The American financial system was shaken to its core on Sunday. Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. faced the prospect of liquidation, and Merrill Lynch & Co. agreed to be sold to Bank of America Corp.
The U.S. government, which bailed out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac a week ago and orchestrated the sale of Bear Stearns Cos. to J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. in March, played much tougher with Lehman. It refused to provide a financial backstop to potential buyers.
Without such support, Barclays PLC and Bank of America, the two most interested buyers, walked away. On Sunday night, Bank of America struck a deal to buy Merrill Lynch for $29 a share, or about $44 billion. Lehman was working on a possible bankruptcy filing that would allow most of its subsidiaries to continue operating as the firm is wound down.
Though it steered clear of a bailout, the Federal Reserve is expected to take new steps to stabilize the broader financial system. These steps, expected to be temporary, would make it easier for banks and securities firms to borrow from the central bank by using a wider range of collateral. Bankers say these financial institutions might need short-term funds as they unwind their many trading positions with Lehman.
In addition, 10 major commercial and investment banks announced Sunday night that they would pool $70 billion of their own money to create a borrowing facility. The 10 institutions, which include Citigroup Inc., Credit Suisse Group, Deutsche Bank AG, could tap the pool to help them ride out the crisis. The banks also said they are mutually committed to trying to mitigate market volatility.
A sense of foreboding gripped Wall Street as top executives feared collateral damage from a Lehman liquidation. Attention was focused on Merrill Lynch, which boasts the largest force of retail brokers, and American International Group Inc., the insurance giant. Both firms have seen their stocks get hammered on worries that they needed capital.
“Monday will be a day of reckoning for the financial markets,” said Carlos Mendez, senior managing director of ICP Capital, a boutique investment firm in New York. On Sunday, he said, “it was like a fire alarm went off and people ran in all directions.”