ALBERT HERTER

‘REVISITING THE FED WALTZ WITH A.I.G., ‘ in the N.Y.Times. THE BANKERS WANT TO THANK THE TAXPAYERS FOR THEIR BILLIONS OF BAILOUT. MERCI!!

In Uncategorized on November 22, 2009 at 14:46

By GRETCHEN MORGENSON

Published: November 21, 2009

A RAY of sunlight broke through the Washington fog last week when Neil M. Barofsky, special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, published his office’s report on the government bailout last year of the American International Group.

It’s must reading for any taxpayer hoping to understand why the $182 billion “rescue” of what was once the world’s largest insurer still ranks as the most troubling episode of the financial disaster. And it couldn’t have come at a more pivotal moment.

Many in Washington want to give more regulatory power to the Federal Reserve Board, the banking regulator that orchestrated the A.I.G. bailout. Through this prism, the actions taken in the deal by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York at the time, grow curiouser and curiouser.

Of special note in the report: the Fed failed to develop a workable rescue plan when A.I.G., swamped by demands that it pay off huge insurance contracts that it couldn’t make good on as the economy tanked, began to sink. The report takes the Fed to task as refusing to use its power and prestige to wrestle concessions from A.I.G.’s big, sophisticated and well-heeled trading partners when the government itself had to pay off the contracts.

The Fed, under Mr. Geithner’s direction, caved in to A.I.G.’s counterparties, giving them 100 cents on the dollar for positions that would have been worth far less if A.I.G. had defaulted. Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Société Générale and other banks were in the group that got full value for their contracts when many others were accepting fire-sale prices.

On the question of whether this payout was what the report describes as a “backdoor bailout” of A.I.G.’s counterparties, Mr. Barofsky concluded: “The very design of the federal assistance to A.I.G. was that tens of billions of dollars of government money was funneled inexorably and directly to A.I.G.’s counterparties.” The report noted that this was money the banks might not otherwise have received had A.I.G. gone belly-up.

The report zaps Fed claims that identifying banks that benefited from taxpayer largess would have dire consequences. Fed officials had refused to disclose the identities of the counterparties or details of the payments, warning “that disclosure of the names would undermine A.I.G.’s stability, the privacy and business interests of the counterparties, and the stability of the markets,” the report said.

When the parties were named, “the sky did not fall,” the report said.

Finally, Mr. Barofsky pokes holes in arguments made repeatedly over the past 14 months by Goldman Sachs, A.I.G.’s largest trading partner and recipient of $12.9 billion in taxpayer money in the bailout, that it had faced no material risk in an A.I.G. default — that, in effect, had A.I.G. cratered, Goldman wouldn’t have suffered damage.

In short, there’s an awful lot jammed into this 36-page report.

Even before publishing this analysis, Mr. Barofsky had made a name for himself as one of the few truth tellers in Washington. While others estimate how much the taxpayer will make on various bailout programs, Mr. Barofsky has said that returns are extremely unlikely.

His office has also opened 65 cases to investigate potential fraud in various bailout programs. “When I first took office, I can’t tell you how many times I’d be having a sit-down and warning about potential fraud in the program and I would hear a response basically saying, ‘Oh, they’re bankers, and they wouldn’t put their reputations at risk by committing fraud,’ ” Mr. Barofsky told Bloomberg News a little over a week ago, adding: “I think we’ve done a good job of instilling a greater degree of skepticism that what comes from Wall Street isn’t necessarily the holy grail.”

Mr. Barofsky says the Fed failed to strong-arm the banks when it was negotiating payouts on the A.I.G. contracts. Rather than forcing the banks to accept a steep discount, or “haircut,” the Fed gave the banks $27 billion in taxpayer cash and allowed them to keep an additional $35 billion in collateral already posted by A.I.G. That amounted to about $62 billion for the contracts, which the report describes as “far above their market value at the time.”

Mr. Geithner, who oversaw those negotiations, said in an interview on Friday that the terms of the A.I.G. deal were the best he could get for taxpayers. He considered bailing out A.I.G. to be “offensive,’ he said, but deemed it necessary because a collapse would have undermined the financial system.

“We prevented A.I.G. from defaulting because our judgment was that the damage caused by failure would have been much more costly for the economy and the taxpayer,” Mr. Geithner said. “To most Americans, this looked like a deeply unfair outcome and they find it hard to see any direct benefit. But in fact, their savings are more valuable and secure today.”

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