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Fed Defies Transparency Aim in Refusal to Disclose (Update2)
Bloomberg.com: Exclusive

By Mark Pittman, Bob Ivry and Alison Fitzgerald
Enlarge Image/Details

Nov. 10 (Bloomberg) -- The Federal Reserve is refusing to identify the recipients of almost $2 trillion of emergency loans from American taxpayers or the troubled assets the central bank is accepting as collateral.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said in September they would comply with congressional demands for transparency in a $700 billion bailout of the banking system. Two months later, as the Fed lends far more than that in separate rescue programs that didn't require approval by Congress, Americans have no idea where their money is going or what securities the banks are pledging in return.

``The collateral is not being adequately disclosed, and that's a big problem,'' said Dan Fuss, vice chairman of Boston- based Loomis Sayles & Co., where he co-manages $17 billion in bonds. ``In a liquid market, this wouldn't matter, but we're not. The market is very nervous and very thin.''

Bloomberg News has requested details of the Fed lending under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and filed a federal lawsuit Nov. 7 seeking to force disclosure.

The Fed made the loans under terms of 11 programs, eight of them created in the past 15 months, in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

``It's your money; it's not the Fed's money,'' said billionaire Ted Forstmann, senior partner of Forstmann Little & Co. in New York. ``Of course there should be transparency.''

Treasury, Fed, Obama

Federal Reserve spokeswoman Michelle Smith declined to comment on the loans or the Bloomberg lawsuit. Treasury spokeswoman Michele Davis didn't respond to a phone call and an e-mail seeking comment.

President-elect Barack Obama's economic adviser, Jason Furman, also didn't respond to an e-mail and a phone call seeking comment from Obama. In a Sept. 22 campaign speech, Obama promised to ``make our government open and transparent so that anyone can ensure that our business is the people's business.''

The Fed's lending is significant because the central bank has stepped into a rescue role that was also the purpose of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, bailout plan -- without safeguards put into the TARP legislation by Congress.

Total Fed lending topped $2 trillion for the first time last week and has risen by 140 percent, or $1.172 trillion, in the seven weeks since Fed governors relaxed the collateral standards on Sept. 14. The difference includes a $788 billion increase in loans to banks through the Fed and $474 billion in other lending, mostly through the central bank's purchase of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds.

Sept. 14 Decision

Before Sept. 14, the Fed accepted mostly top-rated government and asset-backed securities as collateral. After that date, the central bank widened standards to accept other kinds of securities, some with lower ratings. The Fed collects interest on all its loans.

The plan to purchase distressed securities through TARP called for buying at the ``lowest price that the secretary (of the Treasury) determines to be consistent with the purposes of this Act,'' according to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, the law that covers TARP.

The legislation didn't require any specific method for the purchases beyond saying mechanisms such as auctions or reverse auctions should be used ``when appropriate.'' In a reverse auction, bidders offer to sell securities at successively lower prices, helping to ensure that the Fed would pay less. The measure also included a five-member oversight board that includes Paulson and Bernanke.

At a Sept. 23 Senate Banking Committee hearing in Washington, Paulson called for transparency in the purchase of distressed assets under the TARP program.

`We Need Transparency'

``We need oversight,'' Paulson told lawmakers. ``We need protection. We need transparency. I want it. We all want it.''

At a joint House-Senate hearing the next day, Bernanke also stressed the importance of openness in the program. ``Transparency is a big issue,'' he said.

The Fed lent cash and government bonds to banks, which gave the Fed collateral in the form of equities and debt, including subprime and structured securities such as collateralized debt obligations, according to the Fed Web site. The borrowers have included the now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Banks oppose any release of information because it might signal weakness and spur short-selling or a run by depositors, said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, a Washington trade group.

Frank Backs Fed

``You have to balance the need for transparency with protecting the public interest,'' Talbott said. ``Taxpayers have a right to know where their tax dollars are going, but one piece of information standing alone could undermine public confidence in the system.''

The nation's biggest banks, Citigroup, Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, declined to comment on whether they have borrowed money from the Fed. They received $120 billion in capital from the TARP, which was signed into law Oct. 3.

In an interview Nov. 6, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said the Fed's disclosure is sufficient and that the risk the central bank is taking on is appropriate in the current economic climate. Frank said he has discussed the program with Timothy F. Geithner, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a possible candidate to succeed Paulson as Treasury secretary.

``I talk to Geithner and he was pretty sure that they're OK,'' said Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. ``If the risk is that the Fed takes a little bit of a haircut, well that's regrettable.'' Such losses would be acceptable, he said, if the program helps revive the economy.

`Unclog the Market'

Frank said the Fed shouldn't reveal the assets it holds or how it values them because of ``delicacy with respect to pricing.'' He said such disclosure would ``give people clues to what your pricing is and what they might be able to sell us and what your estimates are.'' He wouldn't say why he thought that information would be problematic.

Revealing how the Fed values collateral could help thaw frozen credit markets, said Ron D'Vari, chief executive officer of NewOak Capital LLC in New York and the former head of structured finance at BlackRock Inc.

``I'd love to hear the methodology, how the Fed priced the assets,'' D'Vari said. ``That would unclog the market very quickly.''

TARP's $700 billion so far is being used to buy preferred shares in banks to shore up their capital. The program was originally intended to hold banks' troubled assets while markets were frozen.

AIG Lending

The Bloomberg lawsuit argues that the collateral lists ``are central to understanding and assessing the government's response to the most cataclysmic financial crisis in America since the Great Depression.''

The Fed has lent at least $81 billion to American International Group Inc., the world's largest insurer, so that it can pay obligations to banks. AIG today said it received an expanded government rescue package valued at more than $150 billion.

The central bank is also responsible for losses on a $26.8 billion portfolio guaranteed after Bear Stearns Cos. was bought by JPMorgan.

``As a taxpayer, it is absolutely important that we know how they're lending money and who they're lending it to,'' said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia- based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Ratings Cuts

Ultimately, the Fed will have to remove some securities held as collateral from some programs because the central bank's rules call for instruments rated below investment grade to be taken back by the borrower and marked down in value. Losses on those assets could then be written off, partly through the capital recently injected into those banks by the Treasury.

Moody's Investors Service alone has cut its ratings on 926 mortgage-backed securities worth $42 billion to junk from investment grade since Sept. 14, making them ineligible for collateral on some Fed loans.

The Fed's collateral ``absolutely should be made public,'' said Mark Cuban, an activist investor, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team and the creator of the Web site BailoutSleuth.com, which focuses on the secrecy shrouding the Fed's moves.

The Bloomberg lawsuit is Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).



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Bloomberg.com: Exclusive

Fed Refuses to Disclose Recipients of $2 Trillion (Update1)

By Mark Pittman

Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- The Federal Reserve refused a request by Bloomberg News to disclose the recipients of more than $2 trillion of emergency loans from U.S. taxpayers and the assets the central bank is accepting as collateral.

Bloomberg filed suit Nov. 7 under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act requesting details about the terms of 11 Fed lending programs, most created during the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The Fed responded Dec. 8, saying it’s allowed to withhold internal memos as well as information about trade secrets and commercial information. The institution confirmed that a records search found 231 pages of documents pertaining to some of the requests.

“If they told us what they held, we would know the potential losses that the government may take and that’s what they don’t want us to know,” said Carlos Mendez, a senior managing director at New York-based ICP Capital LLC, which oversees $22 billion in assets.

The Fed stepped into a rescue role that was the original purpose of the Treasury’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. The central bank loans don’t have the oversight safeguards that Congress imposed upon the TARP.

Total Fed lending exceeded $2 trillion for the first time Nov. 6. It rose by 138 percent, or $1.23 trillion, in the 12 weeks since Sept. 14, when central bank governors relaxed collateral standards to accept securities that weren’t rated AAA.

‘Been Bamboozled’

Congress is demanding more transparency from the Fed and Treasury on bailout, most recently during Dec. 10 hearings by the House Financial Services committee when Representative David Scott, a Georgia Democrat, said Americans had “been bamboozled.”

Bloomberg News, a unit of New York-based Bloomberg LP, on May 21 asked the Fed to provide data on collateral posted from April 4 to May 20. The central bank said on June 19 that it needed until July 3 to search documents and determine whether it would make them public. Bloomberg didn’t receive a formal response that would let it file an appeal within the legal time limit.

On Oct. 25, Bloomberg filed another request, expanding the range of when the collateral was posted. It filed suit Nov. 7.

In response to Bloomberg’s request, the Fed said the U.S. is facing “an unprecedented crisis” in which “loss in confidence in and between financial institutions can occur with lightning speed and devastating effects.”

Data Provider

The Fed supplied copies of three e-mails in response to a request that it disclose the identities of those supplying data on collateral as well as their contracts.

While the senders and recipients of the messages were revealed, the contents were erased except for two phrases identifying a vendor as “IDC.” One of the e-mails’ subject lines refers to “Interactive Data -- Auction Rate Security Advisory May 1, 2008.”

Brian Willinsky, a spokesman for Bedford, Massachusetts- based Interactive Data Corp., a seller of fixed-income securities information, declined to comment.

“Notwithstanding calls for enhanced transparency, the Board must protect against the substantial, multiple harms that might result from disclosure,” Jennifer J. Johnson, the secretary for the Fed’s Board of Governors, said in a letter e-mailed to Bloomberg News.

‘Dangerous Step’

“In its considered judgment and in view of current circumstances, it would be a dangerous step to release this otherwise confidential information,” she wrote.

New York-based Citigroup Inc., which is shrinking its global workforce of 352,000 through asset sales and job cuts, is among the nine biggest banks receiving $125 billion in capital from the TARP since it was signed into law Oct. 3. More than 170 regional lenders are seeking an additional $74 billion.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said in September they would meet congressional demands for transparency in a $700 billion bailout of the banking system.

The Freedom of Information Act obliges federal agencies to make government documents available to the press and public. The Bloomberg lawsuit, filed in New York, doesn’t seek money damages.

‘Right to Know’

“There has to be something they can tell the public because we have a right to know what they are doing,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“It would really be a shame if we have to find this out 10 years from now after some really nasty class-action suit and our financial system has completely collapsed,” she said.

The Fed lent cash and government bonds to banks that handed over collateral including stocks and subprime and structured securities such as collateralized debt obligations, according to the Fed Web site.

Borrowers include the now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Citigroup and New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co., the country’s biggest bank by assets.

Banks oppose any release of information because that might signal weakness and spur short-selling or a run by depositors, Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, a Washington trade group, said in an interview last month.

‘Complete Truth’

“Americans don’t want to get blindsided anymore,” Mendez said in an interview. “They don’t want it sugarcoated or whitewashed. They want the complete truth. The truth is we can’t take all the pain right now.”

The Bloomberg lawsuit said the collateral lists “are central to understanding and assessing the government’s response to the most cataclysmic financial crisis in America since the Great Depression.”

In response, the Fed argued that the trade-secret exemption could be expanded to include potential harm to any of the central bank’s customers, said Bruce Johnson, a lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Seattle. That expansion is not contained in the freedom-of-information law, Johnson said.

“I understand where they are coming from bureaucratically, but that means it’s all the more necessary for taxpayers to know what exactly is going on because of all the money that is being hurled at the banking system,” Johnson said.

The Bloomberg lawsuit is Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Pittman in New York at [email protected];
Last Updated: December 12, 2008 11:35 EST


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