September 20, 2008 / 5:24 AM / 11 years ago

U.S. readies massive toxic-debt plan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. government is preparing to mop up hundreds of billions of dollars in bad mortgage debt, after curbing short-selling and guaranteeing mutual funds in an effort to stabilize financial markets.

A trader Jeff SIlver pauses in the S&P 500 pit at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, September 19, 2008. REUTERS/John Gress

The moves cap a week in which financial markets faced their most serious confluence of crises since the Great Depression in the 1930s and threatened national economies and the worldwide banking system.

“It’s like having a heart attack, and you go and get your chest cracked open and get it fixed, but the next morning you’re still hurting,” said Warren Simpson, managing director at Stephens Capital Management in Little Rock, Arkansas. “This has been a beast of biblical proportions. Nobody has seen anything like it.”

Lawmakers promised fast action on the toxic-debt plan, which two banking industry sources put in the $500 billion to $800 billion range. A Treasury spokeswoman declined comment.

As the government brought out the big guns to tackle the financial crisis, investment bank Morgan Stanley bought itself some time to come up with a plan for its future and talked to Wachovia Corp and other banks about a merger.

On Saturday, a U.S. bankruptcy judge approved British bank Barclays Plc’s deal to purchase the core U.S. business of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

But much of the markets’ focus was on Washington, as officials from President George W Bush’s administration, Congress and the Federal Reserve worked to craft a number of plans to restore confidence in shaken stock markets.

The U.S. government has pledged more than $1 trillion to prop up the financial system and housing market.

The U.S. Treasury said on Friday it would use $50 billion to back money-market mutual funds whose asset values fall below $1.

“The problems were critical, both in the credit markets and with banks,” said Blake Howells, director of equity research at Becker Capital Management in Portland, Oregon. “The government is trying to stop a domino effect of more institutions failing, and taking others down.”

U.S. stocks soared as the Dow Jones industrial average closed up 368.8 points, or 3.4 percent, at 11,388.4, and the Nasdaq rose 74.8, or 3.4 percent, to 2,273.9. Other global markets also reacted sharply.

WORKING FOR THE WEEKEND

Government officials said they had more work to do.

“We must now take further, decisive action to fundamentally and comprehensively address the root cause of our financial system’s stresses,” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said.

“The federal government must implement a program to remove these illiquid assets that are weighing down our financial institutions and threatening our economy.”

Banks worldwide have suffered more than $500 billion of write-downs and loan losses since the global credit crisis began more than a year ago.

The crisis grew more acute this month with government takeovers of mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc; Merrill Lynch & Co’s shot-gun agreement to be bought by Bank of America Corp; and a bailout of insurer AIG. This came just six months after a government-backed rescue of Bear Stearns Cos.

Government officials have indicated their willingness to do what they can to prevent a major financial institution from going under and roiling the overall markets. A government plan was expected to be sent to Congress this weekend.

“They are absolutely petrified of just a run on financial assets and they came very close to that on Thursday,” said Boris Schlossberg, director of currency research at GFT Forex in New York. “At this point they have just decided that fiscal responsibility goes out the door.”

The banking issues are not limited to the United States.

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UK lender HSBC Holdings walked away from a $6.3 billion deal for control of Korea Exchange Bank, fuelling speculation it may be turning its attentions to its embattled rivals in the West.

After Britain’s Financial Services Authority (FSA) imposed a four-month ban on short-selling financial stocks on Thursday, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission followed suit on Friday with an immediate 10-day ban.

The world’s central banks also redoubled their efforts to lubricate the seized-up money markets. Japan, Australia, India and Indonesia pumped in $42 billion after the U.S. Fed coordinated a $180 billion package a day earlier.

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