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Wrong banking model

The month’s upheavals were not over. With Bear Stearns disposed of, the markets bid down share prices of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, two other investment banks with exposure to mortgage-backed securities. Neither could withstand the heat. Under pressure from the Treasury, Merrill Lynch, whose “bullish on America” slogan had made it the popular embodiment of Wall Street, agreed on September 14 to sell itself to Bank of America for $50 billion, half of its market value within the past year. Lehman Brothers, however, could not find a buyer, and the government refused a Bear Stearns-style subsidy. Lehman declared bankruptcy the day after Merrill’s sale.

Next on the markets’ hit list was American International Group (AIG), the country’s biggest insurer, which faced huge losses on credit default swaps. With AIG unable to secure credit through normal channels, the Fed provided an $85 billion loan on September 16. When that amount proved insufficient, the Treasury came through with $38 billion more. In return, the U.S. government received a 79.9% equity interest in AIG.

Five days later saw the end for the big independent investment banks. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were the only two left standing, and their big investors, worried that they might be the markets’ next targets, began moving their billions to safer havens. Rather than proclaim their innocence all the way to bankruptcy court, the two investment banks chose to transform themselves into ordinary bank holding companies. That put them under the respected regulatory umbrella of the Fed and gave them access to the Fed’s various kinds of credit for the institutions that it regulates.