Bloomberg Leads on the Fed (Again)

The consequences of the central bank's secrecy

Bloomberg is still, thank God, hammering away at the gargantuan bank bailouts of 2008-2009. Most of those were hidden from public view and still would be if not for the efforts of Bloomberg, especially folks like the late Mark Pittman and Bob Ivry.

The headline number in this new Bloomberg Markets report, by Ivry, Bradley Keoun and Phil Kuntz is that the Fed’s massive loans not only saved the giant banks from collapse, but gave them a free $13 billion in profit. That’s a very rough estimate, but it’s worth doing (even if the headline oversells the number by turning it into fact). The Fed complains that $13 billion is too high, but as Yves Smith says, Bloomberg is only looking at a minor aspect of how the Fed boosted bank profits:

The Fed stepping into the markets to shore up the banks by design stabilized and boosted asset prices, which surely had a significant profit impact.

I’m telling you, these guys are good. They can make money off anything. Inflate a housing bubble and screw your own customers. Kaching. Force the Fed to lend you trillions of dollars when the scam implodes: Bonus! Too big to fail? Not big enough!

Total assets held by the six biggest U.S. banks increased 39 percent to $9.5 trillion on Sept. 30, 2011, from $6.8 trillion on the same day in 2006, according to Fed data.

I’m sorry to see that this report is being sniffed at in some parts of the press, which has trailed Bloomberg News badly on this story for years now. Time’s Massimo Calabresi writes “Newsflash: The Fed Saved the World,” and The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson says “Bloomberg Report Exposes the Federal Reserve Doing Its Job.”

That’s not quite right. The point of Bloomberg’s story is not that it’s a scandal that the Fed lent lots of money to save the banking system. Few would argue that the big banks should have been allowed to just collapse.

The point is how and why the central bank’s secrecy was so corrosive. It allowed executives like Jamie Dimon to mislead investors about why JPMorgan Chase was taking Fed funds. It allowed Ben Bernanke to fib to Congress about only lending to “sound” banks while his staff was, for instance, declaring Citigroup unsound. And it perverted the post-crash debate on how to create a better and safer banking system, which Bloomberg Markets argues is at least in part why we ended up with something as weak as Dodd-Frank and with bigger banks than ever.

You just can’t put up $7.7 trillion in taxpayers’ money—more than half of gross domestic product—to save a banking system that’s just led the economy into a ruinous recession, and then fight to prevent taxpayers and even their elected representatives from knowing about it.

That’s a scandal. Period. So is the fact that banks made money getting rescued after crippling the economy. That this was being done by a sort of unelected fourth branch of government makes it that much worse.

Further Reading:

Mark Pittman’s Fed Legacy: ‘Maybe Tomorrow the Dog Will Talk’

Audit Interview: Mark Pittman. “This is a defining moment for business journalism and for Wall Street.”

Bloomberg News on the Fed’s Secret Mega-TARP

Bloomberg Wins Its Lawsuit Against the Federal Reserve

Bloomberg Steps Up. Wire service sues Fed for bailout transparency

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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. Tags: , , , ,