Official Secrets of the Financial Crisis

Huge public money changing hands in deals that remain undisclosed; part of a widening shroud over government

Jon Weil’s column the other day was one you really did not want to miss and points to wider ways in which the government’s relationship to the public has changed since, and partly because of, the financial crisis.

Weil points with incredulity to the quiet move by the conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which in 2011 had loudly sued 17 megabanks and other financial institutions for mortgage era predations, to settle with one of the worst of them, Citigroup, for (drumroll) … an undisclosed amount?

The conservator, Federal Housing Finance Agency, had claimed that Citigroup, the subprime and bailout leader and perennial train wreck, had sold the now-bankrupt government-sponsored enterprises $3.5 billion in mortgage-backed securities after providing information that was “materially false.”

The complaint is well worth reading, containing as it does, something of a greatest-hits of evidence of fraud and wrongdoing by the bailed-before-it-failed megabank. For instance, we learn that Clayton Holdings, the due diligence firm-turned state’s witness, which had been hired to scrub mortgages before they are allowed into MBS pools, rejected fully 42 percent of loans from the first quarter of 2006 to the second quarter of 2007—only to have a third of those put in the pools anyway. And then there is Richard Bowen, one of Citi’s top underwriters, who found a stunning 60 percent defect rate in mortgages under his purview in 2006, a figure rising to 80 percent in 2007.

And so on. None of this, it goes without saying, was disclosed to the GSEs.

FHFA, as it says in its own press releases, acts entirely “on behalf of taxpayers.” And yet they aren’t let in on the basic terms of the deal made in their behalf.

And while the $3.5 billion in dispute here is large enough, the total involved in the suits against the 17 institutions is $196 billion.

As Weil notes, this is the conservator’s second such secret settlement. The first, involving General Electric Co., an underappreciate player, came in January, as part of which the conservator’s suit was dropped.

GE, crisis aficionados will recall, took a star turn in post-crisis literature when This American Life’s “Giant Pool of Money” quoted Glen Pizzolorusso, a broker at its giant WMC mortgage unit, to memorable effect:

What is that movie? Boiler Room? That’s what it’s like. I mean, it’s the [coolest] thing ever. Cubicle, cubicle, cubicle for 150,000 square feet. The ceilings were probably 25 or 30 feet high. The elevator had a big graffiti painting. Big open space. And it was awesome. We lived mortgage. That’s all we did. This deal, that deal. How we gonna get it funded? What’s the problem with this one? That’s all everyone’s talking about … .

We looked at loans. These people didn’t have a pot to piss in. They can barely make car payments and we’re giving them a 300, 400 thousand dollar house

I mean, remember the $400 hammer and $600 toilet seat from the ’80s? Even if some of was partly myth, the idea was that the public treasury was something not to be monkeyed with. My point only is that transparency about public money is written into the very fabric of the Constitution.

If the FHFA settlements were unusual, that would be one thing. But of course, they are of a piece with the government secrecy that has shrouded the financial crisis bailouts and resolutions from the beginning.

Remember, the Fed and Treasury refused even to identify the beneficiaries of the American International Group bailout—never mind how much they received. It was only the reporting of The New York Times and Bloomberg that revealed that the recipients were, in fact, Goldman, Merrill, and other Wall Street and foreign banks, like Société Générale and Deutsche Bank.

It’s hard to forget the insouciance of the spokespeople for the government agencies at the time. From a Bloomberg story by Mark Pittman:

“What AIG did with its money, you should call AIG,” said Fed spokesman Calvin Mitchell. “I doubt that we will be talking about AIG’s CDO portfolio.”

Those stories ran in September 2008. AIG only officially released the names of its beneficiaries in March 2009. And does anyone have any confidence that the counterparties would have been revealed even then had not virtually all the relevant information already been in public domain, thanks to journalistic efforts?

And it was only through the historic lawsuit brought by Bloomberg (with Pittman as named plaintiff)—at great effort and expense—that taxpayers were even allowed to know even, again, the identities of the recipients of emergency lending programs that numbered in the trillions.

Of course, the government has arguments to make to defend such secrecy. Concealing Citi’s settlement might strengthen the government’s position versus the other banks, we’re told. The fragility of the financial system, the fact that it is based on confidence, makes disclosing recipients of government aid problematic.

But it should go without saying that in a democracy, that’s just too bad. You have to disclose it anyway.

But of course, even the massive secrecy surrounding the financial crisis is part of a larger and widening shroud of secrecy that increasingly is becoming the new normal in Washington, just one symptom of a weakened press corps

As Steve Coll says in another context, the First Amemdment is based “the self-evident truth that secrecy and concentrated power are inherently corrupting.”

Nowhere is that more true than in secrecy that still surrounds the financial crisis

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: ,