It was another historic Monday on Wall Street … the second this month, in what is turning out to be a rather momentous September. Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Another household name, Merrill Lynch, was bought out by Bank of America. It is days like today that remind me of Joshua 1:9 – “This is my command–be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (NLT)
Manhattan isn’t prone to earthquakes, but this sure felt like one – and the stock market certainly felt it, with the Dow heading down more than 500 points and other indexes around the world declining as well. As these venerable investment banking giants paid for years of betting on bad debts, analysts cast wary eyes on Washington Mutual, AIG and other banking and insurance titans who were the subject of rumors concerning their financial health.
What does this mean for you? If you’re an investor in the orbit of Lehman or Merrill, you should still be able to access your investments.
Keep in mind: these brokerages only handle your investments. When they get in trouble, it’s their money people are talking about – not yours.
At any brokerage, customer assets are segregated from business assets. So when a big brokerage gets in a crisis, it can’t tap into the assets of accountholders or lend them out. Banks go out and invest your deposits – brokerages don’t.
You have a safety net. That would be the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, which protects up to $500,000 of your assets at a brokerage – including stocks, bonds, money market funds, and cash up to $100,000.
Can you count on the SIPC in a brokerage crisis? Well, let me share a very impressive statistic: in the entire 38-year history of the SIPC, just 349 brokerage account holders have failed to get their entire portfolios back.
On Monday morning, the SIPC stated that it appeared that all cash, stock and other assets of Lehman’s brokerage customers were accounted for. Lehman’s customer accounts could be sold off to another brokerage firm, or they could be put under SIPC control, whereupon they would be liquidated. But on Monday, SIPC president Stephen Harbeck said: “SIPC has not initiated a liquidation proceeding against the broker-dealer Lehman Brothers Inc. and we do not currently anticipate doing so.”
The government response. The Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury did not ride to the rescue of Lehman Brothers and/or Merrill Lynch, but did attempt to negotiate with Wall Street executives over the weekend to try and prevent Lehman Brothers from failing. But the Fed accomplished much on Monday: it coordinated a coalition of 10 investment banks, among them JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc. to create a $70 billion fund to assure market liquidity. It also broadened the collateral it accepts for loans to securities firms to include stocks, and it pumped $25 billion into its program for lending Treasuries to bond dealers.
Now, will the Fed lower interest rates Tuesday? Futures traders think so. We’ve done a 180° from August, when most analysts thought the next move would be an increase. On Monday, futures prices pointed to a 70% chance of the Fed cutting its key interest rate by a quarter-point.
Eyes on AIG. AIG is the world’s largest insurer and carries an enormous balance sheet. Those facts alone make any credit downgrade particularly unnerving. Yet Monday’s market descent might have been even worse if not for the generosity of the New York State Insurance Department. It reassured the markets by announcing it would permit AIG to loan itself $20 billion – the loan would come from the assets of its subsidiaries, with no taxpayer dollars involved. That was a huge relief.
Keep it in Perspective. Monday was a big day, but it was only one day. Let’s look past the headlines of the moment and keep focused on your goals and objectives. God is in control and even though days like today are frightening, it is all in His Plan.