So JP Morgan has agreed to buy Bear Stearns at $2 a share. As others have already pointed out, this is, from the point of view of the shareholders, just barely better than bankruptcy. Talk of a bailout of the bank is silly--this wasn't a bailout; it was an orderly winding-up of business.
This was always the most likely outcome--of the American bulge brackets, JP Morgan has the largest balance sheet and access to the Federal Reserve's discount window. Now that it's happened, we can breathe a sigh of relief that one gigantic disaster has been averted. Libertarians and liberals arguing against the Fed's role in all this sound to me either ignorant or psychotic. The credit markets are already badly malfunctioning (yes, I was wrong). Bear Stearns is the counterparty to a huge number of transactions. Allowing it to fail would have been like throwing a hand grenade into a burning pool of gasoline; bankruptcy proceedings are time-consuming and uncertain. JP Morgan has the ability to assume their risks without any danger of going under themselves; that's very good for the markets, and by extension, us.
Yes, this is creating moral hazard that we'll have to deal with, probably unpleasantly, down the road. But whatever the moral hazard, it is hard to see how it could be worse than the full-blown financial crisis the Fed is trying to avert.
There's an argument, of course, that successive Fed interventions, starting with the Russian bond crisis, have turned bankers into ever-greater risk takers, making each crisis bigger and more expensive than the last. The thinking goes that we need to draw the line here, whatever the cost, because if we let the financiers go on their merry way, eventually they'll create a wave that will swamp the Fed's power to intervene. Possibly so, but from what I hear, the people on Wall Street are pretty much scared right down to the tips of their Gordon Gekko underoos.
In some sense, right now it's the Fed's job to manage that fear--to scare them enough to ratchet back their risk profile, without scaring them so badly that they hunker down inside their weekend house and refuse to buy or sell anything. That's very tricky, and since in the long run we'll all be dead, I'd rather the Fed err slightly on the side of cheering them up. Perhaps Helicopter Ben should start pumping anti-depressants into the Wall Street water supply.
Because while we have, as I say, averted one gigantic disaster, there are still plenty of potential other ones waiting in the wings. The Bear buyout sends reassurance about the fate of its trades--but the Bear collapse, for all that it has been rumored for months, could send a fresh wave of fear through the markets. In the very short term, I'd imagine the buyout will improve matters in our markets (though Asian bank stocks are trading down), but as the week and the month unfold? Well, I'm glad I'm not in the prediction business.
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