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Last Updated: Monday, 17 March 2008, 16:36 GMT
Profile: Bear Stearns
Bear Stearns offices
Bear Stearns is one of the best-known US Wall Street firms

Bear Stearns was one of Wall Street's most respected financial institutions. Now it has become one of the biggest casualties of the sub-prime crisis. What went wrong?

On Monday, the 14,000 people employed by Bear Stearns around the world arrived at work not knowing whether they would have still have their jobs.

The firm, one of the top five investment banks in New York, had been taken over by its larger rival JP Morgan Chase for a fraction of its value.

The news meant that the share options owned by Bear Stearns staff - who own 30% of the bank's stock - were now virtually worthless as well.

The fall from grace has been dramatic.

Bear Stearns, founded in 1923, is one of the big US investment banks which have dominated Wall Street for generations.

It gained a reputation as a go-getting, high-flying bank that was not afraid to push its luck

Before the crisis, it had a market capitalisation of $17bn and assets under management of $385bn.

And its former boss, James Cayne, the richest chief executive on Wall Street, had once said that he would only sell it at four times its book value - or $60bn.

Now it has been bought by a rival for less than a quarter of the value of its swish skyscraper headquarters building in mid-town Manhattan.

Since the 1930s, Bear Stearns had always specialised in bond trading.

Aggressive player

But in recent years, Bear Stearns has been an extremely aggressive player in some of the riskier areas of Wall Street, dealing in leveraged buy-outs, hedge funds and mortgage-backed securities.

Bear Stearns market value

The firm floated on the stock market in 1985. And by rewarding its chief executives and other staff through share options, it gained a reputation as a go-getting, high-flying bank that was not afraid to push its luck.

At the peak, Mr Cayne, the firm's boss, had a net worth of $1.3bn, most of it in shares.

It was also known for its competitive attitude to its rivals.

In 1998, it was the only Wall Street bank which refused to take part in the rescue of Long Term Capital Management, the stricken hedge fund which was threatening to undermine the financial system.

Signs of trouble

The first signs of trouble at Bear Stearns emerged last July, when the firm admitted that two of its hedge funds linked to sub-prime mortgage lending were in trouble.

Bear Stearns bailed out the funds, but what disturbed investors was the failure of its chief financial officer to answer questions from stock analysts in full.

In January, the firm revealed its first ever quarterly loss, of $854m, forcing Mr Cayne to step down, although he remained as chairman.

James Cayne was a championship bridge player.

And he was at a bridge tournament in Detroit last week as speculation about the firm's cash on hand caused its stock to drop sharply.

Despite frantic efforts by the management to reassure investors that the firm was solvent, by Friday it had to call on an emergency loan from the US Federal Reserve to keep trading.

The company was haemorrhaging cash as investment clients pulled their money out of the bank, worried that they might not get it back.

The shares, which had once been worth $170, plunged to $30.

In frantic weekend meetings, the firms looked for a buyer who was willing to take over its obligations.

In the end, it took a Fed guarantee of $30bn to persuade JP Morgan Chase to buy.

What's left?

Bear Stearns has global operations in London and East Asia, but the bulk of its operations are in New York.

It is believed that JP Morgan is mainly after Bear Stearns's prime brokerage business, which provides loans and processes trades for hedge funds, and generated $1.2bn. profit last year.

The prime brokerage business was the third-largest, behind Goldman Sachs Group and Morgan Stanley.

That business is probably the only piece left of the company with value after the mortgage market collapsed last year, analysts said.

"That's the crown jewel, and that would fit into JPMorgan's business extremely well," said William Fitzpatrick of Optique Capital Management.

The other big part of the firm's income came from packaging and trading mortgage-backed bonds, a market that has been almost completely frozen since the sub-prime crisis began in July.

As it approached collapse, it is believed that the company had more than $40bn in mortgage-backed securities that were becoming increasingly difficult to sell.

So many of the 15,000 employees are right to be worried about their future.

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