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Friday, March 14, 2008

Despite the Federal Reserve's efforts Wall Street fears a big US bank is in trouble

Global stock markets may have cheered the US Federal Reserve yesterday, but on Wall Street the Fed's unprecedented move to pump $280 billion (£140 billion) into global markets was seen as a sure sign that at least one financial institution was struggling to survive.

The name on most people's lips was Bear Stearns. Although the Fed billed the co-ordinated rescue as a way of improving liquidity across financial markets, economists and analysts said that the decision appeared to be driven by an urgent need to stave off the collapse of an American bank.

“The only reason the Fed would do this is if they knew one or more of their primary dealers actually wasn't flush with cash and needed funds in a hurry,” Simon Maughan, an analyst with MF Global in London, said.

Mr Maughan said that the most likely victim was Bear Stearns, the first bank to run into trouble in the sub-prime crisis and the one that, among all wholesale and investment banks, is most reliant upon the use of mortgage securities for raising funds in the money markets.
“The average financial institution was up 7.5 per cent yesterday after the Fed's actions, but Bear Stearns rose just 1 per cent on massive trading volume,” Mr Maughan said. “The market is telling you it's Bear Stearns.”

Chris Whalen, of the financial consultancy Institutional Risk Analytics in New York, said: “The Fed move is confirmation that at least one of the banks is in trouble. A huge part of the banks' inventories are illiquid. If a broker-dealer is illiquid, it dies.”

Bankers say that mortgage lenders, such as Paragon, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley, could also be teetering on the brink soon if they cannot raise enough money in the markets to continue to lend to customers. All the banks have denied that they are facing a cash crunch and each has said that its liquidity position is strong. Nonetheless, the speculation continues to mount. Alan Schwartz, the Bear Stearns chief executive, reiterated that stance yesterday after Punk Ziegel analysts gave warning that the bank could be forced to seek a merger partner.

Yet banking sources said yesterday that a collapse seemed inevitable. One senior banker in London said: “Someone will go under in this crisis, that's for sure. The question is whether they stay under or get rescued. Let's see whether this latest round of stabilisation helps, but if it doesn't, it's difficult to see what Plan B is. The Fed can't just keep on printing money.”

She said that the Fed's moves amounted to window-dressing. “All the signs of stress that were there before are still here,” she said.

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