Audit Notes: Maiden Lane, AIG Off Easy, Spitzer

Bloomberg reports that Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke didn’t tell Congress the whole truth when they testified about the Bear Stearns bailout in 2008:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and then-New York Fed President Timothy Geithner told senators on April 3, 2008, that the tens of billions of dollars in “assets” the government agreed to purchase in the rescue of Bear Stearns Cos. were “investment-grade.” They didn’t share everything the Fed knew about the money.

The so-called assets included collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed bonds with names like HG-Coll Ltd. 2007-1A that were so distressed, more than $40 million already had been reduced to less than investment-grade by the time the central bankers testified. The government also became the owner of $16 billion of credit-default swaps, and taxpayers wound up guaranteeing high-yield, high-risk junk bonds.

The larger point is that the assets were rapidly deteriorating crap and the Fed knew it and tried to cover it up. We know this information now only because Bloomberg sued the Fed and won:

More than 88 percent of Maiden Lane’s CDO bonds and 78 percent of its non-agency residential mortgage-backed debt are now speculative grade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg based on holdings as of Jan. 29.

This is great reporting, though the story could have been a lot more clearly edited. This Bloomberg TV interview with reporter Caroline Salas is much easier to follow.

— Reuters’s Steve Eder and Matthew Goldstein write that the Angelides Commission is letting AIG off easy by focusing too much on Goldman Sachs.

For some reason, the commission decided not to rough-up Joseph Cassano, the man who ran the AIG division that insured tens of billions of dollars in toxic mortgage-backed securities and sparked an unprecedented taxpayer bailout of the firm. Instead, the commission provided Cassano with a platform to justify his actions and argue that his strong, guiding hand was missed during the crisis.

They say the commission is also barking up the wrong tree by focusing on Goldman’s marking down of AIG CDO prices. Here they quote Janet Tavakoli:

“What they needed to hold Goldman accountable for was the underlying assets,” Tavakoli said. “The underlying assets in those CDOs were horrible because of widespread securities fraud and accounting fraud in the securitization business.”

— Eliot Spitzer explains over at Slate why the financial reform bill is a failure:

First, the bill does virtually nothing to confront the single greatest structural problem we face: the continued growth of too big to fail, or TBTF, institutions. Indeed, over the course of the crisis we have gone in the wrong direction, with the banking industry now more concentrated than it was several years ago. There is no reason to believe that this trend will change or that the federal guarantees of TBTF institutions will be withdrawn.

Second, the bill by and large reinvests regulators with the same discretion they had—and failed to use—before the crisis. The theory underlying the bill is simple: “Trust us—next time we will do better.” Indeed, in virtually every case, the very same people are still in the positions they had before the cataclysm. Isn’t it comforting to know that the systemic risk council—that critical group that is supposed to be akin to the canary in the mine, warning of impending danger—will be led by the same people (Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke) who failed or refused to see the omens of this crisis as it swept through the economy?

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.