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Originally published October 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 13, 2008 at 10:50 AM

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Efforts to calm markets face test this week

After a whirl of weekend emergency meetings, government leaders on both sides of the Atlantic produced bold promises to rescue the global financial system, but still raced to work out the details to calm battered stock markets before they opened this morning.

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — After a whirl of weekend emergency meetings, government leaders on both sides of the Atlantic produced bold promises to rescue the global financial system, but still raced to work out the details to calm battered stock markets before they opened this morning.

After last week's market carnage, European countries pledged to inject capital into ailing banks and guarantee lending between banks — a step analysts said was critical to easing a crisis of confidence and loosening the credit markets.

Europe's action throws the spotlight back to the United States, where officials said Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was studying the feasibility of backing up loans between banks here. Lending between banks is considered vital to the smooth operation of the financial system and the broader economy, but it has slowed considerably because banks are concerned about being repaid should the other bank run into financial trouble.

U.S. lawmakers urged quick action by the Bush administration on measures to make direct purchases of bank stock to help unlock lending.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, said an administration proposal to inject federal money directly into certain banks, in effect partially nationalizing the banking system, "is gaining steam."

"I am hopeful that tomorrow, the Treasury will announce that they're doing it," Schumer, D-N.Y., said.

Democrats also are lining up behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plan to bring lawmakers back to Capitol Hill after the Nov. 4 election to work on a second relief plan. Top Democrats are suggesting a $150 billion measure to extend jobless benefits, provide more money for food stamps and finance some construction projects, such as rebuilding bridges and roads. It also would include either a tax rebate or cut.

In another step aimed at easing the crisis, the Federal Reserve on Sunday approved, as expected, the $12.2 billion acquisition of troubled Wachovia by Wells Fargo.

As the International Monetary Fund and World Bank held their annual meetings over the weekend, Paulson warned the bank's policy-setting committee of the dangers of "inward-looking policies."

"Although we in the United States are taking many extraordinary measures to ease the crisis, we are not pursuing policies that would limit the flow of goods, services or capital, as such measures would only intensify the risks of a prolonged crisis," he said.

The government already was helping an American financial icon, Morgan Stanley, trying to salvage a $9 billion investment by a Japanese bank, Mitsubishi Financial.

The deal is considered a crucial step in the government's strategy to revitalize the financial system, and its failure could potentially unnerve the markets.

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The Treasury's assurances amount to another extraordinary move by government and could serve as a model for future deals.

The initial reaction of investors was positive, with stocks up in several Asian markets. Also higher were U.S. stock futures — bets on the direction of the market before it opens.

The early signs, after one of the worst weeks ever for stock markets, are not a definitive signal of a reversal in sentiment but were seen as a potentially hopeful indicator the markets may at least stop their free-fall.

"It's going to take actions more than words at this time, given the extreme distress that the money markets are in and the extreme distress that the equity markets were in," said Douglas Peta, a market strategist at J&W Seligman. He predicted further drops in the stock and bond markets; the Dow Jones industrial average fell 18 percent last week.

In Paris, European leaders agreed to a unified plan that would inject billions of euros into their banks and guarantee bank borrowing for periods up to five years. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who led the talks, said governments would announce concrete rescue plans, tailored to their national circumstances, simultaneously today.

"We need concrete measures; we need unity," Sarkozy declared. "That's what we achieved today."

Leaders of the 15 countries that use the euro did not put a price tag on any of their promises — contrary to Britain, where last week Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced $255 billion in government funds and other measures to stabilize its banks, or the United States, where a $700 billion bailout plan now will be used partly to infuse banks with fresh capital.

The United States is overhauling its rescue package, which originally had focused on buying distressed assets from banks. In a policy turnabout, Paulson said Friday the government would now take equity stakes in banks; the government's role in the Morgan Stanley negotiations may be an early test of the Treasury's retooled strategy.

So far, the government has been reluctant to guarantee bank loans to other banks, concerned it could give banks a competitive advantage over other financial institutions.

Europe may have acted quicker, in large part because banks there are facing urgent problems, said Tobias Levkovich, Citigroup chief equity strategist. Many European financial firms have borrowed more extensively relative to their capital than most American banks.

"The Europeans were sitting with a much closer foot to the fire than we were," he said. "I don't think they could sit around and wait a week or two."

Still, actions taken by European leaders could help the United States indirectly by helping to lower a critical interest rate, said Douglas Dachille, chief executive of First Principles Capital Management, an investment firm that specializes in bonds.

A daily poll of mostly European banks sets the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, which is used as a benchmark to set borrowing costs for corporate and consumer loans. Libor recently has shot up as banks have become unwilling to lend to each other.

Banks and investors have sharply restricted lending to each other because their capacity to do so has been limited by losses and because they are fearful they may not be repaid.

For Europeans, the agreement represented a sharp reversal from two weeks ago, when Germany and other countries played down the need for a concerted response to what some characterized as an American problem.

"We are committed in all European states to recapitalize banks if we establish a threat to solvency and a risk to the economy," the Belgian finance minister, Didier Reynders, said after the leaders met. "The goal is to kick-start the interbank lending market."

Reynders said the European Central Bank had also committed to helping to restore trading in the commercial-paper market, where companies conduct short-term borrowing. The United States also has agreed to guarantee commercial-paper loans in an effort to unfreeze that market.

Officials said action would be taken at the national level, within the framework of a "toolbox." The idea, they said, is that governments face different challenges and need to act quickly in the crisis and that a common front will avoid the danger that one country may undercut another.

But Reynders dismissed the possibility of a common European fund for the banks. Germany had opposed such an idea because it feared it would end up bailing out banks in other countries.

Officials said France and Germany would announce national plans today worth hundreds of billions of euros.

On Sunday, Australia and New Zealand announced a blanket guarantee of bank deposits.

Information from The Associated Press is included.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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