The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a critically important hearing on July 21 titled "Following the Money: Report of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP)." Sadly the mainstream media under reported the meeting. They focused on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke telling the House Financial Services Committee “don’t worry,” but missed Special Inspector General (SIG) Neil Barofsky telling the Oversight Committee all the really sexy stuff: Conflicts of Interest, Collusion, and Money Laundering.
Bernanke likes to tell us his Federal Reserve could take on a Super-Cop role, but the truth is quite the opposite. Reviewing the SIG report, Oversight Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-NY) described it as "a wake-up call to the Treasury and the Fed that our financial system cannot be run behind closed doors."
Back in October 2008, Congress passed a bill to relieve the suffering caused by the Subprime Crisis. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) gave Treasury the authority to "purchase, manage and sale $700 billion of toxic assets, primarily troubled mortgages and mortgage-backed securities." Within days, then Treasury Secretary (and former head of Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS)) Hank Paulson unilaterally decided to take the money but to do something completely different with it – that is bail out his good-old friends on Wall Street.
Representative John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-TN) noted that the banks that got TARP bailout money didn’t use it to help homeowners but to buy other banks, increase investments in China, improve their balance sheets and, now, report huge profits. This is not merely something that bothers grousing Republicans. Representative Dennis J. Kucinich (D-OH), one of the house’s most radical left members, called the TARP bailout program “one bait-and-switch after another...This is an ongoing fraud and deception on the American people.”
We are committed to neither political party but agree that TARP has done precious little to help homeowners or the Main Street economy while performing wonders for Wall Street. There should be no surprise now that only 325,000 homeowners have been helped instead of the 4,000,000 we were promised.
Since the October 2008 switcheroo, our elected officials in Congress have not been trying to stop Treasury or even rein the TARP beneficiaries. Real-Life Super Cop SIG Barofsky told the House Oversight Committee, "Treasury takes the position that it will not even ask TARP recipients what they are doing with the taxpayers’ money." In some bizarre logic that only a Washington-insider could understand, they seem to think that if they don’t ask, they don’t have to tell.
Not surprisingly Treasury is left trying to discredit SIG Barofsky's report. According to Chairman Towns, the Rogue Treasury has “requested legal opinion from the Department of Justice challenging the Special Inspector General’s independence.” Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) discretely pointed out that there is a distinct danger that the Secretary of the Treasury will try to stop Barofsky’s request for additional allocations to keep SIGTARP operations running past mid-2010. Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) called Treasury’s actions “blatant attempts to intimidate Barofsky to keep this information from the public.”
Early news reports focused on just one number from the report: the potential for the government to spend $23 trillion to fix the financial system. Sadly the media ignored the most sinister – and more obvious to anyone who read even the summary of the report or merely watched SIG Barofsky’s testimony – issues raised in the report. Here are the ones that give me indigestion:
- Treasury refuses to follow recommendations requiring fund managers to gather the information necessary to screen their investors for organized crime syndicates or terrorists. (page 183). In my 20+ years in financial services, one rule sticks in my mind: “Know Your Customer.” It means that you never do business with anyone you can’t vouch for, because financial intermediaries, like banks and brokers, must stand behind every transaction they put in the system – even if their customer defaults. So why is it that we are now funneling trillions of dollars through financial intermediaries who are not required to gather enough information from their investors so we can be sure we aren’t funding terrorism?
- SIG Barofsky said that “Blackrock (NYSE: BLK) may have incredible profits under contracts with both Federal Reserve and Treasury.” Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) suggested that SIG Barofsky “look at the people involved, not just companies like Blackrock” because the same people who created the subprime crisis are now working for the Federal Reserve on the bailout. They have the same staff investing government programs and private money without any “separating wall” to prevent conflicts of interest.
- It appears that Treasury, the New York Federal Reserve and even Presidential Economic Advisor Larry Summers may be passing information to their friends that can be used for financial gain, giving positions in bailout programs to business associates, and engaging in “too cordial relationships” with bailout recipients, according to Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), Ranking Minority Member of the Oversight Committee.
- Treasury is "picking winners and losers" in the public/private partnership programs in a completely opaque process. SIG Barofsky calls this potentially "devastating to the public’s view of government.” People are hungry for information, too: The SIG’s website has received 12 million hits by people interested in getting copies of testimony and reports.
- TARP is no longer a $700 billion bailout. "Treasury has created 12 separate programs involving Government and private funds of up to almost $3 trillion...a program of unprecedented scope, scale, and complexity" according to SIGTARP’s quarterly report to Congress.
- Treasury and the Federal Reserve have ignored recommendations to stop relying on rating agency determinations. (page 184) They continue to rely on rating agencies – the same ones who made tragic misjudgments over the past two years – in making determinations about the prices we will pay for the purchase of “troubled assets” or “legacy assets” or whatever name they decide to apply to the junk bonds in the hands of private banks. By relying on the rating agencies (who played a role in the crisis by rating junk bonds as triple-A credits), the bailout programs run the risk of being "unduly influenced by improper incentives to overrate."
- Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) suggested that Treasury Secretary Geithner is deliberately attempting to keep information from the public. SIG Barofsky has been unable to get more than one meeting with Treasury Secretary Geithner since January 2009 – and then only for a few minutes. This arrogance is not new to the current Administration’s Treasury. Representative Issa says the Oversight Committee was twice promised data on the value of TARP assets from former Treasury employee (and former Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) employee) Neel Kashkari. That data was "never forthcoming."
- Treasury has “repeatedly failed to adopt recommendations essential to providing basic transparency and accountability.”
Representative Issa concluded that SIG Barofsky has given us the facts; now it's up to Congress to take action. In closing Chairman Towns said that if Treasury doesn't turn over information voluntarily, Secretary Geithner will be brought before the Committee to answer. “I can now understand why the Treasury Department would like to rein in the SIGTARP. But we are not going to let that happen.”
I can think of 23 trillion reasons why the Treasury Department will fight him all the way. And just as many why we taxpayers should not like Tim Geithner and the rest of the insider crowd getting away with the murder of the American economy.
Susanne Trimbath, Ph.D. is CEO and Chief Economist of STP Advisory Services. Her training in finance and economics began with editing briefing documents for the Economic Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She worked in operations at depository trust and clearing corporations in San Francisco and New York, including Depository Trust Company, a subsidiary of DTCC; formerly, she was a Senior Research Economist studying capital markets at the Milken Institute. Her PhD in economics is from New York University. In addition to teaching economics and finance at New York University and University of Southern California (Marshall School of Business), Trimbath is co-author of Beyond Junk Bonds: Expanding High Yield Markets.