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Agreement upon multi-billion-dollar fund to buy distressed debt securities achieved

Bankers from Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp. decided upon the structure of a multi-billion-dollar fund to buy distressed debt securities.

The bankers met Friday to hammer out the details of how the fund will work, said the person, who asked not to be named because the details have not been publicly disclosed. Those details include how much specific participating banks will contribute.

Before the plan takes effect, it must be approved by the banks' senior corporate officers, tax attorneys and ratings agencies. Meanwhile, some investors and industry watchers say the fund will only help the banks involved.

The fund was the brainchild of Citigroup, which sees potential troubles in its structured investment vehicles, known as SIVs. Citigroup manages seven SIVs, with about $83.1 billion (57 billion EUR) in assets. Other major banks that manage SIVs are HSBC, Bank of Montreal, Societe Generale, and Standard Chartered Bank.

The fund - called the Master Liquidity Enhancement Conduit, or M-LEC - would buy the short-term, asset-backed securities that SIVs must sell to fund their investments and stay in business.

The banks say that would, in turn, boost demand in the tight credit markets, which seized up this summer when investors started avoiding securities with exposure to subprime mortgages, which are home loans to risky borrowers.

JPMorgan and Bank of America do not manage SIVs, but they will collect fees through the fund. They would also likely benefit because they are among the many banks that have been forced to put billions in losses on their books due to investments that have plummeted in value - particularly in CDOs, or collateralized debt obligations, which are sliced and repackaged bundles of debt.

A return to normalcy in the credit markets - including a steady market for securities from SIVs - could reduce losses at banks with CDO exposure.

"Getting some more time for the pricing process to occur is a healthy thing," said Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., about M-LEC in late October. "It's most successful if no one has to use it."

The M-LEC plan - prompted by the Treasury Department after banks expressed dismay over a lack of demand in the credit markets - has its supporters, but it has been criticized as a bailout for the banks.

"It's a bad idea overall, but a good idea for the three companies. It's a method of generating fees, but I don't see what it achieves for the market overall," said Punk, Ziegel & Co. analyst Richard Bove.

Bove said demand created outside the marketplace is false demand, and furthermore, the fund only intends to buy the least risky assets. That would leave the unwanted, subprime-mortgage-backed assets out there in the marketplace.

Moreover, critics say the fund is just a bandage to a larger problem: That the way banks operate SIVs - off-the-books and with little disclosure to investors about their risks - is questionable.

"It's kind of like the Enron situation - when you get into trouble, you have to go find some funding for it. That's the predicament they're in right now," said former U.S. Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, who also chaired the Public Oversight Board.

"The whole premise of off-balance-sheet items is wrong. It takes away the transparency," Bowsher said. "There's no one silver bullet that's going to correct this .... Somebody has to do a very good study of what the problems are."

Last week, Moody's Investors Service placed three of Citigroup's SIVs on a watch list for a possible downgrade in rating, saying they would be hurt by "further deterioration in the market value of the portfolio."

Citigroup has said its SIVs have no direct exposure to U.S. subprime assets, but have about $70 million (48 million EUR) of indirect exposure to subprime assets through AAA-rated collateralized debt obligations that hold mortgage debt. Citigroup said it is not contractually obligated to fund its SIVs, but it has committed $10 billion (6.8 billion EUR) in liquidity to the SIVs, $7.6 billion (5.2 billion EUR) of which was drawn by Oct. 31.

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