Friday, September 26, 2014

The Fabulous Fed Fail Follies

ProPublica and This American Life have teamed up for a pretty depressing story of former Federal Reserve examiner Carmen Segarra.  Her job in 2011 and 2012 was to take a look at infamous banking giant Goldman Sachs and figure out why the Fed missed their involvement in the subprime mortgage meltdown.

She was fired for doing her job, and the recordings she made were devastating.  Her boss, Columbia University finance professor David Beim was brought in to figure out what went wrong.  New York Fed President William Dudley, who brought both Beim and Segarra in, wanted answers.  He just didn't want to do anything with those answers.

As ProPublica reported last year, Segarra sued the New York Fed and her bosses, claiming she was retaliated against for refusing to back down from a negative finding about Goldman Sachs. A judge threw out the case this year without ruling on the merits, saying the facts didn't fit the statute under which she sued. 
At the bottom of a document filed in the case, however, her lawyer disclosed a stunning fact: Segarra had made a series of audio recordings while at the New York Fed. Worried about what she was witnessing, Segarra wanted a record in case events were disputed. So she had purchased a tiny recorder at the Spy Store and began capturing what took place at Goldman and with her bosses. 
Segarra ultimately recorded about 46 hours of meetings and conversations with her colleagues. Many of these events document key moments leading to her firing. But against the backdrop of the Beim report, they also offer an intimate study of the New York Fed's culture at a pivotal moment in its effort to become a more forceful financial supervisor. Fed deliberations, confidential by regulation, rarely become public. 
The recordings make clear that some of the cultural obstacles Beim outlined in his report persisted almost three years after he handed his report to Dudley. They portray a New York Fed that is at times reluctant to push hard against Goldman and struggling to define its authority while integrating Segarra and a new corps of expert examiners into a reorganized supervisory scheme. 
Segarra became a polarizing personality inside the New York Fed — and a problem for her bosses — in part because she was too outspoken and direct about the issues she saw at both Goldman and the Fed. Some colleagues found her abrasive and complained. Her unwillingness to conform set her on a collision course with higher-ups at the New York Fed and, ultimately, led to her undoing.

Segarra was fired for not being nice enough to the Masters of the Universe.  Oh, but it gets worse, as the recordings show Segarra was at a meeting where fellow investigator Michael Silva recounted the infamous day the financial system "broke the buck" during Lehman Brothers' last death throes.

Silva had been in the room with Geithner in September 2008 during a seminal moment of the financial crisis. Shares in a large money market fund – the Reserve Primary Fund – had fallen below the standard price of $1, "breaking the buck" and threatening to touch off a run by investors. The investment firm Lehman Brothers had entered bankruptcy, and the financial system appeared in danger of collapse
In Segarra's recordings, Silva tells his team how, at least initially, no one in the war room at the New York Fed knew how to respond. He went into the bathroom, sick to his stomach, and vomited. 
"I never want to get close to that moment again, but maybe I'm too close to that moment," Silva told his New York Fed team at Goldman Sachs in a meeting one day.
Despite his years at the New York Fed, Silva was new to the institution's supervisory side. He had never been an examiner or participated as part of a team inside a regulated bank until being appointed to lead the team at Goldman Sachs. Silva prefaced his financial crisis anecdote by saying the team needed to understand his motivations, "so you can perhaps push back on these things."

The Fed tried to convince big trading houses like Goldman Sachs to step up and backstop the system back then. They laughed.

In the recordings, Silva then offered a second anecdote. This one involved the moments before the Lehman bankruptcy.
Silva related how the top bankers in the nation were asked to contribute money to save Lehman. He described his disappointment when Goldman executives initially balked. Silva acknowledged that it might have been a hard sell to shareholders, but added that "if Goldman had stepped up with a big number, that would have encouraged the others." 
"It was extraordinarily disappointing to me that they weren't thinking as Americans," Silva says in the recording. "Those two things are very powerful experiences that, I will admit, influence my thinking."

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had to drag the big banks like Goldman Sachs kicking and screaming before they would help, and they made huge profits when they did.  The story goes on to detail several more recordings Segarra made, and the intense pressure Segarra was under to drop anything that might embarrass Goldman Sachs.

Pointing the finger at Eric Holder for failing to prosecute is one thing, but Tim Geithner, William Dudley, and the Fed completely dropped the ball on this mess.  It never should have happened.

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