Fears About Economy Increase

The Growing Gap
By Anthony Faiola and Tomoeh Murakami Tse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 12, 2008

Major banks and mortgage companies yesterday sharply accelerated an industry consolidation that is set to change the landscape of American lending, while a convergence of events exposed fresh worries about the U.S. economy.

New indications emerged yesterday that the spiraling subprime mortgage crisis is spreading from home loans to credit cards, potentially engulfing a far broader segment of Americans. At the same time, the U.S. trade deficit soared to a 14-month high, fueled by soaring oil prices.

And rising concern that U.S. investment houses, particularly Merrill Lynch, may yet suffer far greater losses, helped set up a wide market sell-off.

Echoing the heightened concern, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. said yesterday that the U.S. economy had slowed "rather materially" at the end of 2007 and that "time is of the essence" in launching an economic stimulus package to stave off a recession.

Meanwhile, a broad shake-up of the U.S. lending industry is speeding up. Bank of America agreed yesterday to buy the troubled Countrywide Financial for $4 billion, a bargain-basement price for the nation's largest mortgage lender, which, analysts said, could have even more substantial mortgage-related losses ahead.

"There are signs" that the economy "is slowing down fairly rapidly," Paulson told Bloomberg Television. Congressional Democrats have promised to work with the Bush administration to pass a series of economic measures meant to boost consumer confidence and fend off a sharp downturn, perhaps including tax rebates for low- and middle-income Americans and tax cuts and other fiscal measures to boost investment. "If something were to be done here, I think the focus would be on something that's temporary and that could get done and make a difference soon," Paulson said.

Some saw the rescuing of Countrywide from possible bankruptcy, as well as news that J.P. Morgan Chase is in "very early talks" with about a half-dozen regional banks, including Washington Mutual of Seattle, as evidence of a much-needed consolidation that in the long run could fortify the lending industry and eventually ease the nation's credit crunch.

At best, however, that dawn remains some ways off. Economists said the market drop yesterday signals that Wall Street is increasingly betting on a recession and failed to respond to vows by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke that the central bank would act aggressively to prevent one.

The Dow Jones industrial average of 30 blue-chip stocks plunged 246.79, or 1.9 percent, to 12,606.30. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, a broader market measure, lost 19.31, or 1.4 percent, to 1401.02. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index declined 48.58, or 2 percent, to 2439.94.

"I almost feel like we're in the first innings of a bear market," said Jim Herrick, director of equity trading at Robert W. Baird. "It's really hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Jitters were also stirred by a New York Times report that Merrill Lynch may take a $15 billion write-down when it reports earnings next week, exceeding the $12 billion that had been predicted. In addition, American Express shares shed 10.1 percent of their value after the company warned that it would take a charge of $440 million in the fourth quarter, in part to cover higher delinquencies.

As companies continue to be squeezed in the credit crunch, the landscape for financial institutions has increasingly become a matter of survival of the fittest. Wobbling mortgage lenders are searching for bailouts, and banks relatively unscathed by deteriorating mortgage assets are cautiously looking for discounted takeover targets.

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