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Role of economic forecasting

The Crisis Unfolds.

The first major institution to go under was Countrywide Financial Corp., the largest American mortgage lender. Bank of America agreed in January 2008 to terms for completing its purchase of the California-based Countrywide. With large shares of Countrywide’s mortgages delinquent, Bank of America was able to buy it for $4 billion on top of the $2 billion stake that it had acquired the previous August—a fraction of Countrywide’s recent market value.

The next victim, in March, was the Wall Street investment house Bear Stearns, which had a thick portfolio of mortgage-based securities. As the value of those securities plummeted, Bear was rescued from bankruptcy by JPMorgan Chase, which agreed to buy it for a bargain-basement price of $10 per share (about $1.2 billion), and the Federal Reserve (Fed), which agreed to absorb up to $30 billion of Bear’s declining assets.

If the Fed’s involvement in the bailout of Bear Stearns left any doubt that even a conservative Republican government—such as that of U.S. Pres. George W. Bush—could find it necessary to insert itself into private enterprise, the rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in September laid that uncertainty to rest. The two private mortgage companies, which historically enjoyed a slight edge in the marketplace by virtue of their congressional charters, held or guaranteed about half of the country’s mortgages. With the rush of defaults of subprime mortgages, Fannie and Freddie suffered the same losses as other mortgage companies, only worse. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, unwilling to abidethe turmoil that the failure of Fannie and Freddie would entail, seized control of them on September 7, replaced their CEOs, and promised each up to $100 billion in capital if necessary to balance their books.