In a bid to save financial markets and economy from further turmoil, the government agreed Tuesday to provide an $85 billion emergency loan to rescue the huge insurer AIG.
The Federal Reserve said in a statement that it determined that a disorderly failure of AIG could hurt the already delicate financial markets and the economy.
It also could “lead to substantially higher borrowing costs, reduced household wealth and materially weaker economic performance,” the Fed said.
The decision, only two weeks after the Treasury took over the quasi-government mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is the most radical intervention in private business in the central bank's history.
“The president supports the agreement announced this evening by the Federal Reserve,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. “These steps are taken in the interest of promoting stability in financial markets and limiting damage to the broader economy.”
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said the administration was working closely with the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other government regulators to “enhance the stability and orderliness of our financial markets and minimize the disruption to our economy.”
“I support the steps taken by the Federal Reserve tonight to assist AIG in continuing to meet its obligations, mitigate broader disruptions and at the same time protect taxpayers,” Paulson said in a statement.
The Fed said in return for the loan, the government will receive a 79.9 percent equity stake in AIG.
Earlier, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Paulson met with congressional leaders to brief them on the government's options.
AIG's problems stemmed from its insurance of mortgage-backed securities and other risky debt against default. If AIG couldn't make good on its promise to pay back soured debt, investors feared the consequences would pose a greater threat to the U.S. financial system than this week's collapse of Lehman Brothers.
The worries were triggered after Moody's Investor Service and Standard and Poor's lowered AIG's credit ratings, forcing AIG to seek more money for collateral against its insurance contracts. Without that money, AIG would have defaulted on its obligations and the buyers of its insurance — such as banks and other financial companies — would have found themselves without protection against losses on the debt they hold.
“It might not just bring down other financial institutions in the U.S. It could bring down overseas financial institutions,” said Timothy Canova, a professor of international economic law at Chapman University School of Law. “If Lehman Brother's failure could help trigger AIG's going down, who knows who AIG's failure could trigger next.” The New York Times contributed.