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Nationalization rumors slam Citigroup, Bank of America

January 15, 2009 | 11:09 am

The hottest rumor on Wall Street today was that the government was planning to effectively nationalize Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp., perhaps as early as this weekend.

That talk has devastated many financial stocks, and hammered the broader market for a second straight session -- although buyers have been returning in the last half-hour.

The nationalization rumors were put to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairwoman Sheila Bair at an appearance in New York today, and her non-denial answer wasn’t likely to make investors feel better.

"I’d be very surprised if that happened," she said, according to Bloomberg News.

Bofabranch Some investors weren't sticking around to find out if the rumor was true: Citigroup fell as low as $3.36 early in the session and about 11 a.m. PST was off 43 cents to $4.10.

Bank of America fell as low as $7.35 and was off $1.56 to $8.64 about 11 a.m PST.

The Dow Jones industrial average was off as much as 205 points but has pared that to a loss of 43 points at 8,156.

The Dow’s closing low in the fall market collapse was 7,552, reached on Nov. 20.

The latest dive in the financials began early this week on fears that some of the biggest players have become bottomless pits for government capital, as bad loans continue to mount.

Those fears soared late Wednesday on news reports that Bank of America, which got $25 billion under the financial-system bailout Congress approved in October, was negotiating another capital infusion from the Treasury.

Ryan Larson, head trader at Voyageur Asset Management in Chicago, said the rumor today was that the government would take control of Citigroup and Bank of America via a "nationalization in AIG style" -- referring to insurance giant American International Group. The government took a 79.9% stake in AIG last fall in return for loans and capital injections to keep the company afloat.

AIG shares now trade for about $1.40.

The nationalization rumors may just be so much hysteria, but they show how faith in the financial system has again frayed badly. The average big-bank stock has plunged 24% just since Dec. 31.

There was some relative good news from the banking sector today: JPMorgan Chase reported fourth-quarter earnings of $702 million, or 7 cents a share -- a drop of 76% from a year earlier. Still, any profit at all for a bank is a relief these days. JPMorgan’s shares fell as low as $24.75 but were off just 12 cents to $25.79 about 11 a.m. PST.

-- Tom Petruno

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