Audit Roundup: Bloomberg Fights the Fed

Calling for disclosure of trillion-dollar government loans; The Times on the the new pitch business; etc.

Bloomberg has been excellent in watchdogging the Federal Reserve’s various bailouts, even suing the government last week for the information. Today, it reports that the Fed won’t tell to whom it’s lending $2 trillion (this is in addition to the infamous $700 billion program) or what kind of collateral it’s taking on in exchange:

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.

Here’s Barney Frank with a gaffe:

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.

Well, I’m “pretty sure” it’s outrageous that the government is resisting telling taxpayers what it’s doing with trillions of dollars of our money. How risky are these loans? What kind of collateral is the Fed getting in return? Who knows?

Bravo to Bloomberg for fighting this.

The Journal, meanwhile, plays the access-journalism card to post an unremarkable story about how Bernanke and Paulson came up with the bailout plan. Not much seems to be new here. The WSJ might be better to reallocate resources to teaming up with Bloomberg on its disclosure fight.

The New York Times gets a scoop on AIG this morning. It reported that the government was planning to revise and expand—again—its massive bailout of the insurer.

When the restructured deal is complete, taxpayers will have invested and lent a total of $150 billion to A.I.G., the most the government has ever directed to a single private enterprise. It is a stark reversal of the government’s assurance that its earlier moves had stabilized A.I.G…

The government’s original emergency line of credit, while saving A.I.G. from bankruptcy for a time, now appears to have accelerated the company’s problems. That short-term loan came with a high interest rate — about 14 percent — which forced the company into a fire sale of its assets and reduced its ability to pay back the loan, putting its future in jeopardy.

The new deal would make the government a long-term investor in A.I.G., something that Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. had said he hoped to avoid. As part of the revamping, the government would lower the loan amount to $60 billion from $85 billion, lengthen the payment schedule to five years from two years, and lower the interest rate.

The Times has an interesting story on how the advertising industry has rapidly changed its lures since the crisis deepened.

So rather than pitch seduction, the perfume Tabu Forbidden is pitching a coupon for $5 off the purchase price. The drugstore remedy Emergen-C is not only about staying “healthy year-round,” it’s about a $1 coupon. Reddi-wip is no longer about creamy indulgence, it’s about saving 75 cents.

On the higher end, Bloomingdale’s is advertising 50 percent off furs. Lord & Taylor is taking 60 percent off the price of diamonds. Expedia is offering a $200 discount to people taking trips around Christmas.

The LAT tries, too.

The Times’ Joe Nocera has a decent column but I want to quibble with this part:

…readers have reacted angrily to my suggestion that we find ways to keep people from being evicted from their homes. It is not fair, they reply, that their neighbors who were greedy during the bubble should get a taxpayer bailout while those who weren’t get nothing. Even when I point out that foreclosures hurt everyone’s property values, they are unmoved. The seeming injustice overpowers their rational selves. And you know what? It is unjust. But there is a larger good at stake: the economic health of the country.

I think Nocera here is overlooking the scandal that was mortgage lending in America during the bubble. Sure, lots of people knew what they were getting into, but lots of people didn’t, too.

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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.