BlackRock Gets a Bruising from WSJ, NYT

BlackRock gets a double scoop of (deservedly) bad press this morning on page one of The New York Times and on the front of the Journal’s Money & Investing section.

It’s long overdue. This company is riddled with conflicts of interest—including many involving us as taxpayers. As the Times puts it:

Can a company that is being paid to price and sell troubled assets for the government buy the same kinds of assets for private clients without showing preference? And should the government seek counsel from a company whose clients stand to make or lose billions if those policies are enacted?

Those are both easy: No.

The Journal has a bit of news here, that the government has given BlackRock a second interview to get into the mega-subsidized TALF investment program. The problem is, BlackRock was a key adviser in creating the toxic-asset plan, which most observers think is overly generous to the big investors who will be buying the assets.

As the Times reports:

Without naming BlackRock, federal auditors have warned that any private parties that purchase distressed assets on the government’s behalf could use generous federal subsidies to overpay, artificially pushing up the price of similar assets that they manage for their own portfolios.

And it notes that BlackRock has $1.3 trillion in assets under management, while the Journal is even better, reporting that:

BlackRock continues to manage $132 billion in mortgage assets, some of which have defaulted.

So BlackRock can take the government’s TALF subsidies, which only require it to put about 6 percent into a non-recourse loan, and overbid to help push up the prices of its damaged $132 billion mortgage portfolio.

The Journal is explicit about why these conflicts are dangerous:

BlackRock’s multiple hats put it in the enviable position of having influence on setting the prices of both the assets it is buying and selling.

And its “omnipresence,” as the Times puts it, is a red flag:

During one frantic weekend in March 2008, when Bear Stearns was collapsing, BlackRock’s omnipresence became evident.

On a Saturday, the firm was hired by JPMorgan Chase — which was considering buying Bear Stearns — to value one type of Bear Stearns security.

The next day the Federal Reserve hired BlackRock, through a no-bid contract, to analyze and eventually sell off a $30 billion pool of risky mortgage securities that JPMorgan did not want.

The Journal shows how BlackRock is getting critical inside information that it can trade off of:

In late October, when the government stepped in to rescue AIG, it selected BlackRock to manage the roughly $100 billion of portfolios, called Maiden Lane II and III, which consisted of soured mortgage loans, debt pools and other AIG assets. Those assets since have been marked down, according to the Federal Reserve.

If investors and traders knew exactly what was in these portfolios, they could get a better picture of the health of the Federal Reserve’s bailout assets, says James Bianco, president of Bianco Research.

This would help investors in deciding whether to buy U.S. securities like Treasury bonds or mortgage-backed securities.

I think the Journal’s story is a a tiny bit better than the Times’s. For instance, it has this excellent context that the Times lacks:

Meantime, BlackRock’s own business structuring debt pools called collateralized debt obligations has contributed its share to the crisis. BlackRock executives say they typically use third-party pricing services and try to minimize the amount of securities they mark based on their own model.

The firm created about $5.5 billion of CDOs in 2007, most of which have defaulted, causing losses of more than 50% for investors in most cases, say analysts.

Meaning these guys aren’t exactly omniscient and are profiting off the mess they helped make, which I guess is just the Wall Street way.

It’s odd that both papers have big features on the company on the same day. That means one likely got wind from a source that the other was doing a story.

Whatever, it’s good work by both of them.

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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.