The Bank Panic of 2008: Run, don’t walk to get your money out!

Feds seize control of major bank before collapse

By Sinclere Lee

With the stock market in freefall, the economy in the dumps, and inflation at an all time high, no wonder the banks across this country are beginning to fail. If you have one penny in any bank in America, you better run, don’t walk to your bank Monday morning and withdraw it out before it’s too late. You may have to stand in line (sic) to get your money out!

In what appears to be the most expensive bank failure ever in this country, troubled mortgage lender IndyMac Bancorp Inc. was taken over by federal regulators on Friday and no one could get their money out — Panic! When the banks fail, where should you put your money? Hide it in your damn mattress, fool!

The operations of the Pasadena, Calif. — based thrift — once one of the nation's largest home lenders - were shut down at 3 p.m. PDT by the Office of Thrift Supervision and transferred to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

It appears that about 95% of the $19 billion in deposits in the bank are insured, but that leaves $1 billion that was not covered by FDIC guarantees. According to the agency, 10,000 IndyMac customers could lose as much as half of that amount, or $500 million. The agency says the failure will cost the Deposit Insurance Fund between $4 billion and $8 billion, based on preliminary estimates.

"This will certainly be a costly failure. Whether it's the costliest, we just don't know at this point," FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said on a conference call late Friday night. The failure could also affect premiums paid by all banks for deposit insurance, she added.

The closure of IndyMac capped a dramatic day that offered a stark reminder that the credit crisis is not abating. An investor panic sent shares of mortgage finance giants Fannie (FNM, Fortune 500) Mae and Freddie (FRE, Fortune 500) Mac on a wild ride and fueled speculation of a government rescue.

A bank run (also known as a run on the bank) is a type of financial crisis. It is a panic which occurs when a large number of customers of a bank withdraw their deposits because they fear it is, or might become, insolvent. This action can destabilize the bank to the point where it becomes insolvent. Banks retain only a fraction of their deposits as cash (see fractional-reserve banking): the remainder is invested in securities and loans. No bank has enough reserves on hand to cope with more than the fraction of deposits being taken out at once. As a result, the bank faces bankruptcy, and will 'call in' the loans it has offered. This can cause the bank's debtors to face bankruptcy themselves, if the loan is invested in a plant or other items that cannot easily be sold.

What happens when the blanks fail? People panic… a banking panic occurs if many banks suffer runs at the same time. The resulting chain of bankruptcies can cause a long economic recession.

As a bank run progresses, it generates its own momentum, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. As more people withdraw their deposits, the likelihood of default increases, so other individuals have more incentive to withdraw their own deposits. A bank run is a kind of positive feedback loop, which has much in common with the reflexive processes described by economist George Soros, amongst others. Another example of a reflexive process is economic bubble.

The anxiety over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, crucial to a recovery of the battered housing market and the economy as a whole, reached a fever pitch on Friday and took shares of the companies and the broader markets on a wild ride.

The wild day capped a brutal week for the shares of the two companies, as investors fled the two giants on worries they would need a bailout that would wipeout the value of their stock.

IndyMac grew rapidly during the real estate and home building boom. Its specialty was so-called Alt-A loans, those for which home buyers were asked to produce little or no evidence of income or assets other than the house they were buying.

Fannie and Freddie: A wild ride… Panics, and Bank Distress during the Depression. Why?

Banks run by taking money from people and loaning it back out to others. Your money doesn't stay in the bank. The bank basically puts a Post-it note up, saying that you have given them some money. Meanwhile, they take your money and loan it out to people who then have to pay it back with interest. Interest is the bank's profit. In the Depression, everyone wanted to take their money out of the bank because they needed it and they were afraid the banks would fail. When the bank has no money to loan out, it has to close. Also, many people took out loans during the 1920s, but couldn't pay it back when the Depression hit. Banks lost money because people could pay them back. When a company has no money, it has to close.

An early selloff was fanned by speculation of a looming government bailout. The stocks recovered on assurances by a leading senator that no rescue is needed and a Reuters report that said the Federal Reserve is opening up its discount window to Fannie and Freddie.

But after the market closed, Federal Reserve spokeswoman Michelle Smith told CNN that no discussions with Fannie or Freddie about access to the discount window have taken place.

The discount window is a source of funds that traditionally was only available to commercial banks. But after the Fed engineered the purchase of Wall Street firm Bear Stearns in March, it opened the window to investment banks as well.

Smith added that "the Fed is following the situation with Fannie and Freddie closely" and that she was "not prepared to discuss the range of options and alternatives" available to the Fed regarding Fannie and Freddie.

Immediately after the markets opened Friday, shares of Fannie (FNM, Fortune 500) and Freddie (FRE, Fortune 500) fell more than 47% from their already battered closing price the day before.

But the stocks made up much of their earlier losses. Fannie finished the day down 22% while Freddie's stock closed with a 3% loss.

Friday's selloff left both shares down just over 45% for the week and about 75% for so far this year.

Still, analysts say there is little doubt that the federal government would step in to rescue Fannie and Freddie should rising losses and plunging stock prices leave them without the capital they needed to continue to be the primary source of mortgage funding in the nation.

Fannie and Freddie hold or back $5 trillion between them, or about half the mortgage debt in the country.

They play a central role in the U.S. housing market, providing a crucial source of funding for banks and other home lenders, especially since a credit market crisis last summer left them the only major players in packaging pools of mortgage loans into securities for sale to investors.

If they were unable to do so, it would significantly raise the cost and restrict the availability of mortgage loans, causing significantly more problems for already battered housing prices and sales. That in turn would be another significant problem for the overall U.S. economy, as well as global credit markets.

The Fed is trying to restore a sense of calm

The problems for Freddie and Fannie weighed on broader markets, causing a sell-off in U.S. stocks, especially hitting major banks, Wall Street firms and home builders. At one point during the day the Dow fell below the 11,000 mark for the first time in nearly two years.

Fannie and Freddie both said in statements issued late Friday that they have the adequate capital they need to operate and to meet targets required by regulators.

"In fact, we have more core capital, and a higher surplus over our regulatory requirement, than at any time in this company's history," said Fannie's statement.

Freddie's statement said speculation in media reports about a government takeover of the firms through a process known as conservatorship was not accurate.

"Freddie Mac is not on the threshold of conservatorship because we are adequately capitalized," said the statement. "The preliminary indications of our expected financial performance for the second quarter, while reflecting the challenges that face the industry, do not point to an immediate need to raise additional capital."

Others also tried to reassure Wall Street that Fannie and Freddie were not in immediate danger of collapse.

In fact, shares of both companies started their modest rebound shortly after 2 p.m. when Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, defended the strength of both firms.

Dodd said his discussions with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the regulators who oversee the firms and the two companies' CEOs convinced him they have more than adequate capital and that there was no need to even discuss failure or a bailout.

He also vowed quick passage of a long-debated housing bill to give greater oversight of the two companies. The bill passed the Senate Friday night and is expected to be taken up by the house next week.

"There is a sort of a panic going on," he said. "The facts don't warrant that reaction in my view. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were never bottom feeders in the residential mortgage markets. People ought to feel confident about them."

The New York Times reported Friday that senior Bush administration officials are considering a plan to have the government take over one or both of the companies if their problems worsen.

But Paulson said Friday that the government's primary focus is making sure that Fannie and Freddie remain "in their current form."

Even before the latest report on a possible rescue plan, investors fled the two stocks this week due to speculation about their future. The drop in their shares raised questions about how difficult and expensive it will be for them to raise needed capital in the future, which fueled further losses in their stock prices.

"Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have lost investor confidence evidenced by the rapid brutal sell-off in their stocks, which could dramatically hinder their ability to raise any additional capital going forward," wrote Richard Hofmann of research firm CreditSights in a note Friday.

Hoffmann added that the firms' ability to function normally "remain at the core of government efforts to stabilize the mortgage markets."

A number of scenarios were being discussed by bankers and analysts about what the government may do to deal with the crisis of confidence facing the firms.

Jaret Seiberg, a financial services analyst for the Stanford Group, a Washington research firm, said Thursday that the Federal Reserve could purchase some of Freddie's and Fannie's debt or mortgage-backed securities. He also said the Treasury Department could make billions of dollars in loans to the companies or even buy the firm's stock.

"Government officials are always planning for worst-case scenarios and our note is intended to highlight some options that may be available to policymakers," he wrote. "We suspect hybrid versions of these plans also are possible."

Under current law, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO), the regulator of Fannie and Freddie, could take control of the firms if their capital falls too far below required levels. It is unclear how the firms would operate in that situation, known as a conservatorship.

OFHEO Director James Lockhart issued a statement late Thursday saying that his agency was closely monitoring the firms' credit and capital positions. But he pointed out that they had already raised $20 billion in capital and that they adequately capitalized, holding funds well in excess of his agency's requirements.
Investor panic

Still, investors were worried that continued problems in the housing market would cause more than the $12.7 billion losses the two firms have lost between them since last July. The decline in their stock value makes raising additional capital to cover those future losses that much more expensive and difficult.

"Our primary concern about Freddie and Fannie is that credit losses are likely to be worse than the management's current judgment, which will further pressure the capital base, and we remain cautious until we are better able to quantify these risks," wrote UBS analyst Eric Wasserstrom in a note Thursday.

Those concerns prompted him to raise his estimated loss for Freddie and to cut his price target for the stock, although, he retained his neutral rating on both firms, rather than urging clients to sell their holdings.

But the biggest worry Fannie and Freddie shareholders faced Friday was what would happen if the government did have to step into rescue them. Certainly, the big selloff earlier in the day reflected some investors' fears that shares of Fannie and Freddie could become worthless in a bailout scenario.

While home prices climbed, Alt-A loans posed few problems for IndyMac. If a buyer wasn't able to afford his payments, the bank got title to a home worth more than the amount owed. The bank was also able to find investors eager to buy pools of those mortgages that had been pulled together into securities backed by the future payments.

But when the housing bubble burst and prices began to fall, losses at IndyMac began to rise. Investors ran away from the mortgage-backed securities, leaving the bank to suffer the loan losses itself and without the funding it needed to make new, safer loans.

Most of IndyMac's employees and executives will be asked to stay on, although the problems at IndyMac had caused it to cut 3,800 jobs, or more than half of its work force, earlier in the week in an attempt to stay in business.

One executive who will not stay is CEO Michael Perry, who was replaced on an interim basis by a top official of the FDIC.

IndyMac, with assets of $32 billion and deposits of $19 billion, is the fifth bank to fail this year. Between 2005 and 2007, only three banks failed. And in the past 15 years, the FDIC has taken over 127 banks with combined assets of $22 billion, according to FDIC records.

"There will be increased failures, but it will be within range of what we can handle," Bair said. "People should not worry."

IndyMac marks the largest collapse of an FDIC-insured institution since 1984, when Continental Illinois, which had $40 billion in assets, failed, according to FDIC records. The two most expensive banking failures were in 1988, during the nation's savings and loan crisis: American Savings and Loan Association in California ($5.4 billion) and First Republic Bank in Texas ($4 billion).

The IndyMac failure brought finger pointing along with the federal action.

The OTS, which oversaw IndyMac, criticized Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. The OTS claimed that a June 26 letter Schumer wrote to regulators questioning IndyMac's viability prompted a run on the bank in which customers withdrew more than $1.3 billion prompting a liquidity crisis.

"Although this institution was already in distress, I am troubled by any interference in the regulatory process," said OTS Director John Reich in a statement Friday.

Schumer shot back. He said that lax enforcement by OTS was a primary cause of the problems at IndyMac, as well as those of the nation's housing market and economy.

"IndyMac's troubles ... were caused by practices that began and persisted over the last several years, not by anything that happened in the last few days," Schumer said. "If OTS had done its job as regulator and not let IndyMac's poor and loose lending practices continue, we wouldn't be where we are today. Instead of pointing false fingers of blame, OTS should start doing its job to prevent future IndyMacs."

What now for IndyMac customers?

Bair said that the FDIC will try to sell IndyMac as a complete entity within 90 days.

When a bank shuts down, traditional bank accounts are insured to at least $100,000. Some accounts such as annuities and mutual funds are not insured at all. Individual Retirement Account funds are insured to $250,000.

IndyMac customers with uninsured deposits will get at least half that money back, and they could get more back, depending on what the FDIC gets when it sells the bank, said Bair.

Customers' funds will be transferred to a new entity - IndyMac Federal FSB - controlled by the FDIC. They will have uninterrupted customer service and access to their funds by ATM, debit cards and checks.

However, customers will have no access to online and phone banking services this weekend, according to the FDIC. Service will resume on Monday. Loan customers were advised to continue making loan payments as usual.

For additional information, the FDIC has established a toll-free number for customers of IndyMac Federal Bank. The number is 1-866-806-5919 and will operate daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. PDT, except Sunday, July 13, when the hours will be 8 a.m. to 6: p.m. Customers can also turn to the FDIC's Web site at for further information.

How it got to this poin?t

IndyMac's problems came into sharp focus earlier in the week.

The bank, which lost $184.2 million in the first quarter, announced on Monday that it was expecting a wider loss for the second quarter. It lost $614 million last year stemming from its focus on the Alt-A mortgage sector.

Then on Tuesday, IndyMac disclosed that regulators no longer considered it "well capitalized." As a result, the bank was unable to accept brokered deposits, or short-term investments in large dollar amounts from brokers seeking the highest return on certificates of deposit.

Over the past two years, IndyMac dropped over 95% in stock price, or about $3.5 billion in market capitalization. By Friday, shares were down to 28 cents.

Ousted CEO Perry had long argued that it was being unfairly punished given its relatively paltry exposure to sub-prime mortgages.

But rising Alt-A and prime mortgage delinquencies likely were enough indication for investors that the housing crisis had moved beyond the weakest borrowers.

Even worse, with the securitization markets in collapse, IndyMac had no way to get new loans off its books. What loans the bank had made recently were to borrowers with well-documented assets and income, but those are sharply less profitable with respect to fees and interest income.

IndyMac on Monday said it would focus on its reverse mortgage business, retail branch network and mortgage servicing operations. But the growth restrictions placed on IndyMac by regulators and the banks and brokerages it did business with, as well as the sharply higher borrowing costs, placed the profitability of even its non-mortgage-related banking efforts in doubt.

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