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Bush proposes radical Wall Street bailout

U.S. would take over more than $500 billion in bad debt held by failing institutions.

September 21, 2008|Tom Raum and Jeannine Aversa | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Struggling to stave off financial catastrophe, the Bush administration Friday laid out a radical bailout plan with a jaw-dropping price tag -- a takeover of half a trillion dollars or more in worthless mortgages and other bad debt held by tottering institutions.

Relieved investors sent stocks soaring on Wall Street and around the globe. The Dow-Jones industrial average rose 368 points after surging 410 points the day before on rumors the federal action was afoot.

A grim-faced President Bush acknowledged risks to taxpayers in what would be the most sweeping government intervention to rescue failing financial institutions since the Depression. But, he said, "the risk of not acting would be far higher."

The administration is asking Congress for far-reaching new powers to take over troubled mortgages from banks and other companies, including purchasing sour mortgage-backed securities. Administration officials and congressional leaders are to work out details over the weekend.

Congressional officials said they expected a request for legal authority to buy up the bad loans, at a cost in excess of $500 billion to the government. Democrats were discussing whether to try to attach middle-class assistance to the legislation, despite a request from Bush to avoid adding controversial items that could delay action. An expansion of jobless benefits was one possibility.

In other major steps, the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve moved to give money-market mutual funds the same kind of federal protection, at least temporarily, that applies to savings and checking accounts and certificates of deposit at banks. Money-market accounts sold through retail banks are already insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The spreading global selling panic had started to threaten some money-market funds, usually thought of as rock-solid investments. Administration officials feared a run on these funds, held by millions of Americans.

"Every American should know that the federal government continues to enforce laws and regulations protecting your money," Bush said at the White House. The 75-year-old FDIC insures bank accounts and CDs up to $100,000.

Separately, the Securities and Exchange Commission acted to block short-selling in financial securities. The trading method that bets the value of stocks will go down has been blamed for accelerating the plunge in stock prices of banks and other financial institutions.

"This is a pivotal moment for America's economy," Bush said. "In our nation's history, there have been moments that require us to come together across party lines to address major challenges. This is such a moment."

Congressional leaders of both parties welcomed the administration's moves, after a series of ad hoc rescues.

The two main presidential candidates also spoke of bipartisanship, though on the campaign trail Barack Obama and John McCain traded harsh rhetoric over who could best deal with the nation's financial woes.

The federal government already has pledged more than $600 billion in the last year to bail out, or help bail out, some of the biggest names in American finance. That includes the rescue of investment bank Bear Stearns Cos. in March, the takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac this month and the takeover of the world's largest insurance company, American International Group, last week.

But the contagion continued to spread, bringing political consensus that drastic and comprehensive federal action was needed.

There are precedents for such a federal takeover.

In the late 1980s, the government created the Resolution Trust Corporation to tackle the savings and loan crisis. It acquired the defaulted mortgages, foreclosed real estate and other assets of nearly 1,000 failed S&Ls, restoring order and stability to the system. Resolving that crisis took six years and $125 billion in taxpayer money, roughly equal to $200 billion in today's dollars.

And the Reconstruction Finance Corp., a Depression-era relief program formed in 1932 by President Hoover, tried to revive the market by giving loans to banks and other businesses.

On Friday, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson gave few details about the structure of the new program. Asked about a price tag, he said, "hundreds of billions" of dollars.

Congressional leaders said they were ready to move quickly but still needed details of the administration plan. For instance, there was no indication of what the government would get in return from financial companies for the assistance.

Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke briefed lawmakers in both parties on the idea by conference call Friday.

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