Archive for March 19th, 2010
March 19 (Bloomberg) — The Federal Reserve Board must disclose documents identifying financial firms that might have collapsed without the largest ever U.S. government bailout, 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 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.”
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.
David Skidmore, a Fed spokesman, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
Freedom of Information
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 Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System had argued that disclosure of the documents threatens to stigmatize lenders and cause them “severe and irreparable competitive injury.”
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.
Wall of Secrecy
“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,” Thomas Golden, an attorney for the company with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, wrote in court filings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Dow Jones Newswires | Caterpillar Inc. said the health-care overhaul legislation being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives would increase the company’s health-care costs by more than $100 million in the first year alone.
In a letter Thursday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, Caterpillar urged lawmakers to vote against the plan “because of the substantial cost burdens it would place on our shareholders, employees and retirees.”
Caterpillar, the world’s largest construction machinery manufacturer by sales, said it’s particularly opposed to provisions in the bill that would expand Medicare taxes and mandate insurance coverage. The legislation would require nearly all companies to provide health insurance for their employees or face large fines.
The Peoria-based company said these provisions would increase its insurance costs by at least 20 percent, or more than $100 million, just in the first year of the health-care overhaul program.
“We can ill-afford cost increases that place us at a disadvantage versus our global competitors,” said the letter signed by Gregory Folley, vice president and chief human resources officer of Caterpillar. “We are disappointed that efforts at reform have not addressed the cost concerns we’ve raised throughout the year.”
Business executives have long complained that the options offered for covering 32 million uninsured Americans would result in higher insurance costs for those employers that already provide coverage. Opponents have stepped up their attacks in recent days as the House moves closer toward a vote on the Senate version of the health-care legislation.
A letter Thursday to President Barack Obama and members of Congress signed by more than 130 economists predicted the legislation would discourage companies from hiring more workers and would cause reduced hours and wages for those already employed.
Caterpillar noted that the company supports efforts to increase the quality and the value of health care for patients as well as lower costs for employer-sponsored insurance coverage.
“Unfortunately, neither the current legislation in the House and Senate, nor the president’s proposal, meets these goals,” the letter said.
By Robert Schmidt
March 18 (Bloomberg) — Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd’s chief counsel in 2008 traded stock in Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo & Co., American International Group Inc. and other rescued companies as the panel considered legislation to address the credit crisis, according to her financial disclosure form filed with the Senate.
Amy Friend, 51, who is now leading the panel’s effort to write a bill overhauling Wall Street regulations, bought $1,000- to-$15,000 stakes in four banks, weeks after Dodd hired her in January 2008, the form shows. She also owned shares of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG and other insurance firms, according to the disclosure document, which she signed on June 5, 2009.
The transactions, permissible under Senate rules, included buying $1,000 to $15,000 of Federal Home Loan Bank bonds and Fannie Mae debt in June and July, 2008. On July 30 of that year, then-President George W. Bush signed into law a Dodd-sponsored bill setting out new regulations for the housing finance agencies and allowing the Treasury Department to give them cash injections.
“This looks very bad,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former Democratic congressional aide. “At the very least it’s inappropriate and it gives the appearance of wrongdoing, even if there is none.”
Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, defended his chief counsel. “Amy Friend is one of the fiercest public advocates on Capitol Hill today,” Dodd said in an e-mailed statement. “Her integrity is second to none.”
Friend, who declined to comment, informed her supervisor of her holdings, and consulted the Senate Ethics Committee when she was hired, Kirstin Brost, the Senate Banking Committee spokeswoman, said.
Friend lists the investments as jointly owned with her husband. She continues to hold financial securities, Brost said. Friend’s disclosure form for 2009 is due in May.
Sloan and other ethics specialists say Friend’s stock ownership and trading reflect the leeway lawmakers and congressional staff have with their investments. Unlike Treasury Department employees or bank examiners at independent regulatory agencies who aren’t allowed to hold shares of companies they oversee, U.S. lawmakers and their staff are free to invest with few restrictions.
Still, Friend’s counterparts on the banking panel’s Republican side and on the House Financial Services Committee didn’t own financial instruments, according to their 2008 disclosures.
The rules “are kind of squishy intentionally,” said Kenneth Gross, a partner at the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP law firm in Washington who counsels people on ethics regulations. “Congress has permitted the holding and trading of securities virtually unfettered.”
Senate rule 37 states that no lawmaker or employee “shall knowingly use his official position to introduce or aid the progress or passage of legislation, a principal purpose of which is to further only his pecuniary interest.”
In additional guidance, the Senate Ethics Manual notes that the restriction is “narrow” and says that if the legislation has broad impact, a prohibition wouldn’t apply.
The rules require staff that have “substantial holdings” that could be directly affected by a committee’s work to divest, unless they are given a waiver by the Senate Ethics Committee.
The ethics panel has told congressional staff that a fair definition of “substantial” would be any single holding equal to 3 percent to 5 percent of total liquid assets. Friend’s combined financial investments constituted less than 2 percent of her liquid assets, below the ethics guidance, Brost said.
John Hasnas, who teaches ethics as an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, said that while her actions may not look good politically, “the fact that it may appear unethical to others doesn’t mean what you did was wrong.”
“If the rules say that she is allowed to do it and the only problem is that it gives the appearance of impropriety, in my opinion she has not behaved unethically,” Hasnas said in a telephone interview.
It is impossible to tell the exact amount of Friend’s purchases and sales from the ethics records, which require her to value investments only in broad ranges.
She listed each of her financial stocks as being worth $1,000 to $15,000. They included: AIG, Bank of America Corp., Bank of New York Mellon Corp., Discover Financial Services, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Federated Investors Inc., M&T Bank Corp., Wells Fargo, MetLife Inc. and MGIC Investment Corp., a mortgage insurer.
Friend’s portfolio included stocks of more than 100 companies, many non-financial, ranging from Coca-Cola Co. to Target Corp. to Xerox Corp. She also owned mutual funds, municipal bonds and Treasury bills.
Friend was an attorney at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency before joining the banking committee. She also teaches a spinning class at a Northern Virginia gym in her spare time, earning $1,200 in 2008.
Friend’s first year working for the panel included the near-collapse of Bear Stearns Cos., the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the government bailouts of AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and passage of the $700 billion financial rescue law.
The committee also considered the Housing and Economic Recovery Act, which provided foreclosure assistance to struggling homeowners, created a more powerful regulator for the home loan banks and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and gave the Treasury emergency authority to bail out the housing-finance giants.
Fannie Mae Shares
On July 23, as lawmakers neared agreement on the bill, shares of Fannie Mae rose 12 percent to close at $15 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Friend’s own Fannie Mae stock holdings would have increased in value as well, though not enough to cover steady declines since she acquired the shares on January 23, when they closed at $34.78
Friend also made five purchases of Federal Home Loan Bank Board bonds in 2008, each valued at $1,000 to $15,000, according to the form. Two were in January, one in February, one in March and one in June of that year. Friend valued her total holdings of the bonds at $50,000 to $100,000, according to the form.
She also purchased Fannie Mae debt on July 1, two weeks before the bill, sponsored by Dodd and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the banking committee, passed the Senate.
Bank of America
Some of Friend’s trades listed in the disclosure statement were stock purchases — all in 2008 — and may not have been profitable. For example, when she bought Bank of America on Feb. 20, its closing share price was $42.97. She acquired additional shares on May 27, when the closing price was $34.17. It was $17.03 a share at yesterday’s close.
Friend purchased AIG on Aug. 12 when its closing share price was $457. About a month later, the firm received an $85 billion loan from the Federal Reserve, the first of several bailouts. AIG shares closed yesterday at $33.61 a share.
Very few of the trades in Friend’s portfolio were sales. She did unload $1,000 to $15,000 of Morgan Stanley shares on Sept. 22, several days after then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked Congress to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program designed to remove toxic debt from banks’ books.
–Editors: Brendan Murray, Paula Dwyer
To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Schmidt in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Wellisz at email@example.com
OH WOOPS! New Merrill Lynch Disclosure Shines A Perjurious Light On Ben Bernanke's Sworn Testimony; JP "Fed Lite" Morgan Also Dabbled In Repo 105-type Scams
So, Mr. Bernanke – who is lying?!
Submitted by Tyler Durden
It seems it was just yesterday that Bernanke was on the edge of committing perjury and lying that the Federal Reserve of New York knew nothing about Lehman’s “more peculiar” off balance sheet transactions. Oh wait, it was: as a reminder in his cross by Scott Garrett, the New Jersey representative asked the Fed Head whether the “Fed was aware of the Repo 105 and the accounting irregularities going on?” Bernanke answers “No – they were hidden.” Oops. Because a story just released by the Financial Times seems to indicate otherwise, and unless Merrill Lynch is lying out of their derriere, Mr. Bernanke should be immediately investigated for potential perjury before the American people. “Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Reserve officials were warned by [Merrill Lynch] that Lehman Brothers was incorrectly calculating a key measure of its financial health months before its collapse in 2008…In the account given by the Merrill officials, the SEC, the lead regulator, and the New York Federal Reserve were given warnings about Lehman’s balance sheet calculations as far back as March 2008.” Amusingly, the sole purpose why Merrill would rat out Lehman is to make its own disastrous situation more agreeable, as often happens when the rats realize the sinking of the ship is inevitable. Well, unlike Merrill, whose liquidity situation was equally as disastrous on the weekend of September 14th, which found a pressed suitor in the form of BofA (and its Fed/Goldman-puppet CEO Ken Lewis), Lehman was not quite so lucky (one wonders why). Yet the bigger issue is why does the Fed keep on lying to the American public without any trace of consequence? When will someone finally wake up and sue the Federal Reserve (and we don’t mean FOIA), or at least slap a racketeering lawsuit on “those people?” Oh yeah, the market is up, American Idol is on TV, G-Pap has done all that was needed to (not) be bailed out, so all shall be well. This is better known as “if the other Ponzi dude was thrown in jail, you must acquit” defense.
Further troubling evidence from the FT that the FRBNY may be nothing more than a sinister cabal of Wall Street-acquired criminals:
Former Merrill Lynch officials said they contacted regulators about the way Lehman measured its liquidity position for competitive reasons. The Merrill officials said they were coming under pressure from their trading partners and investors, who feared that Merrill was less liquid than Lehman.
The warnings take on a special significance after last week’s report by Anton Valukas, the Lehman bankruptcy court examiner, who found that Lehman had used questionable financing tools to flatter its balance sheet before its September 2008 collapse.
The findings raise questions over what federal regulators knew about Lehman’s accounting and when they knew it. In the account given by the Merrill officials, the SEC, the lead regulator, and the New York Federal Reserve were given warnings about Lehman’s balance sheet calculations as far back as March 2008.
Former and current Fed officials say even in the competitive world of Wall Street, it is unusual for rival bankers to relay such concerns to the Fed.
The Fed is currently scouring thru its emails, but unfortunately has no confirmation that any exchange like the one mentioned above has ever occurred:
The New York Fed said it were unable to verify that the conversation with Merrill Lynch bankers took place.
When in doubt deny, deny, deny. And what recourse do the American people have anyway? It’s not like the Fed is, you know, transparent, or willing to open its books to anyone, to demonstrate just how deep the criminal rabbit hole actually goes.
And also from the FT we learn that none other than JP Morgan was also using Repo 105 comparable transactions. At least Jamie Dimon’s firm not only was fully transparent about this gimmick, but it promptly ended the practice some time in 2005.
Unlike Lehman, which never disclosed the effects of its repo deals on the firm’s balance sheet, JPMorgan detailed the year-end values of its repo sales and purchases in annual reports beginning in 2001, after a new accounting rule was introduced.The practice ended in 2005 when the company merged with Bank One. “The transactions were done in very small amounts and were fully disclosed,” a spokesman said.
So let’s paraphrase the question for Mr. Bernanke – was the Fed at least aware of those disclosed SFAS 140 transactions? And also, for our own curiosity, can we get a roster of all the FRBNY people who are and have been supposed to oversee SFAS 140 implementations by various banks (hello Steven Manzari)?
What? You mean it was all a Fed/Treasury/Too-Big-To-Fail Bank scam perpetrated on the American People? Oh surely, that can’t be it.