm.

The Barron’s piece slammed Fannie Mae and its cousin Freddie Mac, which are both crucial to the health of the nation’s home market, saying Fannie in particular faces losses of more than $50 billion and may be nationalized.

Its balance sheet is larded with soft assets and understated liabilities that would leave the company ill-equipped to weather a serious financial crisis. And spiraling mortgage defaults and falling home prices could bring a tsunami of credit losses over the next two years that will severely test Fannie’s solvency.

Should Fannie or the similarly hobbled Freddie Mac buckle, the government would no doubt bail them out and honor their debt and mortgage guarantee obligations. Fannie common and preferred shareholders would likely suffer grievously in such a scenario.

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire.

The FT also notes that shares of Citigroup were down 6 percent, while Lehman Brothers plunged more than 7 percent.

The Swooning Buck

We figure you can get all your prostitution news elsewhere this morning, so here’s Story No. 2…

The WSJ reports above the fold on A1 that inflation is causing a sort of feedback loop with the weak dollar, as central banks shore up their currencies to fight inflation in their own countries. The Journal says in its second paragraph that even the Vietnamese dong is rising rapidly against the buck. We’ll leave it at that.

The weak dollar has played a role in the latest surge in commodity prices…

When the dollar weakens, commodities priced in dollars effectively become cheaper for buyers holding other currencies, spurring demand. At the same time, the producers of these commodities have an incentive to boost prices, since they are getting paid in less-valuable dollars…

In the past, many developing countries, in particular, have been reluctant to allow their currencies to strengthen because it makes their exports more expensive in global markets. But in the past year or so, as investors have flooded into these countries, the upward pressures on their currencies have grown—raising the costs of government efforts to hold them down.

China in particular is boosting its currency after years of grousing by U.S. politicians to do just that. While it cared little for the gum-flapping of the American government, it’s much more concerned about reports like Bloomberg’s yesterday that showed its inflation rate hit nearly 9 percent in February—something the WSJ’s story misses.

Countrywide Drumbeat

The WSJ on A3 follows up on its Saturday scoop on Countrywide’s burgeoning legal problems. It says federal investigators are discovering that the mortgage lender’s loan docs were replete with either false or possibly false information. They’re essentially trying to find out whether the company uses these lapses to overstate the quality of the mortgages it bundled into securities and sold to investors.

Bank of America, which agreed to purchase Countrywide a couple of months ago, has got to be loving all of this. Hey, you lie down with dogs…

Countrywide, long the No. 1 mortgage company in the U.S. in terms of dollar value of loan originations, also was considered among the most aggressive in finding ways to make home loans to consumers whose qualifications couldn’t be proved or seemed questionable, mortgage industry executives and analysts said. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has begun looking into its practices in pursuing such business, according to people close to the matter.

Notably, the WSJ doesn’t repeat its scoop from Saturday that the feds are looking at whether Countrywide has basically been cooking its books by not fessing up to its losses.

Here’s what it said then:

Another potential issue facing the company is whether it has been candid in its accounting for losses. People familiar with the matter said that Countrywide’s losses may be several times greater than it has disclosed.

Is the Journal backing off? We’ll be watching this.

A Loss, By Any Other Name

In more bad news for the private-equity boys, Blackstone Group’s profit flopped by 90 percent last quarter and it says it’s outlook isn’t much better for at least the next year.

According to which story/accounting spin you believe, Blackstone either earned $88 million in the fourth quarter, an 89 percent fall from a year ago, or it lost $170 million, including compensation expenses.

The WSJ calls it a loss in its front-page Business & Finance column, but spins it into a profit by the time its story hits C3.

Bloomberg initially reported Blackstone had a loss, but calls it a profit here.

Wall Street analysts base their estimates on what Blackstone calls “economic net income,” which doesn’t conform with generally accepted accounting principles for net income and excludes compensation costs related to the vesting period for executives’ ownership stakes.

Whatever that means.

The New York Times says Blackstone and the “Buyout Industry Staggers Under Weight of Debt.” It reports CEO Stephen Schwarzman has lost $4 billion because of the stock’s plunge since its IPO last summer.

That hasn’t stopped him from coming off some serious cash, though. Schwarzman is going to slap his name all over the hallowed New York Public Library for a fee of $100 million, according to an NYT scoop. The money will go toward a $1 billion library modernization plan.

Lots of potential Quotes of the Day on this one, but we’ll go with this:

“We hope to incise the name of the building in stone in a subtle, discreet way on either side of the main entrance about three feet off the ground,” said Paul LeClerc, president of the library’s board of trustees. “It’s in keeping with the dignity of the building.”

In non-biblioteca private-equity news, Carlyle Capital is begging its lenders to quit selling its holdings to cover margin calls. Wall Street has already sold $5 billion of Carlyle’s $21 billion in assets, the WSJ says on C2.

The Fed As Backstop

The Journal says on A2 that the Federal Reserve, so far stymied in its attempts to stave off a market and economic meltdown, may get creative, perhaps by lending to non-banks or buying Fannie and Freddie bonds itself. Haven’t heard that old government lecture to wiseacre Wall Street-types-who-knew-better that it doesn’t backstop those folks lately.

This paragraph doesn’t make us feel better:

Since 1932, the Fed has had the authority to lend, against collateral, to individuals, partnerships or corporations other than banks in “unusual and exigent circumstances,” subject to the vote of five members of the Board of Governors. (The board has seven seats, but two are currently vacant.) This power has never been used.

On its Money & Investing section the WSJ fronts a scoop that the SEC is investigating whether the mayor of Jefferson County, Alabama—the government in the news for probably being about to go bankrupt after losing derivatives bets on sewer bonds—got bribed by a local bank to give them the bond-underwriting business.

We didn’t think the sewer-bond story could get too interesting, but it may well prove us wrong.

Out The Door

And the Wall Street layoffs begin. Lehman Brothers is laying off 5 percent of its workforce, while a WSJ column says top execs on the Street say as many as one in five jobs in the industry will go the way of the subprime mortgage-backed security.

Take a look at this:

A look at the numbers explains the restlessness. U.S. investment-banking fees are off 48% from the year-earlier period, according to Dealogic. Banks’ lending revenues have fallen a stunning 84%, mergers work is off by half, and debt and equity levels are each off by 21%. Some bankers in the lending business are reporting to work two days a week. “If they say they’re busy, they’re lying,” said one head of investment banking.

Good column. Read the whole thing.


Well, we lied. Here’s your New York gubernatorial hooker scandal links of the day, courtesy of the Journal’s A1: Wall Streeters jumping in the Street after their hypocritical inquisitor hoists himself on his own petard.

But in his eight-year run as New York attorney general, ending in 2006, Mr. Spitzer appeared at times to get personal in pursuing individuals. Critics said he bullied opponents, threatening to publicly reveal embarrassing details of a company’s business or an executive’s conduct to force management changes or headline-grabbing fines. In the case against Mr. Grasso, lawyers working for Mr. Spitzer asked the former Big Board chairman in a deposition about personal relationships and collected information about Mr. Grasso’s spending habits and his family’s travel.

After the news broke yesterday, Andrew Sabin, a friend of Mr. Grasso’s who lives near him on Long Island, said he spoke briefly with Mr. Grasso’s wife, Lori. “I said I’d buy Dick some champagne,” said Mr. Sabin, owner of precious-metals firm Sabin Commodities. “I’m sure he’s happy. I’m sure everybody on Wall Street is happy.”

The NYT says even Spitzer’s enemies are shocked.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.