Who is to Blame for Bear Stearn’s Demise?

From our Things that make you go Hmmmm department:

There is a meme going around about the death of Bear Stearns (BSC). According to some people (mostly current and ex-employees) the collapse of the fifth largest investment bank in the US is the fault of many people, none of whom happen to be the management of Bear Stearns itself.

Let’s review some of the reasons why this was "not" Bear Stearn’s fault:

1) Various clients — like Renaissance Technologies Jim Simons, who pulled his prime brokerage account from Bear a few weeks earlier, as well as short sellers spreading rumors — caused a run on the bank.

2) The Greenspan Fed, for not giving iBanks a seat at the discount window when Glass-Steagall Act was repealed (K & Co, March 16). 

3) The Ben Bernanke Fed, for failing to raise rates more rapidly.

These excuses are a steaming pile of organic, enzyme-free donkey fazoo. One in particular stands out as more manure laden than the rest. I wish to draw your attention to the third excuse, as it was penned earlier this week by, of all people, three Bear Stearns economists. Its titled "Apart From That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was The Play?"  You see, it turns out that because the Fed kept rates so low, we ended up with all this bad paper, which ultimately led to the increase in foreclosures, then a sub-prime implosion, a housing debacle, derivative collapse, counter-party risk, recession, etc.  If only the Fed raised rates more rapidly, their argument goes none of this would have happened.

Um, sure it is, if you say so. Now, put the gun keyboard down, and back away from the laptop.

To me, this is the equivalent of blaming McDonalds (MCD) for your being obese. Why-oh-why must they make the Quarter Pounder (with cheese) so delicious? Who amongst us can possibly resist its mouthwatering sesame seed buns, its delectable, fat-laden goodness? Hmmmmm, so scrumptious!

Not everyone else gorged at the trough of mortgage backed securities the way Bear did: They were the most aggressive player in the mortgage backed underwriting arena, their internal hedge funds were amongst the most heavily leveraged to the junk. Indeed, of all the banks on Wall Street, one in particular stands out for how heavily tied they were to mortgage securitization industry: Bear Stearns.  Of course, this obviously had nothing to do with Bears’ current predicament.

Then there is the small matter of, shall we call it, a lack of diplomacy on Bear’s part. Back in 1998, when Long Term Capital Management was going down, the major banks were brought together by the New York
Fed President. The only party who refused to participate in
the $3 billion bailout (which turned out to be profitable for asl involved) was Long Term’s
prime broker, Bear Stearns. That’s the sort of poor Wall Street corporate citizenry which can make you quite a few enemies. If revenge is a dish best served cold, you can be sure plenty of people were thrilled on Sunday to announce Supper’s Ready.

Finally, there seems to be this tendency amongst Bear economists of playing the role of imperfect messenger. Recall that just as the credit crunch was unfolding, it was Bear (of all people!) who advised everyone: Don’t Panic About the Credit Market. Ironically, part of Bear’s current criticism consists of blaming the Fed today for, well, not panicking back then — even as they were telling everyone to calm down. Sorry, but you don’t get to have it both ways.

The bottom line is that Bear went under because of the poor judgment of their management: their aggressive risk taking, their positions in the mortgage back market, their apparent lack of risk controls, their leverage, lack of liquidity and reserves, and the enemies they made over the years. Sorry to be so blunt, but get real: It was nobody’s fault but their own.


The "Chutzpah" of Bear Stearns    http://bigpicture.typepad.com/comments/2007/08/the-chutzpah-of.html

Apart From That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was The Play? .pdf
John Ryding, Conrad DeQuadros, Meghna Mittal
Across the Curve: Bear Stearns Economics, March 18, 2008

Bear Economists Snipe at Bernanke
Andrew Ross Sorkin
NYT Dealbook, MARCH 19, 2008, 1:32 PM    http://dealbook.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/19/bear-economists-snipe-at-bernanke/

Wall Street Ponders Extent  Of the Woes  At Other Firms
WSJ, March 15, 2008; Page B1

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. Chief Tomahawk commented on Mar 21


    I wonder whether the BLS will catch the Bear Stearns job losses?

  2. Ross commented on Mar 21

    Alas, again no fuzzy thinking on your part.

    I would only add that Brer Bear were always rakish fellows who usually sailed close to the wind.

  3. dblwyo commented on Mar 21

    Comes ’round, goes ’round. The Finance Industry in general has proven that it lacks and needs adult supervision. You know why they have helmet laws ? Not to prevent idiots from brain-wiping the pavement but because the mopping up is expensive for the rest of society. Along the whole chain from mortgage borrower to originator to bank to investment fund you’ve had increases in self-destructive behavior that grew as much as the leverage. We’re going to get re-regulation the only question is what kind. We’d hope for something that was market supporting and not overly bureaucratic but the guns (keyboards) won’t be left in the hands of the kids.

  4. Jagmohan Swain commented on Mar 21

    ECRI yesterday has warned officially of a ongoing/coming recession.Either way not the greatest news for housing market.I personally know people who have close to a million dollar debt because they are carrying multiple houses.Let me tell u as long as job market was fine these things could have been swept under the carpet as one is able to meet his mortgage payment from his paycheck.No paycheck and how does one make the mortgage payment.This is gonna be real bad for main street, real real bad.In the meantime I think we are getting close to a bottom here for equities.

  5. Marcus Aurelius commented on Mar 21

    But I thought everything bad was Bill Clinton’s fault. To think that those nice, upstanding banking boys are being blamed! The banks always do what is in the best interests of our country because they are stake-holding patriots.

  6. Nihilism commented on Mar 21

    I NEED MORE! Perhaps they were mis-understanding education (tools to carry out day to day life) and experience with good judgement and leadership.

    I am no expert but my couple of pennies on this:

    Regulate and bring banks/ brokers/ Inst.Investors/Hedge Funds/PE guys/RE investor/CTAs — and all the damn human beings who are in the market for just making money — to using the same maximum amount of leverage ratios, same as what individual investor can do using publicly traded contracts and rules.

    That way wall street will free up some quant head Physics PhDs and they will start doing what they were supposed to do in the first place — and the crazy brains/ education will stop pursuing “chasing money” as a career option.

    Guess who is smiling right now? May be they should have all these quotes as a part of MBA program around the world.

    – Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

    – If a business does well, the stock eventually follows

    – In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.

    – It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.

    – Of the billionaires I have known, money just brings out the basic traits in them. If they were jerks before they had money, they are simply jerks with a billion dollars.

    -Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.

    -Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.

    – When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.

  7. Dan W commented on Mar 21

    That’s the sort of poor Wall Street corporate citizenry which can make you quite a few enemies.

    It reminds me of the line in Field of Dreams about Ty Cobb: “We couldn’t stand the Son of a Bitch when he was alive!”

  8. Jack commented on Mar 21

    If by point 3 they mean that the Fed has kept rates artificially low for too long, then yes, that was the reason for Bear’s collapse. In fact, the low interest rates are the *root cause* of this whole problem.

    The low interest rates that the Fed has been setting are destroying the dollar. Yes, raising them will create a severe recession. But that is what this country needs–to save the dollar and to purge the excesses of not only the mortgage bubble but the dot-com bubble (the mini-recession of 2001 was not allowed to complete its work).

    Barry, I’ve recently discovered this site and I think you’ve been pretty good about analyzing the current “downturn”, better than most of the shills on the cable news channels. But your analysis needs to penetrate to the root of the problem. When you have a crisis like we have now, and you find so many people to blame (greedy Wall St. bankers, unscrupulous mortgage lenders, stupid no-doc mortgage borrowers, overleveraged hedge funds), then you’re not really seeing the root of the problem. The root is the Fed and the inflation it causes. Yes, people took advantage of the all cheap money that was going around. Bear Stearns was one of them, and they deserve to be held accountable for their actions (i.e. their company is dead). But it’s not only valid and appropriate, but also vital, that we place the blame on the Fed if we want to find a way out of this mess.


    BR: Hey Jack

    Welcome to the site. We’ve been hitting that topic for about 4 years now.

    Do a quick search for inflation ex inflation and you will see what I mean.

    Or, just pull up ALL of the inflation posts.

  9. John Jacobs commented on Mar 21

    If the Ibanks had been given a seat at the discount window would we now be talking about them writing off trillions instead of billions?

  10. Florida commented on Mar 21

    It’s been astounding to watch the excuse making and the finger pointing that’s been done on behalf of Bear. F those guys. They reaped the whirlwind. Kudlow can suck it.

  11. Lars commented on Mar 21

    What I would ask is: who shorted BSC in the days before its collapse? Did they have insider information? This thing happened way too fast.

  12. VennData commented on Mar 21

    I agree with many of the above. Consider why every one of BSC’s competitors moved offshore aggressively, they did not.

    Call it a lack of – relatively – long term planning, call it a cultural problem, call it a management problem. This glaring omission reveals a thoughtlessness that any retail schmuck putting money into EEM for the last four or five years had figured out.

  13. drtomaso commented on Mar 21

    If we are talking about the looming recession (depression?) and the tanking of the real estate market, then yes, the Fed is ultimately responsible for holding interest rates low so long. They created the bubble the collapse of which will return some 3-4 million home owners to home renters.

    If we are talking about Bear’s collapse- thats another matter. This was a organization of finance professionals- people who are, at the very minimum, supposed to be able to accurately judge the risks to their business and plan accordingly. They failed to do so, completely mismanaged their risk, and thus have removed themselves to the dustbin of history. The Fed cannot be blamed for how Bear acted as an organization.

    Its a stretch to say that a reasonable expectation of lowering interest rates is that major investment banks would completely abandon risk management.

  14. Groty commented on Mar 21

    Simons, Ken Griffin and S3 never would have pulled their assets if they had confidence those assets were safe. So blaming Bear’s demise on anybody but Bear management doesn’t hold water.

    The irony is that Ryding and DeQuadros have consistently been the biggest inflation hawks (on the sell side) during this entire cycle. Bear management effectively made decisions that the FED would ignore the Bear economists concerns and spoil the party by aggressively raising rates to reign in inflation.

    They were right. But still lost in the end.

  15. 3rd inning commented on Mar 21

    Hmmmm…i was thinking.

    unfortunately, these thoughts may make your stomach churn.

    if a house was purchased for $1M two years ago (2006)…that same house may be worth about 800K today…in two more years it may be worth about 20% less…call it 640K

    in the past 2 years, the $us lost about 20% of its value…and could probably lose another 20% in the next 2 years….


    what would one be left with?


    that 640K house will most likely lose about 40% purchasing power through the debasement of the $us (over 4 years)…could be worth about 384K +/- 50K in 2006 $ terms.

    that is unbelieveable $1M down to about $400K over about 4 years time!

    talk about evaporation of wealth

  16. BG commented on Mar 21

    Frankly, I don’t give a damn whose fault BSC demise was.

    What I am concerned about is the incalculable (is that a word?) liability the FED (~taxpayers) has taken on by giving the Investment Banks access to the Discount Window.

    You know the Commercial Banks may not be nearly as financially strong as we might hope. We already know how deep in the hock Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack are and now getting even deeper and now the Investment Banks (~free market, yeah right) are also coming to the trough.

    Is the FED going to place any kind of regulations on these free-wheeling stock swappers or just play dumb until the next crisis blows-up?

  17. wunsacon commented on Mar 21

    >> …would we now be talking about them writing off trillions instead of billions?

    There’s a Dr. Evil quote in there somewhere!

    >> then yes, the Fed is ultimately responsible for holding interest rates low so long.

    And Bear was with them every step of the way, willing to stay on the train even after they saw a train on the same track heading their way.

  18. John Borchers commented on Mar 21

    For failing to raise rates more rapidly?

  19. drtomaso commented on Mar 21

    There is a discussion on urban digs about the issue of what the tax payers’ exposure is by this fed move.

  20. jag commented on Mar 21

    What fascinates me about Bear Stearns’ implosion is that I understood they virtually created the MBS market.

    Wouldn’t the group that created a market understand it’s weaknesses? And even if they didn’t create it, they (and others) were huge players in MBS. How was it possible for large groups of (at least) not totally stupid people not see how the housing slowdown was developing in 2005 and 2006 and not protect themselves?

    It didn’t take “genius” to see problems growing in FL, CA and elsewhere in 05-06. Yet, not only didn’t Bear’s people hedge against these developments, apparently the biggest guy in MBS at Bear INCREASED his bet in the hedge funds he ran.

    People, regardless of intellect, make mistakes. But to so grossly miscalculate a market that you’ve practically built, that has pretty simple fundamentals (when you get right down to it), is amazing.

  21. cathompson commented on Mar 21

    barry – Another fine post, your satiric gifts are highly underrated, in case you ever tire of stirring the financial pot.

  22. Marcus Aurelius commented on Mar 21

    ’twasn’t fraud what killed the Bear. ’twas Law Enforcement.

  23. Stoic commented on Mar 21

    Did I read it here? Somebody made the point that the “bailout”/firesale of Bear protected their massive bonuses paid out in January. All of which would have to have been returned if they filed for bankruptcy. Hell, if you have to go under, you might as well go there with a huge golden parachute.

  24. Bob A commented on Mar 21

    It’s either God or The Devil…. depending on your point of view.

  25. rickrude commented on Mar 21

    loose monetary policy of the Greenspan era
    + unregulated greed of the mortgage parasites = imploding debt instruments

    Wait, Bernanke to the rescue !!!

  26. dukeb commented on Mar 21

    Great post! (I pretty much only visit this blog in the hopes of reading an educated, forthright opinion about topics that can go many ways, and you delivered on this one.)

  27. Mephisto commented on Mar 21

    Didn’t Bear Stearns crack LTCM with a half BILLION dollar margin call?? Sounds like chump change these days.

    They’ve had it coming for a while. I just haven’t been able to comprehend what total failure they were in to warrant such a quick burial.

  28. Estragon commented on Mar 21

    Considering who is to blame obscures the more important question of the systemic blame. IMHO, a key factor is the mispricing of multi-legged counterparty risk, especially those of derivatives.

    Individual firms can and do minimize value at risk by running broadly balanced books. They stay delta neutral and profit through spreads and transactional revenue. Single-legged counterparty risk is minimized through netting arrangements. If B, a counterparty to A, runs into trouble and doesn’t pony up on offside positions, those positions can be netted with onside positions.

    The problem arises when risks are multi-legged. Introducing third and subsequent counterparties raises the problem of non-netable counterparty risk. Counterparties A,B,&C may be delta neutral with respect to the overall ABC complex, but are unlikely to be delta neutral with individual A,B, or C counterparties. A and C can only net their own books against B, not their collective book.

    In other words, if any significant counterparty is at credible risk of failing, survivors will suddenly have unbalanced (and non-netable) books, and a sudden need to increase VAR. Considering the scale of derivatives, even fairly small increases in VAR could seriously impair capital ratios and cause a cascade of runs.

    Under these circumstances, there’s only one viable solution. A or C must take over B. An outside bidder might be interested, but insiders are more strongly motivated by the need to avoid the counterparty cascade.

    The logical buy candidate would be the surviving counterparty with the most to lose (the biggest derivatives book). In this instance, that counterparty happens to be JPM.

    If the issue was just stinky mortgages, the range of buyers would be much larger. There are lots of potential buyers in a better position than JPM to buy in the panic market and run the mortgages off. That the buyer was JPM is a pretty good hint that the multi-legged counterparty risk is the 800lb gorilla in the room.

  29. Peter Davis commented on Mar 21

    In the interest of brevity: what a bunch of dicks.

  30. Romeo commented on Mar 21

    Nixon once said ” the buck stops in this office” or words to that
    There was only one person occupying each of the only two corporate
    position which had direct and specific responsibility TO employees
    (CEO) and shareholders (COB) to insure that the strategic goals of
    the company enabled the company to maintain its competitve edge
    through the development of a sound and diversified portfolio of
    products, services and offerings – each with specific risk management
    oversight by senior management which would not create an unbalanced or
    overweighted reliance on any one profit center.
    The only person thus responsible for non compliance with these
    mandated responsibilities was relieved of his CEO responsibilities
    but remains with his COB position and was last seen at a bridge
    Tournament and playing golf during these past few months while Bear
    And his name is not Nixon.
    And he is still the COB, still playing Bridge and golf despite the
    fact that he may not have the current backing of the current board of
    With this in mind it would be of some interest to contact the current
    board members and take a pole to determine which Bear employee they
    feel should be held MOST responsible for what ailes the company now.

  31. luker commented on Mar 21

    Best of all JPM didn’t even have to crack their checkbook because they are buying with stock and using the Fed for overdraft protection. Smooooooth.

  32. VennData commented on Mar 21

    Truman said “The buck stops here” Nixon said, “I am not a crook.”

    To Estragon’s point, JPM stayed better balanced – risk-wise – now they may be less so.

  33. wally commented on Mar 21

    You are a top Bear exec. You see this stuff coming down the road for over one year. If you are not on the phone every day personally talking to the guys who could walk their money out the door and take you down, you are a piss poor exec.

  34. druce commented on Mar 21

    The Krugman explanation is pretty instructive.

    It’s a run on the shadow banking system (from Roubini).

    Bear: it’s our god-given right as Wall Street wankers to seek out all the loopholes, and it’s the Fed’s fault if we hurt ourselves in the process.

  35. Jack commented on Mar 21

    VennData, when other banks start going under, it will become clear that Bear wasn’t the only one who had trouble with risk management. Lehman Brothers, Citi, JPM and Goldman, etc. are all screwed, and it doesn’t matter that they’re all professionals.

    The problem is indeed systemic. In a fiat money system, the entire banking system is insolvent, and it’s hard to do good risk management. This is especially evident in the USA, whose fiat dollars–as the world’s reserve currency–have been soaked up for years by foreigners, thereby masking the problem and allowing it to get worse. If the dollar keeps falling, all those dollars are going to get dumped back onto our markets, putting us in a world of pain.

  36. Todd commented on Mar 21

    Oh, very mature behavior out of Bear Stearns people. Blame everybody else but yourselves. Indeed. It’s very hard to conjure up any sympathy for the fallen Hamptons crowd who will have decidedly fewer yachts to waterski behind, Gordon, although I’ll try to dig some out for some of the middle-level people who saw everything evaporate through not much fault of their own.

    As far as is concerned that 30% of the stock was owned by the employees who then saw their net worth completely evaporate as well as their jobs, well didn’t anyone learn anything at all from the Enron debacle? Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.

  37. rob commented on Mar 21

    I blame Mortimer Duke for proposing that stupid bet in the first place.

    /”Turn those machines back on!”

  38. AGG commented on Mar 21

    Off loading risk has always been a game unscrupulous people work hard to achieve without leaving any fingerprints. However, a patient observer can see when “things” are moving in a certain direction. Wasn’t it in the 90s that banks decided it was time to IPO? So how did your bank stocks do? Who just IPOed? Oh yeah, the one with V symbol. How do you think your V stock is going to do in the next year?
    This forensic analysis of BSC suffers from the endowment effect. This isn’t hard. Remember the line from the Sopranos? “This is what I am. This is what I do.” Tell me, what’s more popular on wall street, a lizard brain or a compassionate one? Right, the former is worthy of fear and respect and the later is worthy of scorn. The problem is truly systemic. This sanctimonious horse hockey about responsibility and preservetion of long term corporate good will is just another ploy to bring in more rubes. Confidence is evaporating. Get over it.

  39. Pool Shark commented on Mar 21

    The real reason for Bear’s demise goes back 10 years…

    Their refusal to lend a hand in the LTCM bailout.

    Payback’s a bitch…

  40. AGG commented on Mar 21

    I propose that the Bull statue in front of the New York Stock exchange be exhanged for three dimensional hologram running on a loop. The scene portrays a dark room where a pack of sewer rats are feeding on a fellow rat’s body and the subsequent race for their hidy holes when a bright light is turned on. Watch them jump and claw and bite each other as they fight to get in their holes. Ah, humanity at it’s most darwinian state of perfection. It makes you proud to be human.

  41. Lord commented on Mar 21

    At least their could get their history right. Bernanke has only been around for the last few 1/2 point increases before freezing rates.

    Management had over half a year to get their house in order but their only strategic plan was bankruptcy. No doubt they will keep repeating, who could have seen this coming, and who could when you keep your eyes closed.

  42. bluestatedon commented on Mar 21

    “Sorry to be so blunt, but get real: It was nobody’s fault but their own.”

    What Barry said.

    I can’t think of a medicine our society in all its forms needs more strongly than the injunction to take responsibility for your own actions. It applies to everybody, from the looniest lefty liberal all the way through to the most rabid redmeat redstater and everybody in between… and this applies to most of those wailing about the high cost of their mortgages in addition to the whinyass tittybaby Bear execs.

  43. bnr commented on Mar 21

    every company from main street to wall street has to manage risk, BS is known for being arrogant,and non risk averse. if you subject your business to excessive risk…, you pay the price,

    you can’t blame your customers, doh!

    greenspan, well macro economically he made a mess, with his Ann Rand ways, lack of regulation or scrutiny of companies like BS and other hedge funds… and the rates of course,..

    but BS made their own choices…
    and now.. when the banking system was in jeopardy, in the late 90’s, they walked.. now they want a bailout,
    flushhhhhhh cya

  44. JL commented on Mar 21

    For those who still don’t get it:

  45. snooky commented on Mar 21

    So many stray thoughts… CHASE was no angel in this mortgage mess. I say let these shits go bankrupt, and send those dumb ‘bankers’ scattering off to be JUDGED in “Valkenvania”. When I say CHASE, I don’t mean Chevy Chase. All of this was Nothing But Trouble from the start. They just could not figure out the exit. OR, did they care…at the time. Feed ’em to the bone crusher and let’s get on with life.

  46. pft commented on Mar 21

    Who is BSC anyways, the shareholders or the executives who sold the shareholders out and who will have nice high paying jobs with JPM in return.

    For the 30% of shareholders who were employees, most of them will be out of a job and their pension funds have been drastically reduced. Top executives no longer care about the shareholder, most get their compensation in cash today, and not stock, and they probably did well shorting the stock after their CEO said everything was fine and shares were trading at 65 just days before they said they were not and prices plunged to 30.

    The FED announced that they would extend up to $200 bln in credit to the primary broker/dealers, for the first time since the 1930’s, AFTER arranging the BSC gift to JPM, a Fed shareholder. Maybe that should be investigated by somebody? Spitzer would have been all over this (guess we know why he went down now).

    BSC absorbtion by JPM means 1 less competitor for Paulsons GS. Boy, he sure did earn that 16 million good bye bonus from GS. Pop the sub-prime bubble which they shorted and eliminate a major competitor. Competition is not a good thing for our financial service kingdom, which at the end of this mess will become a smaller cartel than they already are.

    The financial service sector accounts for 20% of GDP and employs 6% of the workforce, compared to manufacturing which is down to 12% of GDP and employs 10% of the workforce.
    Instead of producing wealth, we now create debt, serve fries, clean bed pans and import inflation due to a declining dollar. Heh-heh, what a racket. We do have a pretty good MIC and war machine though. Maybe we can sell it off to pay our debt.

  47. roger commented on Mar 21

    That was an amazing performance by BS’s chief economist. I especially liked this paragraph, which combines extreme greed with a blindness toward even the medium term that is – well, nutty:

    “U.S. growth has endured other waves of equally loud pessimism — over high gasoline prices, low (pre-revision) estimates of job growth, a supposedly negative personal savings rate (revised to positive on July 27 by the Commerce Department) and even the 2003 tax cut on labor and capital. Remember the argument that tax cuts would put the economy on a path toward fiscal collapse and recession? Now, the U.S. deficit is set to fall below $150 billion by Washington’s September fiscal year-end, thanks to strong tax receipts.”

    Hmm, looks like a recession is looming, recessions are usually met by increases in public expenditure, so now is the time to praise the 2003 tax decrease? Has anybody looked at the current budget deficit? Has it finished eating Tokyo, or is it fighting King Kong now?

    Obviously, for Bear Stearns, economics is the science of rationalizing your daydreams.

  48. jjr commented on Mar 22

    Bear Stearns employees, sanctimonious pricks until the very end …

  49. salesanalyst commented on Mar 22


    666 is no longer alone


  50. mw commented on Mar 22

    Everywhere we hear the phrase ” WE ARE IN UNCHARTED WATERS”…. You must remember, the mighty “TITANIC” was in “CHARTED WATERS” when it sank!.

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