Merrill sells assets seized from hedge funds

A plan to restructure Bear Stearns' funds heavily invested in securities backed by subprime mortgages gets thrown into doubt.

LONDON ( -- Merrill Lynch has seized about $800 million of assets from troubled hedge funds managed by Bear Stearns, throwing in doubt the chances that the funds will survive.

By late Wednesday, Merrill Lynch had sold enough of the assets, which were used as collateral for loans made to the two funds, to cover its exposure to the ailing funds, the news agency Reuters reported.

Efforts by Bear Stearns to rescue two hedge funds hit by bad bets on subprime loans appear to be faltering.

The assets were were mainly bonds backed by other securities. More asset sales are expected Thursday.

Merrill Lynch (Charts, Fortune 500) declined to comment. Bear Stearns (Charts, Fortune 500) was not immediately available for comment.

The two funds suffered double-digit losses through April after making bad bets on securities backed by subprime loans, according to Reuters. The subprime market, which gives home loans to borrowers with weak credit, has been roiled by rising defaults.

Bear Stearns has also been negotiating with JPMorgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup (down $0.82 to $53.44, Charts, Fortune 500) and other creditors in an attempt to restructure the hedge funds. Other big lenders include Goldman Sachs (Charts, Fortune 500) and Bank of America (Charts, Fortune 500), The Wall Street Journal reported earlier Wednesday.

Merrill initially seized the assets Friday and planned to sell them Monday, but it refrained from doing so until it saw the restructuring plan from Bear Stearns, sources told Reuters.

After seeing the plan, which included $1.5 billion of additional capital from Bear, Merrill decided instead to sell off the assets, the news agency reported.

Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase (Charts, Fortune 500) and others had also put some of the Bear Stearns assets up for sale. Reuters reported late Wednesday that JPMorgan Chase canceled its auction and instead sold the assets back to Bear Stearns.

Similarly, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs agreed not to sell assets on the open market.

The agreements with JPMorgan, BofA and Goldman mean that the banks will end their exposure to the hedge funds without selling assets on the open market and potentially depressing the broader market, Reuters stated.

In an interview with CNNMoney, Dan Castro, managing director at GSC Group in New York, said that if the two Bear Stearns funds collapse, it would likely be an isolated event. Still, he said, others that invested in subprime mortgage-backed securities may also run into trouble.

"Some guys made bad bets so we may see some more sellers out there," he told "There isn't going to be a flood of hedge funds liquidating, but other guys are having problems."

Just a few months back, an industry insider had warned of a "catharsis" and coming collapse in the bond market.

"We're looking at somewhat immature markets that are going through a growth phase," Ralph Cioffi, senior managing director of Bear Stearns Asset Management, said at a bond conference in New York in February, Reuters reports. "There is a catharsis and a cleaning-out process."

What is striking about the troubled Bear Stearns fund is the vast experience of the team assembled in 2003 to create a hedge fund with $25 billion in assets.

Cioffi spearheaded the initial structured credit efforts at Bear Stearns, according to Fitch Ratings analyst Vincent Matsui. Cioffi has been with Bear Stearns Asset Management since 1985, when he first started in fixed-income sales with a specialty in structured finance.

Ray McGarrigal, a senior managing director who has been with Bear Stearns since 1997, is another lead manager, along with Matthew Tannin, a senior managing director who has been with Bear Stearns since 1994 on the Collateralized Debt Obligation structuring desk.

CDOs are pools of bond securities that are grouped together to help diversify risk. Cioffi warned investors attending the February CDO and Credit Derivatives conference about inexperienced managers who may not understand the risks of the market.

"Up until now, any CDO manager, primarily new CDO managers with light staffing, very little technology and unbalanced capability, was able to get a CDO done," Cioffi said at the time. "I don't see that going forward."

--from staff and wire reports Top of page