WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve invoked a rarely used Depression-era procedure Friday to rescue Bear Stearns Cos. — the nation's fifth largest securities firm — as nervous investors sent the company's share price down a record 53 percent.
The Fed action won immediate praise from the administration, with President Bush saying that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was "doing a good job under tough circumstances."
Still, the Fed announcement came in a brief two-sentence statement.
"The Federal Reserve is monitoring market developments closely and will continue to provide liquidity as necessary to promote the orderly functioning of the financial system," the board said. It said members had voted unanimously to approve the arrangement, announced by JP Morgan Chase and Bear Stearns earlier.
Bear Stearns Chief Executive Officer Alan Schwartz said the firm acted in response to "market rumors'" of a liquidity crisis.
"We have tried to confront and dispel these rumors and parse fact from fiction,'' Schwartz said in the New York-based company's statement today. "Nevertheless, amidst this market chatter, our liquidity position in the last 24 hours had significantly deteriorated.''
Bear Stearns said it was in talks with New York-based JPMorgan "regarding permanent funding or other alternatives.''
Delivering a speech on the economy in New York, Bush voiced confidence in the Fed's actions to aggressively cut interest rates and the Fed announcement last week that it would supply up to $200 billion in loans to cash-strapped financial institutions.
"It was a strong action by the Fed and they did so because some financial institutions that borrowed money to buy securities in the housing industry must now repair their balance sheets before they can make further loans," Bush said. "Today's actions are fast moving, but the chairman of the Federal Reserve and the secretary of the treasury are on top of them and will take the appropriate steps to promote stability in our markets."
The plan announced Friday will supply secured funding to Bear Stearns for an initial period of 28 days, seeking to provide short-term relief for Bear Stearns.
Senior Federal Reserve staffers said the arrangement allows JP Morgan Chase to borrow from the Fed's discount window and put up collateral from Bear Stearns to back up the loans. JP Morgan, a bank, has access to the discount window to obtain direct loans from the Fed, but Bear Stearns, an investment house, does not.
This type of procedure, Fed officials said, dates back to the Great Depression of the 1930s but has rarely been used since that time.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson praised the Fed's leadership and said that the country's financial system would be able to weather the problems.
"As we have been saying for some time, there are challenges in our financial markets and we continue to address them," Paulson said in a statement. "This is another challenge that market participants and regulators are addressing. We are working closely with the Federal Reserve" and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Paulson said he appreciated the leadership of the Fed "in enhancing the stability and orderliness of our markets."
The action by the Fed board in Washington represented an endorsement of a rescue effort for Bear Stearns that had already been arranged by JPMorgan and the Federal Reserve's New York regional bank.
It was seen as a last-ditch effort to save the investment bank, which on Friday acknowledged its serious financial problems after a week of denials.
JPMorgan Chase is providing an undisclosed amount of secured funding to Bear for 28 days, backstopped by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The Securities and Exchange Commission issued a statement saying it has been "in close contact" with Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during discussions concerning an agreement by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. to provide a secured loan facility to The Bear Stearns Companies.
"We will continue to work closely together in a way that contributes to orderly and liquid markets," the SEC said.
Last week, the Fed announced an industry-wide rescue package that would provide as much as $200 billion in loans to banks and investment houses and allow them to put up risky home-loan packages as collateral. It was the Fed's latest effort to stem a global credit crisis that began last August with rising loan defaults for subprime mortgages, loans provided to borrowers with weak credit histories.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.