Posted on 01 Nov 2011
The findings of a federal investigation released Monday raised new questions about the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s handling of the 2008 bailout of American International Group.
The report, by the Government Accountability Office, says that New York Fed officials have offered inconsistent explanations for their decision to pay other financial companies the full amounts they were owed by A.I.G., and that some of the explanations were contradicted by other evidence.
The report also asserts that the decision to pay the full amounts, rather than seeking concessions as the government later did in other cases, disregarded the expectations of senior Fed officials in Washington and the expressed willingness of some of the companies to accept smaller payments.
In one case, when a company offered to accept a smaller amount of money, officials at the New York Fed responded that they had decided to pay the full amount of the debt, the report said.
The agency’s report revisits a controversial chapter in the history of the financial crisis: the government’s decision to sink tens of billions of dollars into A.I.G., the world’s largest insurance company, which was running out of money to cover its vast and losing bets on the health of the housing market. Much of that money was then paid to other companies to honor their outstanding contracts with A.I.G.
The basic conclusion echoes the findings of previous federal investigations. The rescue mission succeeded, but efforts to minimize the costs and risks borne by taxpayers were insufficient. But the new report also raises concerns about the explanations subsequently offered by New York Fed officials.
For example, the G.A.O. says that officials at first told its investigators that they had initiated discussions about possible concessions with most of the 16 companies that stood on the other side of insurance-like contracts, called credit-default swaps, with A.I.G.
Then, according to the report, the officials said they had contacted eight companies before abandoning the effort. Even then, the report said, only four of those companies confirmed that they had been contacted by the Fed.
The New York Fed declined to comment on the specific account of the negotiations. Officials of the bank, including Timothy F. Geithner, then the president of the New York Fed and now the Treasury secretary, have testified that they needed to act quickly to prevent greater damage to the financial system, and that they chose the approach that was most likely to succeed and easiest to enact.
The bank said in a statement Monday that it had “put together an effective lending program that minimized disruption to the economy from A.I.G. while safeguarding the taxpayer interest.”
Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland and the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, said the report highlighted the importance of the financial legislation passed last year.
“This report reinforces the need to implement provisions in Dodd-Frank that will prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars to artificially prop up or benefit one firm,” said Mr. Cummings, who with Representative Spencer Bachus, Republican of Alabama and the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, requested the report as a final word on the controversy.
The Federal Reserve Board of Governors voted in September 2008 to let the New York Fed lend up to $85 billion to A.I.G. as part of a deal that placed the company under federal control. The bailout was expanded several times, ultimately expanding to more than $180 billion. And roughly a quarter of that money was used to pay 16 companies that had bought credit-default swaps from A.I.G. — a roll call of the most prominent names on Wall Street, including Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs.
Federal Reserve officials in Washington expected that the New York Fed would negotiate discounts with those companies since, without the government’s intervention, they might have received far less.
An analysis commissioned by the New York Fed recommended concessions around $1.1 billion to $6.4 billion. But according to the New York Fed, when it asked companies if they were willing to accept voluntary discounts, only one company said yes, conditional on everyone else doing it, too.
New York Fed officials told the G.A.O. that they had little leverage to secure concessions from the companies. Moreover, they concluded that A.I.G.’s inability to secure concessions in earlier negotiations suggested that the banks were unwilling to compromise. And they were constrained by a decision to apply the same repayment terms to all of the counterparties.
The G.A.O. report questions the basis of the Fed’s insistence on equal treatment, noting that there were significant differences in the quality of the assets covered under the insurance agreements, and therefore the potential losses for each company were quite different. An analysis found that under extreme conditions, the losses would vary from 75 percent of the original value down to 1 percent.
The differences, the study concluded, “might have offered an opportunity to lower the amount” that the government sank into the rescue. Fed officials told the G.A.O. that negotiating with each company individually was impossible given the pressure to act.
The report also questions the Fed’s assertion that it could not wrest concessions from French banks — who held some of the largest contracts — because French law banned them from accepting discounts unless A.I.G. had filed for bankruptcy. A French official told the G.A.O. that there was no such prohibition, although such a decision might have raised legal concerns.
The Fed’s actions contrast with the agreement that European governments, led by Chancellor Angela Markel of Germany, secured from some of the same institutions in October to accept discounts of up to 50 percent on their holdings of Greek debt.