Bear Stearns

Beijing ends love affair with Wall St

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2008, 12:00am


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China's brief infatuation with Wall Street is well and truly over. At the weekend, Citic Securities said it 'cannot guarantee' it will finalise its October deal to invest US$1 billion in United States investment bank Bear Stearns. 'We haven't signed any formal agreement and we haven't paid any money,' the mainland brokerage said in a statement.

Citic's managers must be mightily relieved that they had not yet handed over any cash. When they first agreed to invest in Bear Stearns back in October, US$1 billion would have bought them a 6 per cent stake in the Wall Street firm. After last week's crisis of confidence and the collapse of Bear Stearns' share price, it could have bought a 25 per cent stake.

When they agreed to buy into Bear Stearns, Citic's bosses thought they were getting a bargain. Then, the US firm's shares were priced at about US$120, down 30 per cent from their peak in January last year after two of its hedge funds ran into trouble (see chart).

But the balance sheet of the investment bank itself was sound and its capital position strong, executives insisted. Even better, the tie-up with Citic offered Bear Stearns a privileged entry into China's lucrative capital markets, promising to boost future earnings from Asia. Citic, meanwhile, would benefit from access to Bear Stearns' expertise in risk management and structuring complex financial instruments like credit derivatives.

Today, that much-vaunted expertise is looking pretty thin. In the last five months, the fallout from the subprime crisis has turned out to be far worse than anyone had imagined. Hopes that banks' losses would be limited to about US$100 billion have evaporated. So far, banks have written off almost twice that, and analysts warn that financial losses could ultimately exceed US$1 trillion.

Bear Stearns has been on the sharp end of the deterioration. Last week, confidence in the investment bank's creditworthiness as a counterparty crumbled entirely, forcing the US Federal Reserve and JP Morgan to throw it an emergency lifeline to prevent a meltdown of the entire financial system.

Over the next few weeks, Bear Stearns' rescuers will attempt to put together a longer-term solution to the bank's problems. In all probability, they will sound out Citic about taking a larger stake in return for a bigger injection of capital. Judging by Citic's weekend statement, the mainland securities house will not be interested.

Its lack of enthusiasm is not surprising. The performance of mainland financial institutions' foreign investments is truly dismal. Shares of private equity company Blackstone have sunk almost 50 per cent since the China Investment Corp bought in in June last year. Stock in Barclays has fallen 40 per cent following China Development Bank's investment in July last year (see chart), and shares of Morgan Stanley have dropped 23 per cent since December when CIC bought a US$5 billion stake. The losses look even worse in yuan terms.

With a track record like that, mainland institutions can hardly be blamed if their ardour for investing in foreign financial companies has cooled.