Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Big Lenders Begin to Find Stable Ground

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Big Lenders Begin to Find Stable Ground

Article excerpt

America's banks and other financial institutions, frayed by the housing crisis, appear to be on the mend.

Stronger financial institutions are purchasing weaker banks and lenders. Some of the largest banks and brokers are getting injections of billions of dollars of new capital - much of it crucial as they report massive losses this week. There are indications, too, that trust is returning to the capital markets.

"We are continuing to see signs the major wounds are beginning to heal," says Jeffrey Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial Services in Boston.

But few expect the improvement to be instant - and the US economy may still undergo a downturn.

It could take months, or perhaps a year, before the elements of the financial markets return to normal, many analysts say. In fact, the stock market, down about 11 percent from highs last October, is still taking losses. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 246.79 points on Friday as investors worried about lower earnings.

Despite those short-term concerns, David Kotok, chairman of Cumberland Advisors in Vineland, N.J., says, "The important thing is that we are heading in the right direction, not the wrong direction."

The latest signs of change came Friday when Bank of America announced it would purchase Countrywide Financial, the largest US mortgage lender, for about $4 billion. "It shores up what had been the poster child for the subprime mess," says Bill Knapp, investment strategist at New York Life Investment Management in New York.

At the same time, reports have emerged that JPMorgan Chase is in discussions to purchase Washington Mutual, another financial institution damaged by losses in the housing market. "It's a case of the stronger players coming in to pick up the spoils," says Mr. Knapp.

Financial experts anticipate yet more consolidation, especially among the companies that analyze and insure loans. "Some of those bond insurers are very attractive to major investors," says Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Ore. "There is some speculation that Warren Buffett might want to pick one up."

Mr. Buffett, an investor based in Omaha, Neb., has recently started his own bond-insurance company.

The acquisitions and potential deals come as the Federal Reserve is likely to be more aggressive in dropping interest rates. Such reductions provide the economy with lower-cost capital.

The financial markets expect the Fed to lower rates by half of a percentage point when it meets at the end of the month. Further rate cuts are expected through June. "The markets are beginning to believe the Fed gets it," says Mr. Kotok.

Even longer-term interest rates are coming down. Mortgage rates have hit their lowest level in two years.

In the first week of January, mortgage applications rose more than 30 percent over the previous week. …

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