Bear Stearns, Facing Downgrade, Gives Dire View of Credit Markets

Bear Stearns said it is weathering the worst storm in financial markets in more than 20 years after a major rating company warned mortgage credit problems could hurt the investment bank's profits.

Bear Stearns' chief financial officer said the shockwaves hitting lending markets, triggered by rising mortgage losses,were as bad as crises such as the Internet bubble bursting in 2001 or the 1998 collapse of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management.

"These times are pretty significant in the fixed-income market," CFO Sam Molinaro said on a conference call with analysts. "It's as been as bad as I've seen it in 22 years. The fixed-income market environment we've seen in the last eight weeks has been pretty extreme."

Molinaro's dire assessment of the market rocked stocks, bonds and currencies. U.S. government bonds surged as investors sought the safety of taxpayer-backed debt and stock indexes fell more than 2 percent. The dollar tumbled against other major currencies.

Shares of Bear Stearns, known on Wall Street as a leader in the $7 trillion U.S. mortgage bond market, dropped 5.9 percent to $108.85, and the cost of protecting its debt with credit derivatives jumped nearly 40 percent.

Assuring Investors

Executives with the New York-based company assured investors of its viability and profitability after Standard & Poor's Friday changed its rating outlook to negative from stable. The change in the outlook indicated a greater chance of a downgrade over the next two years, as S&P warned of problems that could hurt the Bear Stearns' performance "for an extended period."

The investment bank said it has been "solidly profitable" in the first two months of the fiscal third quarter, and its balance sheet, capital base and liquidity profile have never been stronger. Executives on the conference call said revenue rose for its fixed-income group in June from May, but added that weakness in mortgages and related securities reduced opportunities in July.

S&P currently rates Bear Stearns "A-plus," the fifth-highest investment-grade rating.

The focus on Bear Stearns has intensified as it struggled redemptions at with three hedge funds units investing in risky debt. Two of the funds run by its asset management unit made bad bets on bonds linked to subprime mortgages, a sector offering high-interest loans to borrowers with poor credit where defaults have surged. The funds were left with very little value, Bear said in mid-July.

"Bear Stearns has material exposure to holdings of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, the valuations of which remain under severe pressure," S&P said in a statement.

"It also has exposure to debt it has taken up as a result of unsuccessful leveraged finance underwritings, and it has significant further underwriting commitments."

The potential for lawsuits brought by investors who suffered losses in the Bear funds also lingers, S&P said.

Expected to Be Profitable

Bear Stearns is expected to be profitable in the current quarter, but because of its reliance on the mortgage and leveraged finance sectors, profits could be hurt if there were an extended downturn in these markets, the rating agency said.

"Bear Stearns liquidity is probably somewhat stressed as short-term (debt) holders are, at the margin, possibly deciding whether to roll over their obligations given the well-covered mortgage market concerns and Bear Stearns' central role, analysts at research firm CreditSights wrote.

Bear Stearns said in a statement that it was disappointed with S&P's decision. Most of the themes highlighted by the rating agency are common to the industry and not likely to have a disproportionate impact on Bear Stearns, the company said.

Concerns about the hedge funds were unwarranted because they were isolated incidents, it said.

The company said its exposures to "high-profile sectors" are "moderate and well-controlled" and noted that other major rating agencies have affirmed their stable or positive outlook on the firm within the last six weeks.

"This is not the first time and it won't be the last time Wall Street works through difficult conditions," Chairman and Chief Executive James Cayne said on the conference call.