Monday, September 15, 2008

Watching the dominoes fall

Last night, I was watching the Wall Street bloodbath in real-time: Lehman Brothers racing toward bankruptcy, Bank of America buying Merrill Lynch for a wildly inflated price compared to the market, and AIG playing "chicken" with the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury to try to raise $40 billion before the rating agencies lowered its ratings and effectively made it impossible for AIG to borrow any more money. Today, the Dow fell more than 500 points, but given everything that happened over the weekend, that wasn't the worst possible outcome.

So what happens next? Market traders expect Washington Mutual and Wachovia Bank to be the next to go, based on their exposure to subprime mortgages, thus leaving JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America as the two "superbanks"...or so it appears. What the market seems to be discounting is exposure to credit card debt. The same consumers who can neither refinance their home loans nor get new home loans are drawing ever more heavily on high-interest, high-fee credit card debt. Both Bank of America (through its acquisition of MBNA) and JPMorgan Chase are deeply exposed to credit card debt, as are Citicorp, Capital One and others.

It's far too early to call any financial institution or executive "smart"...there are way too many dominoes left on the table in precarious positions.

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