Bank Investigations Cheat Sheet: ProPublica

by Marian Wang, ProPublica – May 13, 2010

Here’s our attempt to lay out exactly what’s known about which banks are being investigated by whom and for what. We’re going to keep updating this page, so please send usstories or details we’ve missed. Related: Covering the Bank Investigations: A Cautionary Tale

  What has been reported What the bank has said
 
Citigroup
Citing “a person familiar with the matter,” The Wall Street Journal has reported that Citigroup is under “early-stage criminal scrutiny” by the Department of Justice. Also citing unnamed sources, Fox Business reported on May 12 that the SEC has an active civil investigation into Citigroup and has subpoenaed the firm, but has not issued any Wells notices. A report on May 12th by the Journal cited unnamed sources saying that the Department of Justice is scrutinizing a few CDO deals that Morgan Stanley bet against–but which were underwritten by Citigroup and UBS. Neither the SEC nor the Justice Department have confirmed these reports.

Citing two anonymous sources, The New York Times has reported that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating eight banks to determine whether they misled rating agencies in order to get higher ratings for their mortgage-related products; Citigroup has been named as one of the banks. Subpoenas were issued on May 12, according to the Times and the Dow Jones Newswires, both of which relied on anonymous sourcing for their reports.

Citigroup has declined to comment to us and other outlets.

Credit Agricole
Credit Agricole has also been named as one of the banks that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating separately. Credit Agricole did not immediately respond to the Times’ request for comment and has not yet responded to ours.

Credit Suisse
Credit Suisse has also been named as one of the banks that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating. Credit Suisse declined to comment to the Times about the New York attorney general’s investigation.

Deutsche Bank
Citing “a person familiar with the matter,” The Wall Street Journal has reported that Deutsche Bank is under “early-stage criminal scrutiny” by the Department of Justice. Also citing unnamed sources, Fox Business reported on May 12 that the SEC has an active civil investigation into Deutsche and has subpoenaed the firm, but has not issued any Wells notices. Neither agency has confirmed these reports.

Deutsche Bank has also been named as one of the banks that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating separately.

Deutsche Bank declined to comment to Fox, the Journal, and the Times about possible investigations.

Goldman Sachs
The SEC has brought a civil fraud lawsuit against Goldman, alleging that the investment bank made “materially misleading statements and omissions” when it allowed a hedge fund to help create and bet against a CDO, called Abacus, without disclosing the hedge fund’s role to investors.

The Wall Street Journal, citing “people familiar with the probe,” reported in April that the Justice Department has been conducting a criminal investigation into Goldman’s CDO dealings following a referral from the SEC. Neither agency has confirmed this, but the AP, citing another unnamed source, has reported the same thing. Since then, many news organizations–including the The New York TimesABC News and the Washington Post–have also reported on the criminal probe, citing unnamed sources. No charges have been brought.

Goldman Sachs has also been named as one of the banks that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating separately.

Goldman called the SEC’s accusations “unfounded in law and fact.

After the reports of a criminal investigation, a Goldman Sachs spokesman declined to confirm that the bank had been contacted by the DOJ but also told several news outlets that “given the recent focus on the firm, we’re not surprised by the report of an inquiry. We would cooperate fully with any request for information.”

The bank has declined to comment to us on the New York attorney general’s investigation.

 
JP Morgan Chase
Citing “a person familiar with the matter,” The Wall Street Journal has also reported that JPMorgan Chase has received civil subpoenas from the SEC and is under “early-stage criminal scrutiny” by the Department of Justice. Neither the SEC nor the Justice Department has confirmed these reports. A JPMorgan spokesman told the Journal that the bank “hasn’t been contacted” by federal prosecutors and isn’t aware of a criminal investigation.

Merrill Lynch (now part of Bank of America)
Merrill has not been named in any SEC investigations. But as we pointed out, a lawsuit brought by a Dutch bank asserts that Merrill Lynch did a CDO deal that was “precisely” like Goldman’s. The SEC has declined to comment on whether it is investigating the deal.

Merrill Lynch has also been named as one of the banks that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating.

Merrill has said its CDO deal was not like Goldman’s, calling Goldman’s Abacus deal an “entirely different transaction.”

The bank did not immediately return the Times’ request for comment about the investigation by Coumo, but when we called and asked, a spokesman from Bank of America, which merged with Merrill, said, “We are cooperating with the attorney general’s office on this matter.”


Morgan Stanley
Citing “people familiar with the matter,” The Wall Street Journal reported on May 12 that the Justice Department has been conducting a criminal investigation into Morgan Stanley’s CDO dealings, including its role in helping design and betting against two sets of CDOs from 2006 known as Jackson and Buchanan. The Justice Department declined to comment. No charges have been brought, and according to the Journal, the probe is “at a preliminary stage.” A Morgan Stanley spokeswoman said the bank had “no knowledge of a Justice Department investigation into these transactions.” The Journal reported that the SEC has subpoenaed Morgan Stanley on several occasions, but the bank says it has received no Wells notices, which would indicate pending SEC charges.

Morgan Stanley has also been named as one of the banks that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating.

A Morgan Stanley spokeswoman said on May 12that the firm has “not been contacted by the Justice Department about the transactions being raised by The Wall Street Journal, and we have no knowledge of a Justice Department investigation into these transactions.”

The investment bank declined to comment to the Times about the Coumo’s investigation.


UBS
Citing “a person familiar with the matter,” The Wall Street Journal reported that UBS has received civil subpoenas from the SEC and is under “early-stage criminal scrutiny” by the Department of Justice. In a report on May 12, the Journal reported that the Justice Department is scrutinizing a few CDO deals that Morgan Stanley helped design and bet against–but which were marketed by Citigroup and UBS. Neither the SEC nor the Justice Department has confirmed these reports. The firm has not disclosed that it has gotten any Wells notices.

UBS has also been named as one of the banks New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating.

A UBS spokesman has declined to comment on any of the investigations.

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Moooove Over SLACKERS!! NY AG CUOMO probing 8 banks over securities

AP Source: NY AG probing 8 banks over securities

NEW YORK — The New York attorney general has launched an investigation into eight banks to determine whether they misled ratings agencies about mortgage securities, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

finance-20100513-US.Wall.Street.InvestigationAttorney General Andrew Cuomo is trying to figure out if banks provided the agencies with false information in order to get better ratings on the risky securities, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation has not been made public.

Cuomo’s office is investigating Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, UBS AG, Citigroup Inc., Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Credit Agricole and Merrill Lynch, which is now part of Bank of America Corp.

Representatives from Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Credit Agricole declined to comment. Others were not immediately available comment.

During the housing boom, Wall Street banks often packaged pools of risky subprime mortgages together. The securities were then typically given top-notch ratings and investors purchased them, in part, because of their high ratings.

The ratings, given out by Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings, are used as a guide for investors to judge how risky an investment might be.

As the housing market collapsed and more customers fell behind on repaying their mortgages, the securities began to fail.

The securities have been widely blamed for exacerbating the credit crisis and costing investors and the banks themselves billions of dollars in losses. The ratings agencies have come under fire for having given such high ratings to securities that soured.

The attorney general’s probe comes as federal regulators are investigating whether some of the banks misled investors when marketing and selling the securities and other investments that were tied to mortgages.

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Goldman Sachs with fraud over its packaging of mortgage securities. Goldman is facing a separate criminal investigation into the same securities. Goldman has denied the charges and plans to defend itself.

Earlier this week it was reported that federal prosecutors are investigating whether Morgan Stanley misled investors about its role in a pair of $200 million derivatives whose performance was tied to mortgage-backed securities.

The increased scrutiny over how banks managed, packaged and portrayed mortgage securities and derivatives comes as Congress discusses a major overhaul of financial regulations. Politicians have said an overhaul would add more transparency to investments and trading.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Too BIG to Fail, Too BIG for Jail? Bid-Rigging Conspiracy

March 26 (Bloomberg) — JPMorgan Chase & Co., Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and UBS AG were among more than a dozen Wall Street firms involved in a conspiracy to pay below-market interest rates to U.S. state and local governments on investments, according to documents filed in a U.S. Justice Department criminal antitrust case.

A government list of previously unidentified “co- conspirators” contains more than two dozen bankers at firms also including Bank of America Corp., Bear Stearns Cos., Societe Generale, two of General Electric Co.’s financial businesses and Salomon Smith Barney, the former unit of Citigroup Inc., according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on March 24.

The papers were filed by attorneys for a former employee of CDR Financial Products Inc., an advisory firm indicted in October. The attorneys, as part of their legal filing, identified the roster as being provided by the government. The document is labeled “list of co-conspirators.”

None of the firms or individuals named on the list has been charged with wrongdoing. The court records mark the first time these companies have been identified as co-conspirators. They provide the broadest look yet at alleged collusion in the $2.8 trillion municipal securities market that the government says delivered profits to Wall Street at taxpayers’ expense.

‘Sufficient Evidence’

“If the government is saying they are co-conspirators, the government believes they have sufficient evidence that they can show they were part of the conspiracy,” said Richard Donovan, a partner at New York-based law firm Kelley Drye & Warren LLP and co-chair of its antitrust practice. Donovan isn’t involved in the case.

The government’s case centers on investments known as guaranteed investment contracts that cities, states and school districts buy with the money they receive through municipal bond sales. Some $400 billion of municipal bonds are issued each year, and localities use the contracts to earn a return on some of the money until they need it for construction or other projects.

The Internal Revenue Service sometimes collects earnings on those investments and requires that they be awarded by competitive bidding to ensure that governments receive a fair return. The government charges that CDR ran sham auctions that allowed the banks to pay below-market interest rates to local governments.

CDR Fights Case

CDR, a Los Angeles-based local-government adviser, was indicted in October along with David Rubin, Zevi Wolmark and Evan Zarefsky, three current or former executives. The company and the three men have denied wrongdoing. Since last month, three former CDR employees who weren’t charged in the initial indictment have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department.

More than a dozen financial firms are also facing civil suits filed by municipalities over the alleged conspiracy. Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in Manhattan refused to toss out a lawsuit brought by Mississippi and other bond issuers.

Brian Marchiony, a spokesman for JPMorgan in New York; Doug Morris, a spokesman for UBS in New York; and Danielle Romero- Apsilos, a spokeswoman for Citigroup in New York, all declined to comment. A Societe Generale spokesman, Jim Galvin; Lehman spokeswoman Kimberly MacLeod, and GE Capital spokesman Ned Reynolds in Stamford, Connecticut, also declined to comment. Bank of America spokeswoman Shirley Norton in San Francisco declined to comment. Bear Stearns was bought by JPMorgan in 2008, the same year Lehman Brothers collapsed.

‘Absolute Disaster’

Laura Sweeney, a Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington, declined to comment.

Banks may choose to cooperate with prosecutors because in light of the government bailout funds they’ve received “a guilty plea would just be an absolute disaster for some of these companies,” said Nathan Muyskens, a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Washington and former trial attorney with the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition.

“There have been antitrust investigations where there have been companies involved that were just never indicted,” he said in a phone interview.

At the same time, the government will probably focus on seeking to convict individual bankers, he said.

“When someone goes to jail for five years, that resonates,” he said. “When a company pays $200 million, it’s simply a balance sheet issue. Jail time is what captures corporate America’s attention.”

Lawyers’ Filing

In a court filing yesterday, defense lawyers said they “inadvertently” included the names of individual and company co-conspirators in a motion asking the court to compel the government to provide more specific evidence of the alleged misconduct. They asked the court to strike the entire exhibit in which the list appears. Judge Marrero granted the request.

The government’s probe became public in 2006 when federal investigators raided CDR and two competitors and issued subpoenas to more than a dozen firms. The “co-conspirators” on the list released in court this week also included Wachovia Corp., which was purchased by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. in 2008. Elise Wilkinson, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman in Charlotte, North Carolina, didn’t return a call today seeking comment.

October Indictments

The indictments released in October didn’t identify any of the sellers of the investment contracts involved in the alleged conspiracy. They were identified only as Provider A and Provider B. They paid kickbacks to CDR after winning investment deals brokered by the firm, according to the indictments.

The firms did this by paying sham fees tied to financial transactions entered into with other companies, prosecutors said. Kickbacks were paid from 2001 to 2005, ranging from $4,500 to $475,000 each, according to the Justice Department.

According to the list contained in the court filing this week, the investment contracts involved were created by units of GE and divisions of Financial Security Assurance Holdings Ltd., a bond insurer formerly part of Brussels-based lender Dexia SA.

The kickbacks were paid out of fees generated by transactions entered into with two financial institutions that weren’t identified in the October court filing. The March 24 list filed by the defense named the two firms as UBS and Royal Bank of Canada.

Dexia Sale

Dexia completed the sale of FSA’s bond-insurance business in July to Assured Guaranty Ltd. of Hamilton, Bermuda, while retaining its outstanding investment contracts.

Thierry Martiny, a spokesman for Dexia in Brussels, declined to comment. FSA, based in New York, was the biggest insurer of U.S. municipal bonds in 2007 and 2008.

“We have no comment,” said Betsy Castenir, a spokeswoman for Assured Guaranty in New York, in an e-mail response. “Dexia has responsibility for the liabilities of the Financial Products business.”

Royal Bank of Canada “has been fully cooperating with the government,” Kevin Foster, a spokesman for the bank in New York, said in an e-mailed statement. “We have no knowledge or evidence of wrongdoing by any of our employees.”

The case is U.S. v. Rubin/Chambers, Dunhill Insurance Services Inc., 09-CR-01058, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

To contact the reporters on this story: William Selway in San Francisco at wselway@bloomberg.net; Martin Z. Braun in New York at mbraun6@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: March 26, 2010 13:09 EDT

13 BANKERS: MIT’s Johnson Says Too-Big-to-Fail Banks Will Spark New Crisis

Review by James Pressley :BLOOMBERG REVIEWS

March 22 (Bloomberg) — Alan Greenspan, the master of monetary mumbo jumbo, leaned back in his chair and grew uncharacteristically forthright.

“If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big,” the former Federal Reserve chairman said when asked about the dangers of outsized financial institutions.

It was October 2009, and the man who helped make megabanks possible was sounding more like Teddy Roosevelt than the Maestro as he entertained what he called a radical solution.

“You know, break them up,” he told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “In 1911, we broke up Standard Oil. So what happened? The individual parts became more valuable than the whole.”

Greenspan the bank buster crops up near the end of “13 Bankers,” Simon Johnson and James Kwak’s reasoned look at how Wall Street became what they call “the American oligarchy,” a group of megabanks whose economic power has given them political power. Unless these too-big-to-fail banks are broken up, they will trigger a second meltdown, the authors write.

“And when that crisis comes,” they say, “the government will face the same choice it faced in 2008: to bail out a banking system that has grown even larger and more concentrated, or to let it collapse and risk an economic disaster.”

The banks in their sights include Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Though Wall Street may not like “13 Bankers,” the authors can’t be dismissed as populist rabble-rousers.

Cash for Favors

Johnson is an ex-chief economist for the International Monetary Fund who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kwak is a former McKinsey & Co. consultant. In September 2008, they started the Baseline Scenario, a blog that became essential reading on the crisis. When they call Wall Street an oligarchy, they’re not speaking lightly.

Drawing parallels to the U.S. industrial trusts of the late 19th century and Russian businessmen who rose to economic dominance in the 1990s, the authors apply the term to any country where “well-connected business leaders trade cash and political support for favors from the government.”

Oligarchies weaken democracy and distort competition. The Wall Street bailouts boosted the clout of the survivors, making them bigger and enlarging their market shares in derivatives, new mortgages and new credit cards, the authors say.

Suicidal Risk-Taking

These megabanks emerged from the meltdown more opposed to regulation than ever, the authors say. If they get their way — and they will, judging from current congressional maneuvering over President Barack Obama’s proposed regulatory overhaul — Wall Street will retain its license to gamble with the taxpayer’s money. This isn’t good for anyone, including the banks themselves, which often feel compelled by competitive pressure to take suicidal risks.

“There is another choice,” they write: “the choice to finish the job that Roosevelt began a century ago, and to take a stand against concentrated financial power just as he took a stand against concentrated industrial power.”

Obama finds himself in the middle of a struggle that has coursed throughout U.S. history — the struggle between democracy and powerful banking interests. The book’s title alludes to one Friday last March when 13 of the nation’s most powerful bankers met with Obama at the White House amid a public furor over bailouts and bonuses.

The material that sets this book apart can be found at the beginning and end. Chapters three through six present an all- too-familiar, though meticulously researched, primer on how the economy became “financialized” over the past 30 years.

Regulatory Arbitrage

Crisis buffs won’t miss much if they skip ahead to the last chapter, where the authors debunk arguments that curbing the size of banks is too simplistic. A more complex approach, they say, would invite “regulatory arbitrage, such as reshuffling where assets are parked.”

They propose that no financial institution should be allowed to control or have an ownership interest in assets worth more than 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, or roughly $570 billion in assets today. A lower limit should be imposed on investment banks — effectively 2 percent of GDP, or roughly $285 billion, they say.

If hard caps sound unreasonable, consider this: These ceilings would affect only six banks, the authors say: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

“Saying that we cannot break up our largest banks is saying that our economic futures depend on these six companies,” they say. “That thought should frighten us into action.”

Though Jamie Dimon won’t like this (any more than John D. Rockefeller did), incremental regulatory changes and populist rhetoric about “banksters” are getting us nowhere. It’s time for practical solutions. This might be a place to start.

“13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown” is from Pantheon (304 pages, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(James Pressley writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: James Pressley in Brussels at jpressley@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: March 21, 2010 20:00 EDT

By: Simon Johnson
The Baseline Scenario

To ROB a COUNTRY, OWN a BANK: William Black

William Black, author of “Best way to rob a bank is to own one” talks about deliberate fraud on Wall St. courtesy of TheRealNews

Stop trying to get through the front door…use the back door…Get a Forensic Audit!

Not all Forensic Auditors are alike! FMI may locate exactly where the loan sits today.

 

This will make your lender WANT to communicate with you. Discover what they don’t want you to know. Go back in time and start from the minute you might have seen advertisements that got you hooked ” No Money Down” “100% Financing” “1% interest” “No income, No assetts” NO PROBLEM! Were you given proper disclosures on time, proper documents, was your loan broker providing you fiduciary guidance or did they hide undisclosed fees from you? Did they conceal illegal kickbacks? Did your broker tell you “Don’t worry before your new terms come due we will refinance you”? Did they inflate your appraisal? Did the developer coerce you to *USE* a certain “lender” and *USE* a certain title company?

If so you need a forensic audit. But keep in mind FMI:

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Fed Ends Bank Exemption Aimed at Boosting Mortgage Liquidity: Bloomberg

By Craig Torres

March 20 (Bloomberg) — The Federal Reserve Board removed an exemption it had given to six banks at the start of the crisis in 2007 aimed at boosting liquidity in financing markets for securities backed by mortgage- and asset-backed securities.

The so-called 23-A exemptions, named after a section of the Federal Reserve Act that limits such trades to protect bank depositors, were granted days after the Fed cut the discount rate by half a percentage point on Aug. 17, 2007. Their removal, announced yesterday in Washington, is part of a broad wind-down of emergency liquidity backstops by the Fed as markets normalize.

The decision in 2007 underscores how Fed officials defined the mortgage-market disruptions that year as partly driven by liquidity constraints. In hindsight, some analysts say that diagnosis turned out to be wrong.

“It was a way to prevent further deleveraging of the financial system, but that happened anyway,” said Dino Kos, managing director at Portales Partners LLC and former head of the New York Fed’s open market operations. “The underlying problem was solvency. The Fed was slow to recognize that.”

The Fed ended the exemptions in nearly identical letters to the Royal Bank of Scotland Plc, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Deutsche Bank AG, and Barclays Bank Plc posted on its Web site.

Backstop Liquidity

The Fed’s intent in 2007 was to provide backstop liquidity for financial markets through the discount window. In a chain of credit, investors would obtain collateralized loans from dealers, dealers would obtain collateralized loans from banks, and then banks could pledge collateral to the Fed’s discount window for 30-day credit. In Citigroup’s case, the exemption allowed such lending to its securities unit up to $25 billion.

“The goal was to stop the hemorrhaging of risk capital,” said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP LLC in Jersey City, New Jersey. “Investors were being forced out of the securities market because they couldn’t fund their positions, even in higher-quality assets in some cases.”

Using mortgage bonds without government-backed guarantees as collateral for private-market financing began to get more difficult in August 2007 following the collapse of two Bear Stearns Cos. hedge funds.

As terms for loans secured by mortgage bonds got “massively” tighter, haircuts, or the excess in collateral above the amount borrowed, on AAA home-loan securities rose that month from as little as 3 percent to as much as 10 percent, according to a UBS AG report.

Lehman Collapse

By February 2008, haircuts climbed to 20 percent, investor Luminent Mortgage Capital Inc. said at the time. After Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed in September 2008, the loans almost disappeared.

“These activities were intended to allow the bank to extend credit to market participants in need of short-term liquidity to finance” holdings of mortgage loans and asset- backed securities, said the Fed board’s letter dated yesterday to Kathleen Juhase, associate general counsel of JPMorgan. “In light of this normalization of the term for discount window loans, the Board has terminated the temporary section 23-A exemption.”

The “normalization” refers to the Fed’s reduction in the term of discount window loans to overnight credit starting two days ago from a month previously.

The Fed eventually loaned directly to securities firms and opened the discount window to primary dealers in March 2008. Borrowings under the Primary Dealer Credit Facility soared to $146.5 billion on Oct. 1, 2008, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers two weeks earlier. Borrowings fell to zero in May 2009. The Fed closed the facility last month, along with three other emergency liquidity backstops.

Discount Rate

The Fed also raised the discount rate a quarter point in February to 0.75 percent, moving it closer to its normal spread over the federal funds rate of 1 percentage point.

The one interest rate the Fed hasn’t changed since the depths of the crisis is the benchmark lending rate. Officials kept the target for overnight loans among banks in a range of zero to 0.25 percent on March 16, where it has stood since December 2008, while retaining a pledge to keep rates low “for an extended period.”

Removing the 23-A exemptions shows the Fed wants to get “back to normal,” said Laurence Meyer, a former Fed governor and vice chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers LLC in Washington. “Everything has gone back to normal except monetary policy.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Craig Torres in Washington at ctorres3@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: March 20, 2010 00:00 EDT

Federal Reserve Must Disclose Bank Bailout Records (Update5): We love Bloomberg.com

SHOCK & AWE …I’m betting! Thanks to Bloomberg for the lawsuit to DISCLOSE! Notice how both Bloomberg & Huffington are always the ones who go after the banksters…Because they probably don’t use the banksters to fund them!

By David Glovin and Bob Van Voris

March 19 (Bloomberg) — The Federal Reserve Board must disclose documents identifying financial firms that might have collapsed without the largest U.S. government bailout ever, a federal appeals court said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled today that the Fed must release records of the unprecedented $2 trillion U.S. loan program launched primarily after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. The ruling upholds a decision of a lower-court judge, who in August ordered that the information be released.

The Fed had argued that disclosure of the documents threatens to stigmatize borrowers and cause them “severe and irreparable competitive injury,” discouraging banks in distress from seeking help. A three-judge panel of the appeals court rejected that argument in a unanimous decision.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, “sets forth no basis for the exemption the Board asks us to read into it,” U.S. Circuit Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote in the opinion. “If the Board believes such an exemption would better serve the national interest, it should ask Congress to amend the statute.”

The opinion may not be the final word in the bid for the documents, which was launched by Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, with a November 2008 lawsuit. The Fed may seek a rehearing or appeal to the full appeals court and eventually petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

Right to Know

If today’s ruling is upheld or not appealed by the Fed, it will have to disclose the requested records. That may lead to “catastrophic” results, including demands for the instant disclosure of banks seeking help from the Fed, resulting in a “death sentence” for such financial institutions, said Chris Kotowski, a bank analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York.

“Whenever the Fed extends funds to a bank, it should be disclosed in private to the Congressional oversight committees, but to release it to the public I think would be a horrific mistake,” Kotowski said in an interview. “It would stigmatize the banks, it would lead to all kinds of second-guessing of the Fed, and I don’t see what public purpose is served by it.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, said the decision was a “major victory” for U.S. taxpayers.

“This money does not belong to the Federal Reserve,” Sanders said in a statement. “It belongs to the American people, and the American people have a right to know where more than $2 trillion of their money has gone.”

Fed Review

The Fed is reviewing the decision and considering its options for reconsideration or appeal, Fed spokesman David Skidmore said.

“We’re obviously pleased with the court’s decision, which is an important affirmation of the public’s right to know what its government is up to,” said Thomas Golden, a partner at New York-based Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP and Bloomberg’s outside counsel.

The court was asked to decide whether loan records are covered by FOIA. Historically, the type of government documents sought in the case has been protected from public disclosure because they might reveal competitive trade secrets.

The Fed had argued that it could withhold the information under an exemption that allows federal agencies to refuse disclosure of “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.”

Payment Processors

The Clearing House Association, which processes payments among banks, joined the case and sided with the Fed. The group includes ABN Amro Bank NV, a unit of Royal Bank of Scotland Plc, Bank of America Corp., The Bank of New York Mellon Corp., Citigroup Inc., Deutsche Bank AG, HSBC Holdings Plc, JPMorgan Chase & Co., US Bancorp and Wells Fargo & Co.

Paul Saltzman, general counsel for the Clearing House, said the decision did not address the “fundamental issue” of whether disclosure would “competitively harm” borrower banks.

“The Second Circuit declined to follow the decisions of other circuit courts recognizing that disclosure of certain confidential information can impair the effectiveness of government programs, such as lending programs,” Saltzman said in a statement.

The Clearing House is considering whether to ask for a rehearing by the full Second Circuit and, ultimately, review by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

Deep Crisis

Oscar Suris, a spokesman for Wells Fargo, JPMorgan spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli, Bank of New York Mellon spokesman Kevin Heine, HSBC spokeswoman Juanita Gutierrez and RBS spokeswoman Linda Harper all declined to comment. Deutsche Bank spokesman Ronald Weichert couldn’t immediately comment. Bank of America declined to comment, Scott Silvestri said. Citigroup spokeswoman Shannon Bell declined to comment. U.S. Bancorp spokesman Steve Dale didn’t return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Bloomberg, majority-owned by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sued after the Fed refused to name the firms it lent to or disclose loan amounts or assets used as collateral under its lending programs. Most of the loans were made in response to the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Lawyers for Bloomberg argued in court that the public has the right to know basic information about the “unprecedented and highly controversial use” of public money.

“Bloomberg has been trying for almost two years to break down a brick wall of secrecy in order to vindicate the public’s right to learn basic information,” Golden wrote in court filings.

Potential Harm

Banks and the Fed warned that bailed-out lenders may be hurt if the documents are made public, causing a run or a sell- off by investors. Disclosure may hamstring the Fed’s ability to deal with another crisis, they also argued.

Much of the debate at the appeals court argument on Jan. 11 centered on the potential harm to banks if it was revealed that they borrowed from the Fed’s so-called discount window. Matthew Collette, a lawyer for the government, said banks don’t do that unless they have liquidity problems.

FOIA requires federal agencies to make government documents available to the press and public. An exception to the statute protects trade secrets and privileged or confidential financial data. In her Aug. 24 ruling, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in New York said the exception didn’t apply because there’s no proof banks would suffer.

Tripartite Test

In its opinion today, the appeals court said that the exception applies only if the agency can satisfy a three-part test. The information must be a trade secret or commercial or financial in character; must be obtained from a person; and must be privileged or confidential, according to the opinion.

The court said that the information sought by Bloomberg was not “obtained from” the borrowing banks. It rejected an alternative argument the individual Federal Reserve Banks are “persons,” for purposes of the law because they would not suffer the kind of harm required under the “privileged and confidential” requirement of the exemption.

In a related case, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in New York previously sided with the Fed and refused to order the agency to release Fed documents that Fox News Network sought. The appeals court today returned that case to Hellerstein and told him to order the Fed to conduct further searches for documents and determine whether the documents should be disclosed.

“We are pleased that this information is finally, and rightfully, going to be made available to the American public,” said Kevin Magee, Executive Vice President of Fox Business Network, in a statement.

Balance Sheet Debt

The Fed’s balance sheet debt doubled after lending standards were relaxed following Lehman’s failure on Sept. 15, 2008. That year, the Fed began extending credit directly to companies that weren’t banks for the first time since the 1930s. Total central bank lending exceeded $2 trillion for the first time on Nov. 6, 2008, reaching $2.14 trillion on Sept. 23, 2009.

More than a dozen other groups or companies filed friend- of-the-court briefs. Those arguing for disclosure of the records included the American Society of News Editors and individual news organizations.

“It’s gratifying that the court recognizes the considerable interest in knowing what is being done with our tax dollars,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Virginia.

“We’ve learned some powerful lessons in the last 18 months that citizens need to pay more attention to what’s going on in the financial world. This decision will make it easier to do that.”

The case is Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 09-04083, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (New York).

To contact the reporters on this story: David Glovin in New York at dglovin@bloomberg.net; Bob Van Voris in New York at vanvoris@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: March 19, 2010 16:15 EDT

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