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Bank losses complicate U.S. rescue

A new wave of bank losses is overwhelming the government's response, as firms struggle with the U.S. economy, the deterioration of global markets and the costs of mergers arranged by federal officials.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A new wave of bank losses is overwhelming the federal government's emergency response, as financial firms struggle with the souring U.S. economy, the rapid deterioration of global markets and the unexpectedly high costs of shotgun mergers arranged by federal officials last year.

The problems are intensifying the pressure on the incoming Obama administration to allocate more of the $700 billion rescue program to financial firms even as Democratic leaders have urged more help for distressed homeowners, small businesses and municipalities. Senior Federal Reserve officials said this week that the bulk of the money should go to banks.

Some Fed officials suggested that even more than $700 billion may be required, and financial analysts at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere say banks will have to raise hundreds of billions of dollars from public or private sources.

This year is expected to be worse for banks than last year, senior government officials and analysts say. The money from the first half of the rescue program helped banks replace most of the money they lost during the first nine months of 2008. But the firms are beginning to report fourth-quarter losses that are larger than analysts expected, and the economic environment continues to worsen quickly.

The markets got a taste yesterday of just how badly the year ended. European giant Deutsche Bank revealed an unexpected estimated loss of about $6.3 billion for the fourth quarter. HSBC, which has not yet raised capital during the financial crisis, may need $30 billion from investors, according to Morgan Stanley analysts.

Global stock markets reacted by plummeting, with financial shares falling the hardest. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly 3 percent.

Meanwhile, Bank of America was on the verge of receiving billions more in federal aid to help it absorb troubled investment bank Merrill Lynch, whose losses had outpaced expectations, according to people familiar with the matter. That money would come on top of the $25 billion the government has already invested in Bank of America, including $10 billion specifically in connection with the Merrill Lynch deal.

Senior economic advisers to President-elect Barack Obama have said that restoring health to financial markets and the slumping economy requires the second half of the $700 billion rescue program as well as a massive stimulus package with a price tag approaching $850 billion.

On Tuesday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke, suggested that more help for banks could be needed. "History demonstrates conclusively that a modern economy cannot grow if its financial system is not operating effectively," he said, adding that both the stimulus and the rescue package were essential to restoring health to financial firms.

Yet it remained unclear yesterday whether Congress would approve the release of the last $350 billion in the program known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Obama's transition team asked lawmakers to do so Monday, saying it was urgently needed. But Democrats are growing increasingly concerned about their ability to quickly deliver the money to Obama.

In the Senate, Republican support for release of the funds has evaporated in the face of public anger over the Bush administration's management of the program. With more than a handful of Democrats also opposed, Senate leaders scrambled yesterday to rally support.

The Senate is set to vote today on a resolution to block the release of the money.

Late yesterday, Lawrence H. Summers, Obama's top economic adviser, and Rahm Emanuel, Obama's incoming chief of staff, met with Senate Republicans to try to persuade them to come aboard. But even many Republicans who voted to create the bailout program in October now say they are unlikely to back the release of the money.

If Congress votes to block the cash, Obama has the power to veto the resolution, all but ensuring the money would be in place early in his administration. Some Republicans said they see no point in casting an unpopular vote simply to spare Obama the discomfort of issuing a veto against the Democratic Congress as one of his first acts as president.

"The Republican base hates this. So a lot of people are saying why anger the base in the name of good policy when it's going to happen anyway?" said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee, which was at the center of negotiations during the TARP's creation.

Republicans -- and many Democrats -- also say they are dissatisfied with Obama's pledges to dramatically reshape the rescue package to more directly assist distressed homeowners, small business and other consumers in search of credit, as well as to bolster oversight.

Republicans, in particular, want assurances that the money would be reserved to help ease the credit crisis in the financial system. They do not want the funds to go to other sectors, such as the faltering auto industry, which last month won a small share of the money from the Bush administration. That decision, said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) turned the program into a "$350 billion slush fund."

After an hour-long meeting with Summers and Emanuel, many Republicans, even those who supported the TARP last fall, said they remained skeptical.

"They probably haven't said quite enough yet for most Republicans," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Lawmakers were initially swayed to vote for the bailout program in October because of evidence that some banks were in extreme trouble. At that time, the government pushed healthier banks to acquire faltering rivals.

Now the buyers, which included Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase and other major banks, are struggling to make the mergers work. The prices they paid seemed like bargains at the time, but losses have been greater than the banks expected.

J.P. Morgan Chase will be the first of several major U.S. institutions to report earnings in coming days. Last year, it acquired two troubled firms, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. Analysts expect J.P. Morgan to report a narrow profit after a very tough year-end quarter.

Citigroup, which has received $45 billion in government aid, is expected to report a loss of more than $3 billion on Friday. The company also plans to announce that it will sell several major units to raise capital.

Bank of America, which reports earnings next week, has had enough capital to support its own operations but not enough to absorb Merrill Lynch's losses, according to two people familiar with the situation. Losses at Merrill Lynch have outpaced expectations since the merger was announced in September.

The banks closed the deal Jan. 1 after the Treasury Department committed in principle to making an additional investment, the sources said.

Bank of America and the Treasury declined to comment.

In total, banks raised about $456 billion in 2008, of which 41 percent came from the U.S. government, according to investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. But most of the money from private sources was raised in the first half of the year. As the crisis has worsened, the institutions have come to rely almost entirely on government help.

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.