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Investors were discouraged that no buyer had been named. Lehman began pitching a deal to private equity firms two months ago. Analysts think the sale could fetch about $3 billion.

Further, the firm is also taking a big bet that a spinoff of its commercial real estate assets will get a strong market reception in early 2009. The new entity will be called Real Estate Investments Global, and will be run by an independent management team.

Mr. Williams think that the company now has a limited amount of time, perhaps until Monday, to produce a bona fide deal or run the risk of shares tumbling even further. And, he said, that could lead to a worst-case scenario, in which rumors about the company cause anxious trading partners to pull business - which felled Bear Stearns six months ago.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.