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Citing Grave Financial Threats, Officials Ready Massive Rescue

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By Binyamin Appelbaum and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 19, 2008

The Bush administration is urgently preparing a massive intervention to revive the U.S. financial system, including a plan to sweep away the unpaid loans that are choking banks and blocking the flow of money to borrowers.

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Congressional leaders gave bipartisan support to the administration's efforts after a meeting last night with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.

Paulson and Bernanke presented a "chilling" picture of the state of the financial system, according to a participant in the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity. Lawmakers were told that the consequences would be grave if they failed to pass legislation by the end of next week. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) committed to meeting that deadline.

The plan involves using hundreds of billions of dollars in government funding to buy bad loans, leaving banks with more money and fewer problems, according to two sources familiar with what was said at the meeting.

After the meeting, Paulson told reporters the proposal was "an expeditious solution that is aimed right at the heart of this problem."

Also last night, the Fed was considering offering backing for money-market mutual funds, which have had massive withdrawals in recent days, said a source familiar with the discussions.

And the Securities and Exchange Commission is considering further limits on short-selling, a practice that allows investors to bet on a decline in a company's stock price, according to a person familiar with the matter. Critics of the practice say short sellers are driving down the share prices of financial companies, thereby contributing to their destruction.

The government has already tried three times this month to keep money flowing through the financial system. It took over the two largest providers of funding for mortgage loans, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It created a new source of funding for investment banks. And it took over the insurance giant American International Group.

Now the government is contemplating its broadest -- and perhaps most expensive -- intervention to date.

The urgency has only grown with each successive intervention because the first three tries have not worked. People are withdrawing money from money-market mutual funds. Banks are refusing to lend to one another. Several large financial companies need money to stay in business, including the bank Washington Mutual, which is seeking a buyer.

Regulators and the banking industry are increasingly concerned about customer withdrawals from money-market funds. Crane Data, which tracks the industry, said total deposits in money-market funds fell Wednesday by at least $79 billion, or about 2.6 percent. Financial executives have told government officials in recent conversations that the rising pace of withdrawals is the equivalent of a bank run and that if it continues, it will drain a massive and critical source of funding.

Money-market funds are particularly important because they buy short-term debt, which is used by financial companies and other corporations to finance day-to-day activities.


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