CIT still fighting to stay out of bankruptcy

/ Source: The Associated Press

CIT Group Inc.'s shares nearly doubled Friday as the commercial lender held talks with several large banks about securing emergency financing in hopes of avoiding a bankruptcy filing.

But the company' stock remains well below $1 — and down 54 percent from only a week ago — suggesting investors still rate its prospects of survival as slim after the federal government refused to rescue the firm.

CIT is in talks with JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley about receiving short-term financing that may help it avoid filing for Chapter 11 protection, a person familiar with the talks told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential.

CIT has been scrambling to raise $2 billion to $4 billion after the federal government refused to bail out the company, one of the nation's largest lenders to small and midsize businesses.

Another option under discussion is for the banks to give CIT financing under a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, according to the source. That would allow the company to restructure under court protection and would ease fears about restricting access to credit for thousands of small retailers, manufacturers and other businesses.

CIT's stock jumped 29 cents to close at 70 cents after rising as high as 93 cents earlier in the day.

"It looks like they're doing everything they can to avoid bankruptcy," said longtime banking analyst Bert Ely.

But there is no guarantee an agreement will be able to save the ailing company, which is teetering on the brink after rescue talks with government regulators broke off late Wednesday after days of round-the-clock negotiations. The New York-based bank faces $7.4 billion in debt due in the first quarter of next year.

Highlighting its woes, CIT was removed from the Standard & Poor's 500 index Friday and replaced with software distributor Red Hat Inc.

CIT, which got $2.3 billion of bailout money in December, had warned that depriving it of more federal aid could imperil about a million corporate borrowers — from Dunkin' Donuts franchisees to retailer Dillards Inc. But the Obama administration turned down the company's request, showing it's drawing a line on federal rescues for troubled financial firms.

CIT bondholders had discussed their options Thursday in a conference call that involved restructuring firm Houlihan Lokey.

If CIT can improve its liquidity, either through debt restructuring or by getting an injection of private equity, that could give it better leverage to reopen talks with regulators. The most likely avenue for survival would be getting permission to transfer assets to the company's bank. The bank could then borrow against that money at a discount if the Fed allows it.

Such transfers require approval from the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. because regulators don't want banks — whose deposits are insured — to risk insolvency by bailing out their parent companies.

Regulators resisted CIT's earlier plea for permission to make a transfer because they didn't think the company was strong enough, and worried it would default on any loans from the Fed. With a stronger balance sheet, CIT may make a better case.

Both Fitch Ratings and Moody's further downgraded CIT's debt Thursday following the company's announcement that it expects no further federal support.

CIT's small size relative to other big commercial banks may ease worries of a ripple effect through the U.S. economy. Though a major lender to small and midsize U.S. business with about a million clients, CIT is one-eighth of the size of Lehman Brothers when massive credit losses forced the investment bank into bankruptcy last fall.

CIT had also begun cutting back on lending in recent months, diminishing the risk a possible bankruptcy could cause significant damage to the broader economy. The lender had $5.3 billion in credit lines to customers as of March, down from $6.1 billion at the end of 2008.

The Bush administration paid a price for its decision not to save Lehman Brothers, whose collapse helped spark the financial crisis last fall.

A bankruptcy filing would wipe out CIT's shareholders and possibly the government's $2.3 billion stake. But CIT's clients would not automatically lose their lines of credit, Ely said.

Still, with other lenders to retailers already under financial strain, many CIT clients may lose their financing options.

The company in April posted a larger first-quarter loss than expected and has seen funding options disappear as investors shy away from purchasing all but the safest forms of debt. The lender has $7.4 billion in debt coming due in the first quarter of 2010, plus other obligations.