Was There a Plan to Blow Up the Economy? The Subprime Conspiracy: COUNTERPUNCH

May 3, 2010

Was There a Plan to Blow Up the Economy?

The Subprime Conspiracy

By MIKE WHITNEY

Many people now believe that the financial crisis was not an accident. They think that the Bush administration and the Fed knew what Wall Street was up to and provided their support. This isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. As we will show, it’s clear that Bush, Greenspan and many other high-ranking officials understood the problem with subprime mortgages and knew that a huge asset bubble was emerging that threatened the economy. But while the housing bubble was more than just an innocent mistake, it doesn’t rise to the level of “conspiracy” which Webster defines as  “a secret agreement between two or more people to perform an unlawful act.”  It’s actually worse than that, because bubblemaking is the dominant policy, and it’s used to overcome structural problems in capitalism itself, mainly stagnation.

The whole idea of a conspiracy diverts attention from what really happened. It conjures up a comical vision of  top-hat business tycoons gathered in a smoke-filled room stealthily mapping out the country’s future. It ignores the fact, that the main stakeholders don’t need to convene a meeting to know what they want. They already know what they want; they want a process that helps them to maintain profitability even while the “real” economy remains stuck in the mud.  Historian Robert Brenner has written extensively on this topic and dispels the mistaken view that the economy is “fundamentally strong”. (in the words of former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson)  Here’s Brenner :

“The current crisis is more serious than the worst previous recession of the postwar period, between 1979 and 1982, and could conceivably come to rival the Great Depression, though there is no way of really knowing. Economic forecasters have underestimated how bad it is because they have over-estimated the strength of the real economy and failed to take into account the extent of its dependence upon a buildup of debt that relied on asset price bubbles.

“In the U.S., during the recent business cycle of the years 2001-2007, GDP growth was by far the slowest of the postwar epoch. There was no increase in private sector employment. The increase in plants and equipment was about a third of the previous, a postwar low. Real wages were basically flat. There was no increase in median family income for the first time since World War II. Economic growth was driven entirely by personal consumption and residential investment, made possible by easy credit and rising house prices. Economic performance was weak, even despite the enormous stimulus from the housing bubble and the Bush administration’s huge federal deficits. Housing by itself accounted for almost one-third of the growth of GDP and close to half of the increase in employment in the years 2001-2005. It was, therefore, to be expected that when the housing bubble burst, consumption and residential investment would fall, and the economy would plunge. ” (“Overproduction not Financial Collapse is the Heart of the Crisis”, Robert P. Brenner speaks with Jeong Seong-jin, Asia Pacific Journal)

What Brenner describes is an economy \that–despite unfunded tax cuts, massive military spending and gigantic asset bubbles–can barely produce positive growth.  The pervasive lethargy of mature capitalist economies poses huge challenges for industry bosses who are judged solely on their ability to boost quarterly profits. Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein and JPM’s Jamie Dimon could care less about economic theory, what they’re interested in is making money; how to deploy their capital in a way that maximizes return on investment. “Profits”, that’s it.  And that’s much more difficult in a world that’s beset by overcapacity and flagging demand.  The world doesn’t need more widgets or widget-makers. The only way to ensure profitability is to invent an alternate system altogether, a new universe of financial exotica (CDOs, MBSs, CDSs) that operates independent of the sluggish real economy. Financialization provides that opportunity. It allows the main players to pump-up the leverage, minimize capital-outlay, inflate asset prices, and skim off record profits even while the real  economy endures severe stagnation.

Financialization provides a  path to wealth creation, which is why the sector’s portion of total corporate profits is now nearly 40 per cent. It’s a way to bypass the pervasive inertia of the production-oriented economy. The Fed’s role in this new paradigm is to create a hospitable environment (low interest rates) for bubble-making so the upward transfer of wealth can continue without interruption. Bubblemaking is policy.

As we’ve pointed out in earlier articles, scores of people knew what was going on during the subprime fiasco. But it’s worth a quick review, because Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Timothy Geithner, and others have been defending themselves saying, “Who could have known?”.

The FBI knew (“In September 2004, the FBI began publicly warning that there was an “epidemic” of mortgage fraud, and it predicted that it would produce an economic crisis, if it were not dealt with.”) The FDIC knew. ( In testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, FDIC chairman Sheila Bair confirmed that she not only warned the Fed of what was going on in 2001, but cited particular regulations (HOEPA) under which the Fed could stop the “unfair, abusive and deceptive practices” by the banks.) Also Fitch ratings knew, and even Alan Greenspan’s good friend and former Fed governor Ed Gramlich knew. (Gramlich personally warned Greenspan of the surge in predatory lending that was apparent as early as 2000. Here’s a bit of what Gramlich said in the Wall Street Journal:

“I would have liked the Fed to be a leader” in cracking down on predatory lending, Mr. Gramlich, now a scholar at the Urban Institute, said in an interview this past week. Knowing it would be controversial with Mr. Greenspan, whose deregulatory philosophy is well known, Mr. Gramlich broached it to him personally rather than take it to the full board. “He was opposed to it, so I didn’t really pursue it,” says Mr. Gramlich. (Wall Street Journal)

So, Greenspan knew, too. And, according to Elizabeth MacDonald  in an article titled “Housing Red flags Ignored”:

“One of the nation’s biggest mortgage industry players repeatedly warned the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other bank regulators during the housing bubble that the U.S. faced an imminent housing crash….But bank regulators not only ignored the group’s warnings, top Fed officials also went on the airwaves to say the economy was “building on a sturdy foundation” and a housing crash was “unlikely.”

So, the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America [MICA] also knew. And, here’s a clip from the Washington Post by former New York governor Eliot Spitzer who accused Bush of being a ‘partner in crime’ in the subprime fiasco. Spitzer says that the OCC launched “an unprecedented assault on state legislatures, as well as on state attorneys general just to make sure the looting would continue without interruption. Here’s an except from Spitzer’s article:

“In 2003, during the height of the predatory lending crisis….the OCC promulgated new rules that prevented states from enforcing any of their own consumer protection laws against national banks. The federal government’s actions were so egregious and so unprecedented that all 50 state attorneys general, and all 50 state banking superintendents, actively fought the new rules. (Washington Post)

So, the Fed knew, the Treasury knew, the FBI knew, the OCC knew, the FDIC knew, Bush knew, the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America knew, Fitch ratings knew, all the states Attorneys General knew, and thousands, of traders, lenders, ratings agency executives, bankers, hedge fund managers, private equity bosses, regulators knew. Everyone knew, except the unlucky people who were victimized in the biggest looting operation of all time.

Once again, looking for conspiracy, just diverts attention from the nature of the crime itself. Here’s a statement from former regulator and white collar criminologist William K. Black which helps to clarify the point:

“Fraudulent lenders produce exceptional short-term ‘profits’ through a four-part strategy: extreme growth (Ponzi), lending to uncreditworthy borrowers, extreme leverage, and minimal loss reserves. These exceptional ‘profits’ defeat regulatory restrictions and turn private market discipline perverse. The profits also allow the CEO to convert firm assets for personal benefit through seemingly normal compensation mechanisms. The short-term profits cause stock options to appreciate. Fraudulent CEOs following this strategy are guaranteed extraordinary income while minimizing risks of detection and prosecution.” (William K. Black,“Epidemics of’Control Fraud’ Lead to Recurrent, Intensifying Bubbles andCrises”, University of Missouri at Kansas City – School of Law)

Black’s definition of “control fraud” comes very close to describing what really took place during the subprime mortgage frenzy. The investment banks and other financial institutions bulked up on garbage loans and complex securities backed by dodgy mortgages so they could increase leverage and rake off large bonuses for themselves. Clearly, they knew the underlying collateral was junk, just as they knew that eventually the market would crash and millions of people would suffer.

But, while it’s true that Greenspan and Wall Street knew how the bubble-game was played; they had no intention of blowing up the whole system. They simply wanted to inflate the bubble, make their profits, and get out before the inevitable crash.  But, then something went wrong. When Lehman collapsed, the entire financial system suffered a major heart attack. All of the so-called “experts” models turned out to be wrong.

Here’s what happened: Before to the meltdown, the depository “regulated” banks got their funding through the repo market by exchanging collateral (mainly mortgage-backed securities) for short-term loans with the so-called “shadow banks” (investment banks, hedge funds, insurers) But after Lehman defaulted, the funding stream was severely impaired because the prices on mortgage-backed securities kept falling. When the bank-funding system went on the fritz,  stocks went into a nosedive sending panicky investors fleeing for the exits. As unbelievable as it sounds, no one saw this coming.

The reason that no one anticipated a run on the shadow banking system is because the basic architecture of the financial markets has changed dramatically in the last decade due to deregulation. The fundamental structure is different and the traditional stopgaps have been removed. That’s why no one knew what to do during the panic. The general assumption was that there would be a one-to-one relationship between defaulting subprime mortgages and defaulting mortgage-backed securities (MBS). That turned out to be a grave miscalculation. The subprimes were only failing at roughly 8 percent rate when the whole secondary market collapsed. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill explained it best using a clever analogy. He said, “It’s like you have 8 bottles of water and just one of them has arsenic in it. It becomes impossible to sell any of the other bottles because no one knows which one contains the poison.”

And that’s exactly what happened. The market for structured debt crashed, stocks began to plummet, and the Fed had to step in to save the system. Unfortunately, that same deeply-flawed system is being rebuilt brick by brick without any substantive changes.. The Fed and Treasury support this effort, because–as agents of the banks–they are willing to sacrifice their own credibility to defend the primary profit-generating instruments of the industry leaders. (Goldman, JPM, etc) That means that Bernanke and Geithner will go to the mat to oppose any additional regulation on derivatives, securitization and off-balance sheet operations, the same lethal devices that triggered the financial crisis.

So, there was no conspiracy to blow up the financial system, but there is an implicit understanding that the Fed will serve the interests of Wall Street by facilitating asset bubbles through “accommodative” monetary policy and by opposing regulation. It’s just “business as usual”, but it’s far more damaging than any conspiracy, because it ensures that the economy will continue to stagnate, that inequality will continue to grow, and that the gigantic upward transfer of wealth will continue without pause.

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached atfergiewhitney@msn.com

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Geithner tells panel that more has to be done to help homeowners avoid foreclosure: Washington Post

SCROLL DOWN AND SEE WHAT THEY ADMIT… 

By Renae Merle

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner told a Senate panel Thursday that mortgage lenders were still not doing enough to help homeowners avoid foreclosure and that some borrowers who qualify for federal aid are still losing their homes.Homeowners meet with Wells Fargo employees in makeshift offices at a workshop in Oakland to discuss mortgage payment challenges.

The industry’s performance varies by lender, he said, adding that the Treasury Department is conducting “targeted, in-depth compliance” reviews of lenders participating in the government’s foreclosure prevention program. Some firms could lose the incentive payments they earn for helping borrowers if their performance does not improve, he said.

“None of this is acceptable. We are committed to making sure that servicers hold up their end of the bargain,” Geithner said during a hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

So far, the federal program, known as Making Home Affordable, has helped about 200,000 borrowers get a permanent loan modification. But the government is far short of helping the 3 million to 4 million homeowners it initially targeted. In the meantime, millions of homeowners are expected to fall into foreclosure over the next few years.

“I want to be clear that we do not believe [mortgage] servicers are doing enough to help homeowners, not doing enough to help them navigate the difficult and often frightening process of avoiding foreclosure,” Geithner told the committee. “They are not responding to the needs of responsible and increasingly desperate homeowners.” DinSFLA: So there are IRRESPONSIBLE ones?? Clarification, please Mr. Geithner…Who are the irresponsible ones “SIR” who got us in this Shit Hole of a mess??

Industry officials argue that they have helped millions of borrowers avoid foreclosure already, many outside the government program. “While we share the secretary’s continued frustration with anecdotes about lost paperwork and mistaken foreclosures, I don’t think blanket indictments of an entire industry are helpful,” said John A. Courson, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association. “Nevertheless, the industry is continuing to try and streamline and improve the loan modification process.”

Last month, the Treasury Department announced it was revamping the federal program, including by encouraging lenders to forgive a portion of a borrower’s mortgage debt if more is owed on the loan than the home is worth, a situation known as being underwater. Under the changes, lenders are now required to offer temporary mortgage relief to unemployed borrowers for at least three months.

But the government program is largely voluntary, and some lenders have already balked at the prospect of widespread use of principal forgiveness in which they would slash the mortgage balances of millions of homeowners. Also, housing advocates have argued that the help being offered to unemployed borrowers may not go far enough because it could take many much longer than three months to find a job.

“These changes won’t be implemented until the fall, maybe too little, too late,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

Geithner also faced questions from committee members about the status of its bailout of the automakers, including General Motors and Chrysler. In a recent television ad, GM touted that it had repaid billions of dollars in government loans ahead of schedule.

But Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that the commercial did not mention that taxpayers still own 61 percent of the company’s shares. “This is so frustrating to me because I believe the public is being misled,” Collins said.

Geithner said he was aware of concerns over GM’s claims in the commercial. “We still have substantial equity investments left in those companies, and as a result, some risk of loss, although a fraction of what we feared,” he said.

The administration wants to divest its interest in the automakers as soon as possible, Geithner said. There is a reasonable chance that all of the bailout funds given to the industry could be recovered.

“Nobody at GM has claimed victory. We know we have more work to do,” Greg Martin, a GM spokesman, said in an e-mail. “But early repayment of our loans is a milestone for the company and a clear sign that our plan is working, and a critical step toward returning GM to profitability and public ownership.”

Dylan Ratigan does a great job explaining the con: GOLDMAN SACHS

The SEC’s complaint charges Goldman Sachs and Tourre with violations of Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and Exchange Act Rule 10b-5. The Commission seeks injunctive relief, disgorgement of profits, prejudgment interest, and financial penalties.

 

Many recall this post below:

Move over GOLDMAN SACHS…WE have a New Player to this Housing “Betting” Crisis…NASDAQ Presenting the Law Offices of David J. Stern, P.A. (“DJS”)

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:

DO NOT STOP FORECLOSURE

DO NOT NEGOTIATE ON YOUR BEHALF WITH YOUR BANK OR LENDER

DO NOT MODIFY YOUR LOAN

DO NOT TAKE CASES that is upto your attorney!

FMI does however, provide your Attorney with AMMO to bring your Lender into the negotiation table.

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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