For Bear Stearns Workers, Reality Hits Home


Employees at Bear Stearns were hardly celebrating the day after JPMorgan Chase raised its bid for Bear five-fold.

Instead, resignation, bitterness and anger gripped Bear staffers, who are also major shareholders, as they bustled into the fallen investment bank's headquarters on a crisp, clear day in New York.

Bear Stearns
Jin Lee

The new offer, while higher, was 88 percent below the stock's value a month ago, wiping out what was for many the bulk of their personal wealth.

The mood is "very quiet, depressing. People are resigned to it," one Bear employee, who has been at the company more than three years, said during a cigarette break outside the company's headquarters in midtown Manhattan, which JPMorgan has secured the rights to buy at a discount even if the deal fails.

Prompted in part by protests from shareholders and employees, JPMorgan on Monday raised its offer for Bear, which last year traded for more than $170 a share, to about $10 a share in stock after its original offer of about $2 a share.

The low initial offer also raised the prospects of a drawn out fight that could have scared away Bear customers.

Aiming to seal the takeover, JPMorgan also struck a deal to buy 95 million new Bear shares -- equivalent to a 39.5 percent stake -- and Bear's board members agreed to vote their 3.6 percent holdings in favor of the deal.

The revised offer values Bear, which recently ranked as the fifth-largest US investment bank, at about $2.1 billion, compared to $236 million under the original deal.

Bear employees, who owned more than 30 percent of the firm's stock before JPMorgan's share purchase deal, have collectively lost more than $3 billion over the last month.

They also now face massive layoffs, with media reports saying that JPMorgan will cut up to 50 percent of Bear's 14,000 workers.

Bear employees declined to identify themselves because they're not authorized to speak with the press and could be punished.

"It's devastating. I thought I was going to work here my whole life," said one young Bear staffer, who joined the company last year. "There's so many good people at this firm and to watch it go from its height to this is terrible."

JPMorgan's new offer is "nothing. I bet it was planned from the beginning," he said, expressing the bitterness and distrust that courses through the hallways at the 85-year-old investment bank.

Bear could have faced bankruptcy if JPMorgan did not offer to acquire it, and that could have left Bear employees and shareholders empty-handed.

Furious at the Fed

Numerous Bear employees also expressed anger with the Federal Reserve, which has approved the deal and is helping to finance it.

They blame the Fed for pushing Bear into a fire sale without allowing the investment bank the chance to borrow money directly from the Fed, which might have eased its liquidity crunch.

Bear nearly collapsed as large subprime mortgage losses and falling confidence in the company prompted a run on the bank.

Some of the bank's staffers are hoping Bear's top shareholder, British tycoon Joseph Lewis, may still be able to miraculously broker another offer.

"There's still some hope that someone will come in with a higher offer," said one veteran employee, who has been at the company more than 15 years. "Everybody's waiting to see what Lewis does."

While the hope of a higher offer buoyed Bear shares on Monday, the speculation is losing steam. Bear shares fell 4.4 percent to $10.75 in afternoon trading Tuesday.

But the 15-year Bear veteran acknowledged that employees have little leverage at this point.

"They (the employees) will probably vote it down, but they probably don't have enough votes," he said.