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Week in review: Un-Bear-able, Bear-brained, Bear-faced disaster

Bear Stearns was sold for less than nothing, HBOS tumbled, and ‘accidental’ pricing errors on trades at Credit Suisse turned out to be deliberate.

Bear Stearns RIP. The Wall Street bank, which last week was heading for a swift rendezvous with the ground, was intercepted at the last moment on Sunday by no less than the Fed disguised as Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan.

Dimon bought the basket case that was formerly one of Wall Street’s finest for $2 a share, less than the value of its building, and 90% below its worth the previous week. Bear staff, who owned 29% of the firm and saw their life savings obliterated, were understandably peeved, but by the end of the week a select few were reportedly being lured by rivals bearing $2m guarantees.

Dimon moved fast to reassure needy Bear bankers (or major revenue earners liable to defect to rivals) that all was well. Bear’s walking wounded reportedly asked what he would be doing to ‘make them whole’. Dimon told them that if they stuck with him he’d ‘make them happy’.

Elsewhere, it appeared that some people actually did quite well out of the Bear disaster, with traders at Harbinger Capital Partners, Greenlight Capital, Tremblant Capital Group and Paulson & Co. said to have profited from shorting the stock.

James Cayne, the ex-Bear chief executive, didn’t have the best of weeks. After seeing his bridge game go down the pan and personally losing around $890m on his holding of Bear’s stock from peak to trough, the Times reported that he’d been in touch with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, JC Flowers, Barclays, HSBC and Royal Bank of Scotland in an attempt to solicit a counteroffer. However, Bear’s forcible ingestion of poison pills at the hands of JPMorgan makes a rival bidder unlikely.

HBOS elicited excitement in London on Wednesday when its share price tanked on malicious rumours that it was about to go the way of Northern Rock and Bear Stearns. The Financial Services Authority took it upon itself to make reassuring calls to news organizations and vowed to grind the rumour mongers’ bones to make its bread.

Credit Suisse shocked everyone with the revelation that it might make a quarterly loss for the first time since 2003. The culprits? Volatility and a $2.7bn writedown related to deliberate pricing errors by traders who’ve since been eradicated.

Central banks put on an exciting spectacle. The Fed’s was an all-singing, all-dancing affair involving the rescue of Bear Stearns, and flinging open its discount window to
broker dealers for the first time since the Great Depression (Goldman, Lehman and Morgan Stanley all confessed to using it). The Fed also cut interest rates 75 basis points. The Bank of England’s performance was a little more restrained by comparison, amounting to 5bn of additional emergency funding – prompting the audience to call for something a little more risqué (eg, the acceptance of mortgage-related securities as collateral).

Goldman, Morgan Stanley and Lehman announced their first-quarter results. Profits slumped, but all did better than expected.

Recruitment news was muted, although Seymour Pierce did lap up a few people in equities.

Redundancy revelations were amplified. Citigroup said it was slashing 5% of its securities staff and the Financial Times ran a nasty article quoting senior London-based bankers who said 15% of jobs would be cut in the first half and 200,000 would go by the end of the first year. Morgan Stanley CFO Colm Kelleher, however, said he had no plans currently to lop more than the 2% of staff already forcibly disassociated from their cubicles, but there may be more clarity on this soon.

In the meantime, anyone wondering what to do with themselves could do worse than move to Australia, which is reportedly suffering a shortage of skilled workers, particularly in mines and hospitals.

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