Stocks rallied after the Standard & Poor’s ratings agency decided not to downgrade monoline bond insurers MBIA and Ambac Financial, saying their efforts to shore up its business had succeeded for now.

Wall Street’s sigh that it won’t have to take tens of billions in write-downs—for now—sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 190 points. S&P did downgrade three smaller bond insurers and left the door open to downgrading Ambac, which isn’t as far along as MBIA in shoring up its capital base. The New York Times captures the mood here.

“This is a reprieve. It doesn’t eliminate the problem,” said Russ Koesterich, a strategist at Barclays Global Investors. “It just says, in the near term, this is not imminent.”

MBIA made further moves to cement its standing. It suspended its dividend and its structured-finance insurance business and officially announced it would split into two operations, a municipal-bond business and a structured-finance one. Its new (old) CEO says he has “questions” about the company’s preliminary 2007 results.

The Wall Street Journal says fourth quarter corporate earnings have declined 21 percent, though much of that is on the backs of the financial companies. Take them away and S&P 500 profits are up more than 12 percent.

“There is a debate right now about whether we’ve successfully priced in all the bad news that’s likely to come” regarding the economy and bad credit bets on Wall Street, said Art Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co.

The picture at Citigroup continued to to deteriorate yesterday with a trove of information from its annual report.
A prominent analyst slashed her estimates for the company’s earnings by 70 percent, saying the bank’s share price should fall to levels not seen in nearly twenty years. Citi has off-balance-sheet entities totaling $356 billion, which expose it to losses of up to $152 billion.

The bank also said it has about $20 billion in commercial real estate investments that may suffer along with that market this year. The WSJ notes that Citi disclosed that its traders had daily losses of more than $100 million on fifteen separate occasions last year.

Quote of the Day:

“There are just so many things that they’re struggling with,” Mr. Hendler said. “Everybody wants more disclosure, but when they get it, they get more depressed.”

Visa said it would go public in a $19 billion initial public offering—the biggest in history.

The business papers all say the move could be a boon for struggling banks, 13,000 of which own Visa as a cooperative. Depending on whom you believe, J.P. Morgan alone could reap $1.1 billion (NYT), $1.2 billion (WSJ), or $4 billion (Financial Times) from the sale. For some reason, the NYT has a different overall number on the IPO, as well, putting it at $17 billion.

The FT says the banks may have pressured Visa into an IPO as a way to get some much-needed cash at a time when the capital they use to make loans has been hammered by losses from the credit crisis.

Investors will note that MasterCard, which went public less than two years ago, has seen its shares soar nearly 400 percent in that time, though Discover has fallen by half since Morgan Stanley spun it off last year.

A jury convicted five former AIG and General Re insurance executives, including the latter’s ex-CEO, of sixteen counts of fraud and conspiracy for inflating AIG’s reserves by half a billion dollars to artificially boost its share price. Prosecutors said their work was not over and they’ll continue to look “up the ladder.” The NYT and the WSJ say the convictions could prompt prosecutors to turn next to former AIG CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who was an unindicted co-conspirator.

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 rc2538@columbia.edu.