The reason the number has dropped to nothing is that the Fed had simply stopped using relatively transparent devices like repurchase agreements to pump its money into the hands of private companies. By early 2009, a whole series of new government operations had been invented to inject cash into the economy, most all of them completely secretive and with names you've never heard of. There is the Term Auction Facility, the Term Securities Lending Facility, the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, the Commercial Paper Funding Facility and a monster called the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility (boasting the chat-room horror-show acronym ABCPMMMFLF). For good measure, there's also something called a Money Market Investor Funding Facility, plus three facilities called Maiden Lane I, II and III to aid bailout recipients like Bear Stearns and AIG.
While the rest of America, and most of Congress, have been bugging out about the $700 billion bailout program called TARP, all of these newly created organisms in the Federal Reserve zoo have quietly been pumping not billions but trillions of dollars into the hands of private companies (at least $3 trillion so far in loans, with as much as $5.7 trillion more in guarantees of private investments). Although this technically isn't taxpayer money, it still affects taxpayers directly, because the activities of the Fed impact the economy as a whole. And this new, secretive activity by the Fed completely eclipses the TARP program in terms of its influence on the economy.
No one knows who's getting that money or exactly how much of it is disappearing through these new holes in the hull of America's credit rating. Moreover, no one can really be sure if these new institutions are even temporary at all – or whether they are being set up as permanent, stateaided crutches to Wall Street, designed to systematically suck bad investments off the ledgers of irresponsible lenders.
"They're supposed to be temporary," says Paul-Martin Foss, an aide to Rep. Ron Paul. "But we keep getting notices every six months or so that they're being renewed. They just sort of quietly announce it."
None other than disgraced senator Ted Stevens was the poor sap who made the unpleasant discovery that if Congress didn't like the Fed handing trillions of dollars to banks without any oversight, Congress could apparently go fuck itself – or so said the law. When Stevens asked the GAO about what authority Congress has to monitor the Fed, he got back a letter citing an obscure statute that nobody had ever heard of before: the Accounting and Auditing Act of 1950. The relevant section, 31 USC 714(b), dictated that congressional audits of the Federal Reserve may not include "deliberations, decisions and actions on monetary policy matters." The exemption, as Foss notes, "basically includes everything." According to the law, in other words, the Fed simply cannot be audited by Congress. Or by anyone else, for that matter.
VI. WINNERS AND LOSERS
Stevens isn't the only person in Congress to be given the finger by the Fed. In January, when Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida asked Federal Reserve vice chairman Donald Kohn where all the money went – only $1.2 trillion had vanished by then – Kohn gave Grayson a classic eye roll, saying he would be "very hesitant" to name names because it might discourage banks from taking the money.
"Has that ever happened?" Grayson asked. "Have people ever said, 'We will not take your $100 billion because people will find out about it?'"
"Well, we said we would not publish the names of the borrowers, so we have no test of that," Kohn answered, visibly annoyed with Grayson's meddling.
Grayson pressed on, demanding to know on what terms the Fed was lending the money. Presumably it was buying assets and making loans, but no one knew how it was pricing those assets – in other words, no one knew what kind of deal it was striking on behalf of taxpayers. So when Grayson asked if the purchased assets were "marked to market" – a methodology that assigns a concrete value to assets, based on the market rate on the day they are traded – Kohn answered, mysteriously, "The ones that have market values are marked to market." The implication was that the Fed was purchasing derivatives like credit swaps or other instruments that were basically impossible to value objectively – paying real money for God knows what.
"Well, how much of them don't have market values?" asked Grayson. "How much of them are worthless?"
"None are worthless," Kohn snapped.
"Then why don't you mark them to market?" Grayson demanded.
"Well," Kohn sighed, "we are marking the ones to market that have market values."
In essence, the Fed was telling Congress to lay off and let the experts handle things. "It's like buying a car in a used-car lot without opening the hood, and saying, 'I think it's fine,'" says Dan Fuss, an analyst with the investment firm Loomis Sayles. "The salesman says, 'Don't worry about it. Trust me.' It'll probably get us out of the lot, but how much farther? None of us knows."
When one considers the comparatively extensive system of congressional checks and balances that goes into the spending of every dollar in the budget via the normal appropriations process, what's happening in the Fed amounts to something truly revolutionary – a kind of shadow government with a budget many times the size of the normal federal outlay, administered dictatorially by one man, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke. "We spend hours and hours and hours arguing over $10 million amendments on the floor of the Senate, but there has been no discussion about who has been receiving this $3 trillion," says Sen. Bernie Sanders. "It is beyond comprehension."
Count Sanders among those who don't buy the argument that Wall Street firms shouldn't have to face being outed as recipients of public funds, that making this information public might cause investors to panic and dump their holdings in these firms. "I guess if we made that public, they'd go on strike or something," he muses.
And the Fed isn't the only arm of the bailout that has closed ranks. The Treasury, too, has maintained incredible secrecy surrounding its implementation even of the TARP program, which was mandated by Congress. To this date, no one knows exactly what criteria the Treasury Department used to determine which banks received bailout funds and which didn't – particularly the first $350 billion given out under Bush appointee Hank Paulson.
The situation with the first TARP payments grew so absurd that when the Congressional Oversight Panel, charged with monitoring the bailout money, sent a query to Paulson asking how he decided whom to give money to, Treasury responded – and this isn't a joke – by directing the panel to a copy of the TARP application form on its website. Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, was struck nearly speechless by the response.
"Do you believe that?" she says incredulously. "That's not what we had in mind."
Another member of Congress, who asked not to be named, offers his own theory about the TARP process. "I think basically if you knew Hank Paulson, you got the money," he says.
This cozy arrangement created yet another opportunity for big banks to devour market share at the expense of smaller regional lenders. While all the bigwigs at Citi and Goldman and Bank of America who had Paulson on speed-dial got bailed out right away – remember that TARP was originally passed because money had to be lent right now, that day, that minute, to stave off emergency – many small banks are still waiting for help. Five months into the TARP program, some not only haven't received any funds, they haven't even gotten a call back about their applications.
"There's definitely a feeling among community bankers that no one up there cares much if they make it or not," says Tanya Wheeless, president of the Arizona Bankers Association.
Which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what should be happening, since small, regional banks are far less guilty of the kinds of predatory lending that sank the economy. "They're not giving out subprime loans or easy credit," says Wheeless. "At the community level, it's much more bread-and-butter banking."
Nonetheless, the lion's share of the bailout money has gone to the larger, so-called "systemically important" banks. "It's like Treasury is picking winners and losers," says one state banking official who asked not to be identified.
This itself is a hugely important political development. In essence, the bailout accelerated the decline of regional community lenders by boosting the political power of their giant national competitors.
Which, when you think about it, is insane: What had brought us to the brink of collapse in the first place was this relentless instinct for building ever-larger megacompanies, passing deregulatory measures to gradually feed all the little fish in the sea to an ever-shrinking pool of Bigger Fish. To fix this problem, the government should have slowly liquidated these monster, too-big-to-fail firms and broken them down to smaller, more manageable companies. Instead, federal regulators closed ranks and used an almost completely secret bailout process to double down on the same faulty, merger-happy thinking that got us here in the first place, creating a constellation of megafirms under government control that are even bigger, more unwieldy and more crammed to the gills with systemic risk.
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