WSJ: Federal Regulator Bares Fangs At Wall Street

The Wall Street Journal has a reports this morning that federal regulators are playing smashmouth with Wall Street over their toxic products, accusing them of “misrepresenting the risks of the bonds” and causing “the collapse of five institutions.”

I’ll bet you can’t guess which federal regulators. It’s not the SEC nor the FDIC. It certainly isn’t the OCC or OTS, much less the Federal Reserve. How about the National Credit Union Administration?

In one of the broadest accusations that Wall Street helped cripple financial institutions during the crisis, the National Credit Union Administration, or NCUA, has threatened to sue several investment banks unless they refund over $50 billion of mortgage-backed securities sold to the five institutions, called wholesale credit unions.

Fifty billion dollars is a lot of money—ninety times the SEC’s settlement with Goldman Sachs—although the toxic securities in question are still worth half their face value, so $25 billion might be a more accurate number.

And the NCUA is going after the big dogs: Goldman, of course, and Bank of America, Citigroup, and press favorite Jamie Dimon’s JPMorgan Chase

I’ve gotten pretty cynical about this kind of thing over three years of regulatory inaction in the wake of the crash. I’d normally guess that this is just a legal feint to wring a few more bucks out of the banks in a settlement that will shave a penny or two off earnings per share while squelching any chance of finding more overt wrongdoing. But if the Journal’s reporting is correct, and I’m sure it is, the NCUA is talking awfully tough (emphasis mine):

According to people familiar with the matter, agency officials recently issued an ultimatum to several firms that churned out the bonds: Either refund every dollar spent to buy the bonds when they were issued or face lawsuits seeking to recover the money.

Juxtapose that paragraph with this one:

Other federal entities, including the FDIC, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, hold similar securities as a result of various rescues. Those agencies haven’t made broad legal threats to firms that created such bonds.

The Journal is excellent to include this context, but I wish it had a dollar amount for the similar securities these agencies hold. I’m sure it’s staggering. That figure would be worth including in any follow-up.

It’ll take further reporting to flesh out exactly what, if anything, the NCUA has on Wall Street. This is all we get is that the NCUA says offering documents “contained untrue statements of material facts and material omissions”—and that comes from Goldman’s 10K.

Goldman disclosed three weeks ago in that 10K that the NCUA is seeking to recover funds from it. Bloomberg reported the Goldman disclosure at the bottom of a story on March 1, but I don’t see any other coverage.

Good work by the Journal.

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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: , , , ,