JP Morgan Chase buys midtown skyscraper at a discount; Bear Stearns thrown in for free

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So JP Morgan Chase is buying Bear Stearns, for what everybody’s reporting to be somewhere in the $230-$250 million range.

That’s significantly less than Bear Stearns’ newish headquarters building at 383 Madison Ave.–a few blocks from JP Morgan Chase’s HQ–would fetch. Estimates Bloomberg:

The 1.2 million-square-foot, 45-story structure built in 2001 is worth about $1.2 billion, based on the average $1,000 per- square-foot that comparable office space in the city is currently fetching.

Now Bear doesn’t own that building outright (according to its most recent 10K, it’s got some kind of lease with an option to purchase), and there are lots of other costs to the transaction (about $6 billion, in fact) beyond the token sum that JPM is paying Bear’s shareholders. But JPM CFO Mike Cavanagh wasn’t kidding when he said in the conference call Sunday night: “The price that’s being paid here gives us flexibility and margin for error.” Especially with the Federal Reserve still offering to, as the FT put it, “fund up to $30bn of Bear’s less liquid assets – a move that will alleviate the need for a fire-sale of mortgage-backed securities.”

You can’t really call this a bailout of Bear anymore. The investment bank’s shareholders are being virtually wiped out–the $2 a share JPM is offering seems to be mainly a token incentive to get them to vote yes on the deal, on the assumption that if they vote no Bear will go bankrupt and they’ll get nothing. (Although in the most amusing moment of the Sunday night conference call, a caller who identified himself as an individual investor in Bear Stearns did tell Cavanagh, “I vote no.”)

But you’ve got to wonder about the appropriateness of JP Morgan Chase getting Bear handed to it on a platter by the Fed. The other day I posted excerpts from a speech by Bank of Sweden Governor Stefan Ingves–one of the main architects of Sweden’s successful bailout of its banking system in the early 1990s–in which he emphasized how important it was that any government rescue of a financial institution strike “a balance between all of the interested parties who come forward when a bank is in distress.”

The Fed was working too fast for balance on Bear Stearns. JP Morgan Chase was the only buyer that could possibly get it done over the weekend, and the Fed seemed to be afraid that if Bear wasn’t in safe hands by the time markets opened Monday in Asia it might start a worldwide run on financial institutions. So JP Morgan Chase got what from the looks of it is an extremely sweet deal. If I didn’t know better, I might be tempted to call that crony capitalism.

Update: John Carney at Dealbreaker delves a little deeper into the 2007 Bear Stearns 10K than I did and finds that Bear put a $570 million valuation on its interest in 383 Madison.

Update 2: Wall Street veteran Roger Ehrenberg points out that while the deal represents a “calculated risk” for JP Morgan Chase, it’s still a risk (via Colin Barr):

I believe the Fed’s $30 billion backstop addresses most if not all of the portfolio issues related to BSC’s holdings of mortgage securities with some left over. However, the combination of hard-to-value Tier III holdings and leveraged loans together with the value diminution in their high-value businesses raises the question “is it enough?” Bottom line: likely yes. But is also wasn’t so likely last week that BSC shareholders and employees would be wiped out and left to wonder “what happened?” So I am invoking the sentiment of that brilliant philosopher Yogi Berra: It ain’t over ’til its over. And believe me, my friends, it ain’t nowhere near over.

Update 3: More posts on the same topic here, here and here.