27 May 2008

NY Fed Creates an Elite 'Special Team' for the Investment Banks

Fed Keeps Watch on Wall St. -- From the Inside
By Neil Irwin
Staff writer
Washington Post
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In the two months since the government rescue of Bear Stearns, the Federal Reserve has built on the fly a new system of monitoring investment banks, radically redefining the central bank's role overseeing Wall Street.

New York Fed employees are working inside major investment banks every day, alongside the Securities and Exchange Commission staff members who are the firms' main regulators. The Fed employees are trying to gather information the central bank can use to make sure the billions of dollars it is lending the investment firms, through a special emergency loan program enacted in March, are not being put at undue risk.

This new approach, which is still at a relatively small scale, offers a window into how the nation's system of regulating financial firms might evolve as policymakers sift through the financial wreckage of the past nine months.

The Bush administration has proposed that the Fed become an all-purpose guarantor of the financial system, with the power to poke its head into any company that poses risks -- not just the large commercial banks it now supervises. Congress is likely to consider legislation overhauling financial regulation next year.

"Bear Stearns has forced an issue that we should have been thinking about anyway," said Douglas Elmendorf, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The issue isn't just that the Fed did this thing in March. It's that the Fed did what it did in March because investment banks posed risks to the overall financial system and the economy."

But it also creates risks. With the Fed having made emergency funds available to investment banks, lenders and those who work with them might become complacent about risks, expecting a government bailout if anything goes wrong. That could destabilize the financial system further.

"Once the Fed starts investigating and looking at the risks that they're taking, the market could back off and say, 'Well, the Fed's in there, so there can't be much risk,' " said Peter J. Wallison, who studies financial regulation at the American Enterprise Institute. (Those would also be known as 'famous last words' - Jesse)

The Fed currently lacks the legal authority to order investment banks to strengthen risk control systems or change their accounting for exposure to complicated derivatives. The SEC has those powers, though its historical mission has been to ensure that investors are protected, not to protect the integrity of the financial system as a whole.

On March 16, the Fed backed the emergency acquisition of Bear Stearns by putting $30 billion (since changed to $29 billion) in public funds at risk and opened an emergency lending window that last week lent $14.2 billion to investment firms.

Both actions, meant to prevent panic from causing a cascade of failures that could have had a catastrophic impact on markets and the world economy, defied 90 years of precedent, insinuating the central bank into the workings of Wall Street as never before.

Fed leaders concluded that they would have to step up their involvement in Wall Street, if only to make sure that those loans were likely to be paid back. So it insisted that banks, in exchange for the new lending, open up about the details of their operations -- a deal that the investment firms readily agreed to.

They have not, however, reached any firm conclusions about what form the ultimate regulation of the financial system ought to take and are not presuming that the improvised system established in the past two months will expand and become permanent once Congress acts.

In the meantime, a special unit has been created in the New York Fed, answering directly to President Timothy F. Geithner. Information about its operations is closely held by Geithner and other senior employees in New York, such that even Federal Reserve governors and presidents of other regional Fed banks know little about what the new unit is doing.

The unit is composed of individuals from the bank supervision staff, whose normal work is to regulate commercial banks; the markets group, which monitors the behavior of all sorts of financial markets watching out for threats to their functioning; and the legal department.

The Fed staffers accompany SEC regulators in frequent visits to the major investment banks Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers. They typically speak to risk managers, auditors, comptrollers and sometimes senior executives.

"What they're doing is not so much regulation, telling the banks what to do, as the Fed is saying, 'I'm lending you money, I'm doing my due diligence,' " said Ernest Patrikis, a partner at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and a former senior official at the New York Fed.

In the past, collaboration between the Fed and the SEC has been more haphazard. Officials of the two organizations would frequently talk on the phone and meet every few weeks to discuss risks being taken by Wall Street firms, over lunch in the cafeteria at the vault-like headquarters of the New York Fed, for example, or on a balcony there overlooking the narrow streets of lower Manhattan.

As concern grew about the risks taken by hedge funds in 2006, Fed officials and their SEC counterparts had a series of discussions in which each side explained to the other how the institutions they directly supervise -- commercial banks for the Fed and investment banks for the SEC -- measure and manage the risks they are taking by lending to hedge funds.

Now, the interaction is more constant. The SEC is crafting a formal memorandum of understanding that lays out their roles, but it is in an early stage. It will mainly seek to formalize the information-sharing and cooperation that is occurring already, SEC officials have said.

"The collaboration is wide open," said Robert L.D. Colby, deputy director of the SEC's market regulation division. "We're essentially operating as if we're all within one agency. We are telling them what we know and how we think, and they're reflecting back what they know and want to learn. You don't always ask the same questions, and sometimes you get information the other might not have picked up."