Bank Losses Complicate U.S. Rescue

By David Cho, Binyamin Appelbaum and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 15, 2009

A new wave of bank losses is overwhelming the federal government's emergency response, as financial firms struggle with the souring U.S. economy, the rapid deterioration of global markets and the unexpectedly high costs of shotgun mergers arranged by federal officials last year.

The problems are intensifying the pressure on the incoming Obama administration to allocate more of the $700 billion rescue program to financial firms even as Democratic leaders have urged more help for distressed homeowners, small businesses and municipalities. Senior Federal Reserve officials said this week that the bulk of the money should go to banks.

Some Fed officials suggested that even more than $700 billion may be required, and financial analysts at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere say banks will have to raise hundreds of billions of dollars from public or private sources.

This year is expected to be worse for banks than last year, senior government officials and analysts say. The money from the first half of the rescue program helped banks replace most of the money they lost during the first nine months of 2008. But the firms are beginning to report fourth-quarter losses that are larger than analysts expected, and the economic environment continues to worsen quickly.

The markets got a taste yesterday of just how badly the year ended. European giant Deutsche Bank revealed an unexpected estimated loss of about $6.3 billion for the fourth quarter. HSBC, which has not yet raised capital during the financial crisis, may need $30 billion from investors, according to Morgan Stanley analysts.

Global stock markets reacted by plummeting, with financial shares falling the hardest. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly 3 percent.

Meanwhile, Bank of America was on the verge of receiving billions more in federal aid to help it absorb troubled investment bank Merrill Lynch, whose losses had outpaced expectations, according to people familiar with the matter. That money would come on top of the $25 billion the government has already invested in Bank of America, including $10 billion specifically in connection with the Merrill Lynch deal.

Senior economic advisers to President-elect Barack Obama have said that restoring health to financial markets and the slumping economy requires the second half of the $700 billion rescue program as well as a massive stimulus package with a price tag approaching $850 billion.

On Tuesday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke, suggested that more help for banks could be needed. "History demonstrates conclusively that a modern economy cannot grow if its financial system is not operating effectively," he said, adding that both the stimulus and the rescue package were essential to restoring health to financial firms.

Yet it remained unclear yesterday whether Congress would approve the release of the last $350 billion in the program known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Obama's transition team asked lawmakers to do so Monday, saying it was urgently needed. But Democrats are growing increasingly concerned about their ability to quickly deliver the money to Obama.

In the Senate, Republican support for release of the funds has evaporated in the face of public anger over the Bush administration's management of the program. With more than a handful of Democrats also opposed, Senate leaders scrambled yesterday to rally support.

The Senate is set to vote today on a resolution to block the release of the money.

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