This section focuses on the role and secrecy of the Federal Reserve as lender of last resort to failing financial institutions during and after the 2008 crisis.
Americans learned two new truths last week from the Bush Administration’s version of Life’s Little Instruction Book: if you’re a Wall Street miscreant you’re thrown a lifeline; if you’re a Wall Street crime fighter you’re thrown a land mine.
In the first effort, the Feds effectively handed a Federal Reserve ATM card to JPMorgan to funnel your tax dollars to the teetering Bear Stearns brokerage firm to address counterparty risks that have been building for at least 4 years as the Feds snoozed. Counterparty risk is the trillions of dollars of insurance contracts (credit default swaps and other derivatives) taken out by Wall Street firms on each other’s (counterparty) bonds, bundled mortgage and commercial debt (collateralized debt obligations). The firms have used unregulated over-the-counter contracts to perform this risk transfer alchemy and funded their own company, Markit Group Ltd., to take the place of a regulated exchange for price discovery.
Purge your mind for a moment about everything you’ve heard and read in the last decade about investing on Wall Street and think about the following business model:
You take your hard earned retirement savings to a Wall Street firm and they tell you that as long as you “stay invested for the long haul” you can expect double digit annual returns. You never really know what your money is invested in because it’s pooled with other investors and comes with incomprehensible but legal looking prospectuses. The heads of these Wall Street firms have been taking massive payouts for themselves, ranging from $160 million to $1 billion per CEO over a number of years. As long as new money keeps flooding in from newfangled accounts called 401(k)s, Roth IRAs, 529 plans for education savings, and hedge funds (each carrying ever greater restrictions for withdrawing your money and ever greater opacity) everything appears fine on the surface. And then, suddenly, you learn that many of these Wall Street firms don’t have any assets that anybody wants to buy. Because these firms are both managing your money as well as having their own shares constitute a large percentage of your pooled investments, your funds begin to plummet as confidence drains from the scheme.
On President Obama’s first day in office on January 21, 2009, he issued an Open Government memo promising the American people a new era of transparency…It pains me to inform you, Mr. President, but the Treasury Department, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, and Securities and Exchange Commission (the trio that has been variously distracted minting trillions in currency, trading cash for trash with Wall Street, surfing for porn, or mishandling multiple voluminous tips on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme) have misplaced your memo or, as many suspect, take their marching orders not from you but from Wall Street — perhaps because they perceive that this is where you take your orders too.
On December 1, the Fed was forced to release details of 21,000 funding transactions it made during the financial crisis, naming names and dollar amounts. Disclosure was due to a provision sparked by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The voluminous data dump from the notoriously secret Fed shows just how deeply the Federal Reserve stepped into the shoes of Wall Street and, as the crisis grew and the normal channels of lending froze, the Fed effectively replaced Wall Street and money centers banks in terms of financing.
The Fed has thus far reported, without even disclosing specifics of its lending from its discount window, which it continues to draw a dark curtain around, that it supplied, in total, more than $9 trillion to Wall Street firms, commercial banks, foreign banks, corporations and some highly questionable off balance sheet entities. (Much smaller amounts were outstanding at any one time.)