Politics & Money

Bailing out the big banks and taking Europe with it

In the middle of the WikiLeaks scandal that somehow threatens to completely derail international diplomacy, someone left the information valve open. It’s a great strategy. Fill the cup so full that no one will want to take a drink. The Federal Reserve, in its massive release of bailout information, cites Dodd-Frank requirements for the release of its data. However, the timing couldn’t be better. Today is a great day in mortgage finance to bury bad news. And if your government spent enormous resources helping foreign entities, now is the time to tell us. Apparently. On the one hand, the Senate banking committee decided to hold a hearing exploring both putback risk and the robo-signing legacy, encompassed in one mortgage servicing pow-wow. On the other, the voluminous Beige Book is out as well. Today? Really? In such an environment, information can be released ad nauseum. The clear benefit in such a case is that it looks like everyone is stepping willingly up to the edge, instead of being pushed over it. What the Federal Reserve documents do definitively show, is how truly global the mortgage-backed securities markets became. However, considering that nine of the 16 participating parties are foreign-based financial institutions, any suspicion of public backlash is well founded. Indeed, multiple angles can be drawn from such voluminous information, but is it really worth the data dump? For instance, how did Wellington Management Co. get to be awarded such a huge share of the MBS investment management, rubbing shoulders with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, BlackRock, Goldman and PIMCO? Wellington happens to be under investigation for insider trading and now only lists one e-mail address for all of its 12 global locations. Wellington’s desire to be in the spotlight is dimming with each passing day. But digging even deeper into the files, more interesting information becomes apparent. The disclosure identifies four swap transactions between the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England. These swaps were used to support the Emergency Liquidity Assistance provided to the Royal Bank of Scotland in October 2008. In essence, the Fed helped bail out the world’s largest bank with a liquidity injection. The emergency liquidity assistance to RBS in late 2008 cost the Bank of England close to $50 billion, but what is not clear is why it needed the help of the Federal Reserve. Last week, the U.K. Treasury announced that after two years of silence on this front it deemed that the information is safe to release. “Now that RBS has signed up for the Asset Protection Scheme… the bank (of England) judges that there is no longer a need for the assistance to remain secret and that it is now appropriate to disclose details relating to the ELA provided to RBS last autumn,” reads a note dated Nov. 24. But the Bank of England only decided to release its version of the swap arrangement with the Fed Wednesday. Indeed, six of the 10 central banks that stepped to the Federal Reserve deposit window are closely linked to the Eurozone. And it would be one thing if this bailout helped the average American buy a home, finance an auto loan or put a child through college. But that’s not the case. Most of these institutions, I’ve been told by a treasurer at a large Canary Wharf financial firm, are parking the liquidity in offshore accounts, waiting for the next rainy day. In the end, the bailout may have looked to aid recovery in the European economies. But considering the perennial sovereign debt crisis that continues to plague that continent’s economy, it is hard to believe that this massive central bank liquidity provided by the Federal Reserve didn’t even help the average European buy a home, finance an auto loan or put a child through college. By deluging the market with the information, it seems the Federal Reserve is helping to downplay the sad reality that it not only bailed out the big banks, but may have taken Europe along with it. Jacob Gaffney is the editor of HousingWire. Write to him.

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