Banks Drop Plan Aimed At Easing Credit Crunch

By David Cho and Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Treasury-backed plan to stabilize a vital segment of the credit markets has been shelved, the banks involved said yesterday.

The strategy called for banks across the globe to create a $100 billion fund aimed at jump-starting the troubled market for short-term loans, acting like a credit card for companies.

But the architects of the plan, which was developed by Citigroup and other leading financial institutions at series of meetings convened by Treasury officials this fall, struggled to recruit other banks and called it quits this week.

The plan aimed to help the market for short-term loans, or asset-backed commercial paper, which is a major driver of economic activity. Without these loans, companies struggle to issue mortgages and credit cards, and borrow to build automobile plants or hotels.

The fund was a signature initiative of Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. in his efforts to get the financial markets to function more normally.

Earlier this week, Paulson and the banks behind the plan said they were committed to its establishment. That changed yesterday after Treasury officials and the banks, which included Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase, said that the fund was "not needed at this time" because market conditions had improved.

Mark Zandi of Moody's said, however, that the fund's collapse "may put more pressure on the financial system and ultimately on Treasury to do something more."

The Treasury Department may have to create its own fund backed by taxpayers, he said. "But I don't think that happens unless the economy continues to weaken and we are headed definitely toward a recession," Zandi said.

The plan would have helped major issuers of asset-backed commercial paper called structured investment vehicles (SIVs). These semi-independent funds, set up by Wall Street banks to make complicated investments, have suffered deeply from the credit crunch.

The SIVs issue short-term loans and invest that money in securities backed in many cases by mortgages. But after a wave of defaults and foreclosures swept across the nation, the value of the securities held by the SIVs plummeted. The debt markets panicked, and the SIVs found it impossible to sell off any holdings.

With those large losses and a climate of fear in the marketplace, the SIVs were unable to issue short-term loans.

Since then, many banks, in particular Citigroup, have moved more than $100 billion in troubled assets from their SIVs onto their own balance sheets, alleviating a key rationale for the rescue fund. The transfer means the banks are agreeing to back loans made by the SIVs.

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