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Stocks Plunge as Crisis Intensifies

Global stocks have experienced wild fluctuations this week in the wake of the U.S. government's seizure of insurance giant American International Group, the failure of Lehman Brothers, the disappearance of Merrill Lynch as an independent company and reports the U.S. government will set up a government entity to take on bad debts from financial institutions.

"It's no secret that the company has been talking to the Feds and talking to us," Paterson said. "They asked us what assistance we could provide, and this is our idea."

A deal to rescue AIG may have to come quickly now that Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service have lowered their credit ratings for the firm, should the decision force AIG to boost its collateral to meet its obligations.

The Fed has maintained that it will not offer AIG a bridge loan or other direct injection from the government, according to sources familiar with the conversations. AIG executives huddled at their Manhattan headquarters over the weekend with potential private investors including J.C. Flowers, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and TPG as well as Paterson's representatives, including Dinallo; AIG was also talking to Warren E. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.

"I don't think anybody is going to lend that amount of money at terms that are anywhere near economically feasible without a backstop, without some form of guarantee, say by the Fed or another party," said Donn Vickrey of Gradient Analytics, who has been warning of trouble at AIG for months.

Vickrey said it appeared the Fed was playing a game of chicken with Wall Street, trying to pressure firms with a big stake in AIG's continued viability to step up to the plate.

AIG's stock fell 61 percent, to close at $4.76, yesterday.

At the same time, the Fed over the weekend made it easier for investment banking firms to borrow money by agreeing to accept a wider range of assets as collateral, including mortgage-backed securities that banks may not be able to sell. The increased availability of cash could be crucial to the investment banks, the rough equivalent of a home-equity line for a house-rich, cash-poor family.

"The actions of the Federal Reserve, it was the most overlooked but the most important thing that happened this weekend," said Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the largest financial companies.

The Fed's willingness to take those assets off banks' balance sheets could also help the institutions avoid further write-downs if those assets continue to lose value.

The Fed, for its part, is betting that the assets could eventually be sold for more than the market is willing to pay right now. If not, taxpayers could lose money.

Patricia McCoy, who served on the Fed's Consumer Advisory Council from 2002 to 2004, cautioned that "it's a big, big risk . . . Right now it's really hard to value that collateral. And in the meantime, even though the Fed financing is temporary, it sends a huge message to the investment banking industry to continue to arrange your balance sheets to be dependent on short-term financing, because when you get into a liquidity crunch, you can turn to us and we'll help you out."

Stocks' plunge yesterday showed that investors remained nervous. Shares opened lower but generally traded in the same range until the last hour of trading -- when a 300-point drop in the Dow became a 504.48-point rout, bringing it to 10,917.51, moving below the 11,000 mark for the first time since mid-July. The technology-heavy Nasdaq was down more than 3.5 percent, and the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index was down 4.7 percent.

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