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WaMu closed, JP Morgan buys assets

The seizure and sale of Washington Mutual Inc is the latest historic step in US government attempts to clean up a banking industry littered with toxic mortgage debt.

business Updated: Sep 26, 2008 12:51 IST

Washington Mutual Inc was closed by the US government in by far the largest failure of a US bank, and its banking assets were sold to JPMorgan Chase & Co for $1.9 billion.

Thursday's seizure and sale is the latest historic step in US government attempts to clean up a banking industry littered with toxic mortgage debt. Negotiations over a $700 billion bailout of the entire financial system stalled in Washington on Thursday.

Washington Mutual, the largest US savings and loan, has been one of the lenders hardest hit by the nation's housing bust and credit crisis, and had already suffered from soaring mortgage losses.

Washington Mutual was shut by the federal Office of Thrift Supervision, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp was named receiver. This followed $16.7 billion of deposit outflows at the Seattle-based thrift since Sept 15, the OTS said.

"With insufficient liquidity to meet its obligations, WaMu was in an unsafe and unsound condition to transact business," the OTS said.

Customers should expect business as usual on Friday, and all depositors are fully protected, the FDIC said.

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said the bailout happened on Thursday night because of media leaks, and to calm customers. Usually, the FDIC takes control of failed institutions on Friday nights, giving it the weekend to go through the books and enable them to reopen smoothly the following Monday.

Washington Mutual has about $307 billion of assets and $188 billion of deposits, regulators said. The largest previous US banking failure was Continental Illinois National Bank & Trust, which had $40 billion of assets when it collapsed in 1984.

JPMorgan said the transaction means it will now have 5,410 branches in 23 US states from coast to coast, as well as the largest US credit card business.

It vaults JPMorgan past Bank of America Corp to become the nation's second-largest bank, with $2.04 trillion of assets, just behind Citigroup Inc. Bank of America will go to No. 1 once it completes its planned purchase of Merrill Lynch & Co.

The bailout also fulfills JPMorgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon's long-held goal of becoming a retail bank force in the western United States. It comes four months after JPMorgan acquired the failing investment bank Bear Stearns Cos at a fire-sale price through a government-financed transaction.

On a conference call, Dimon said the "risk here obviously is the asset values."

He added: "That's what created this opportunity."

JPMorgan expects to incur $1.5 billion of pre-tax costs, but realize an equal amount of annual savings, mostly by the end of 2010. It expects the transaction to add to earnings immediately, and increase earnings 70 cents per share by 2011.

It also plans to sell $8 billion of stock, and take a $31 billion write-down for the loans it bought, representing estimated future credit losses.

The FDIC said the acquisition does not cover claims of Washington Mutual equity, senior debt and subordinated debt holders. It also said the transaction will not affect its roughly $45.2 billion deposit insurance fund.

"Jamie Dimon is clearly feeling that he has an opportunity to grab market share, and get it at fire-sale prices," said Matt McCormick, a portfolio manager at Bahl & Gaynor Investment Counsel in Cincinnati. "He's becoming an acquisition machine."

Bailout Uncertainty

The transaction came as Washington wrangles over the fate of a $700 billion bailout of the financial services industry, which has been battered by mortgage defaults and tight credit conditions, and evaporating investor confidence.

"It removes an uncertainty from the market," said Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital in Sydney. "The problem is that markets are in a jittery stage. Washington Mutual provides another reminder how tenuous things are."

Washington Mutual's collapse is the latest of a series of takeovers and outright failures that have transformed the American financial landscape and wiped out hundreds of billions of dollars of shareholder wealth.

These include the disappearance of Bear, government takeovers of mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the insurer American International Group Inc, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc, and Bank of America's purchase of Merrill.

JPMorgan, based in New York, ended June with $1.78 trillion of assets, $722.9 billion of deposits and 3,157 branches. Washington Mutual then had 2,239 branches and 43,198 employees. It is unclear how many people will lose their jobs.

Shares of Washington Mutual plunged $1.24 to 45 cents in after-hours trading after news of a JPMorgan transaction surfaced. JPMorgan shares rose $1.04 to $44.50 after hours, but before the stock offering was announced.

119-YEAR HISTORY

The transaction ends exactly 119 years of independence for Washington Mutual, whose predecessor was incorporated on Sept. 25, 1889, "to offer its stockholders a safe and profitable vehicle for investing and lending," according to the thrift's website. This helped Seattle residents rebuild after a fire torched the city's downtown.

It also follows more than a week of sale talks in which Washington Mutual attracted interest from several suitors.

These included Banco Santander SA, Citigroup Inc, HSBC Holdings Plc, Toronto-Dominion Bank and Wells Fargo & Co, as well as private equity firms Blackstone Group LP and Carlyle Group, people familiar with the situation said.

Less than three weeks ago, Washington Mutual ousted Chief Executive Kerry Killinger, who drove the thrift's growth as well as its expansion in subprime and other risky mortgages. It replaced him with Alan Fishman, the former chief executive of Brooklyn, New York's Independence Community Bank Corp.

WaMu's board was surprised at the seizure, and had been working on alternatives, people familiar with the matter said.

More than half of Washington Mutual's roughly $227 billion book of real estate loans was in home equity loans, and in adjustable-rate mortgages and subprime mortgages that are now considered risky.

The transaction wipes out a $1.35 billion investment by David Bonderman's private equity firm TPG Inc, the lead investor in a $7 billion capital raising by the thrift in April.

A TPG spokesman said the firm is "dissatisfied with the loss," but that the investment "represented a very small portion of our assets."

Dimon Pounches

The deal is the latest ambitious move by Dimon.

Once a golden child at Citigroup before his mentor Sanford "Sandy" Weill engineered his ouster in 1998, Dimon has carved for himself something of a role as a Wall Street savior.

Dimon joined JPMorgan in 2004 after selling his Bank One Corp to the bank for $56.9 billion, and became chief executive at the end of 2005.

Some historians see parallels between him and the legendary financier John Pierpont Morgan, who ran J.P. Morgan & Co and was credited with intervening to end a banking panic in 1907.

JPMorgan has suffered less than many rivals from the credit crisis, but has been hurt. It said on Thursday it has already taken $3 billion to $3.5 billion of write-downs this quarter on mortgages and leveraged loans.

Washington Mutual has a major presence in California and Florida, two of the states hardest hit by the housing crisis. It also has a big presence in the New York City area. The thrift lost $6.3 billion in the nine months ended June 30.

"It is surprising that it has hung on for as long as it has," said Nancy Bush, an analyst at NAB Research LLC.