the audit

Inured to "Trillions"

Take a step back on the Federal Reserve bailout story
December 2, 2010

The Federal Reserve is forced by Congress to reveal who it secretly bailed out with trillions of dollars in loans. Yesterday it releases the documents, which reveal that:

— Foreign banks were the biggest recipients of the Term Auction Facility and Term Securities Lending Facility bailout loans numbering in the trillions of dollars

— The Fed took on more than a trillion dollars of toxic assets as collateral

— Too-big-to-fail banks that insisted they were healthy and didn’t really need our money and who paid out massive bonuses a year later really did need our money

— The bailouts extended to big, non-financial companies like McDonald’s and Verizon

— Even with all this, the Fed refused to detail the collateral for nearly a trillion dollars in loans (something that Yves Smith shows seems to violate the law)llater

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How do you play a story like that?

Below the fold on page one if you’re The New York Times. Lead page one story across five columns if you’re the Financial Times and lead story if you’re the Washington Post (yay!)

Stuffed inside on C1 if you’re The Wall Street Journal (and fifth in A1’s Business & Finance column items). There’s no excuse for not putting this on page one, but the WSJ does devote four pieces to the story, compared to two from the FT and Times and one from the WaPo. Only a couple of these—a Times piece about AIG and the WaPo one, mention the word collateral.

I understand that there’s a lot already in the public domain about the emergency loan programs, but it’s important to take a step back on this. We’ve become inured to stuff that was unthinkable a few years ago. Think about how awesome (in the old sense of the world) this bailout was, how stark the contrast between what the banks got and what struggling homeowners got (the shaft), and how much risk the Fed took in our name and in secret. It’s too easy to succumb to a sort of savvy complacency here, but the press has to fight that urge.

For my money (which is ironic, because these are the two outlets here which have never got a dime from me), some of the best coverage comes from Bloomberg and—dare I say it—The Huffington Post.

Bloomberg, for instance, calls out Goldman Sachs in the top of this piece noting that it took $24.2 billion in Fed loans in a single day. It smelled a good story in the fact that the Fed concealed details on $885 billion worth of collateral it accepted.

On the stuff the Fed deigned to release, The Huffington Post reported that the Fed accepted $1.3 trillion in toxic assets as collateral. The HuffPo’s Shahien Nasiripour, who wrote the collateral story, was also the first reporter I saw to zero in on the fact that European banks were some of the biggest recipients of the Fed’s bailouts.

This is a blizzard of data and it’ll take a while to put all the pieces together. But let’s hope everybody’s figuring out how to deploy the resources to really tell this story.

The best comment I’ve read on why this matters so much comes from Sebastian Mallaby in the FT. Read the whole thing and then re-read it:

The Federal Reserve’s revelations underscore the might of unelected central bankers. The Treasury’s Tarp rescue fund, at $700bn, was considered so audacious that Congress at first refused to authorise it. But the Fed doled out no less than $3,300bn in loans to banks and companies without a congressional say-so.

What’s more, the Fed frequently ignored Walter Bagehot’s dictum that central banks should provide liquidity freely, but against good collateral and at high interest rates. The Fed’s borrowers included institutions such as Lehman and Citigroup, which were insolvent rather than illiquid. It accepted collateral that included toxic asset-backed securities, and it charged interest rates that were more palliative than punitive. Moreover, while the Fed took all these risks with US taxpayers’ money, a large chunk of its emergency lending went to foreign banks…

Rather, the point is that the Fed bail-outs were hair-raisingly enormous, and that neither the regulators nor the regulated should be allowed to forget that. Wall Street institutions that now walk tall again survived only because the taxpayers saved them. Goldman Sachs turned to the Fed for funding on 84 occasions, and Morgan Stanley did so 212 times; Blackrock, Fidelity, Dreyfus, GE Capital – all of these depended on taxpayer backstops. The message from this data dump is that, two years ago, these too-big-to-fail behemoths drove the world to the brink of a 1930s-style disaster – and that, if regulators don’t break them up or otherwise restrain them, they may do worse next time.

It ought to be required reading for everyone covering this story.

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.