Our Take: Desperate Measures and Their Effects

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Last quarter, earnings season was punctuated by the demise of Bear Stearns. This quarter's marquee news revolves around public officials and regulators struggling to stave off another such collapse. Their desperate efforts have ramifications that should not be overlooked by job-seekers.

Let's start with the policy initiative that's had the most immediately visible impact on markets: the SEC's crackdown on naked shorting. Beginning Monday, short sellers of stock in 19 major financial firms will be required to have an actual agreement to borrow every share they sell short. The rule, designed to prevent brokers from in effect lending the same share of stock to two different short-sellers, is only temporary, slated to expire after 30 days. But like many an emergency measure, it might be with us a good deal longer.

Having to document a stock loan for each short sale of 19 heavily traded stocks will require added work from brokers and market-makers, securities lending departments, and prime brokers who provide a wide range of services for hedge funds. Should the rule persist, new collateral processing roles and responsibilities could arise within back offices of banks and trading firms.

The change could spur increased trading of options and equity-linked swaps, which are alternative means for establishing short positions. It also could benefit overseas brokers, who can short U.S. stocks beyond the SEC's reach.

Mortgage Institutions Bailout Proposal

Another high-profile government initiative is the Treasury's request to Congress for authority to undertake a full-scale bailout of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac if needed. Although both companies are labeled "government-sponsored enterprises" (GSEs), under current law such sponsorship is largely symbolic, capped at $2.25 billion each. The plan unveiled July 13 would remove those lending caps, as well as allow the Treasury to buy stock in the two publicly traded companies.

A bailout of either or both institutions would likely be accompanied by broad restrictions on their investments and operations. Beyond clamping down on obvious things like executive pay and shareholder dividends, Congress might assert control over every purchasing decision they make - even down to "pay(ing) its water bill for the toilet," in the words of House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank.

The implications for hiring - both at the GSEs and at their long list of suppliers - are clear. The owner of a small firm that supplies mortgage portfolio pricing and analytics tools has already told me he fears restrictions tied to any bailout would curtail his sales to Fannie and Freddie.

The GSEs themselves employ more than 11,000 people: some 6,400 at Fannie Mae (as of June 30, 2007, including part-time staff) and nearly 5,000 at Freddie Mac.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Freddie Mac has filed forms needed to register its future common stock and debt securities with the SEC, a step toward raising as much as $10 billion through new share sales. Those moves reportedly are aimed at tapping capital markets in order to avoid any need for a government capital injection.

More Banks May Look to Divest Business Units

The balance-sheet issues that plague Fannie and Freddie are mirrored across the banking sector. While fear of a Bear Stearns sequel has abated for now, many investment banks and commercial banks will require capital injections in coming months. However, bank share prices have fallen to a point where selling new equity (even preferred stock) is hardly attractive for management. It's still less attractive to existing strategic partners such as sovereign wealth funds, who bought in previously at far higher prices.

Thus, rather than sell new shares, we believe banks might tilt toward divesting various business units, either in whole or in part. Witness Merrill Lynch's deal this week to part with its 20 percent stake in Bloomberg LP for $4.5 billion. Merrill also reportedly sought to sell part of its 49 percent stake in asset manager BlackRock Inc.

In those cases the prospective purchasers were both affiliates' majority owners, Bloomberg and BlackRock. However, other institutions might find outside investors interested in acquiring a division or subsidiary. Distressed-asset investors and hedge funds already are dabbling in discounted bank assets, such as portfolios of troubled mortgages and CDOs. Their next target could be whole business units. Other prospective buyers could be the few banks that are doing relatively well - JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo come immediately to mind.

Is your division a cash cow for its foundering parent? Don't assume you won't be put up for sale. In a crisis, your management probably will follow the old adage: you don't sell what you should; you sell what you can.

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