Reckless: The Inside Story of How the Banks Beat Washington (Again)
MAR 2 2012
One year ago, the largest financial institutions on Wall Street were desperate to show off their strength by paying out, or raising, dividends for the first time since the Great Recession. After conducting a secretive test of the banks’ health, the Federal Reserve granted most of their requests in March 2011 — over loud objections from economic luminaries in Washington and across the country. Now, for the first time, we tell the story of why the Federal Reserve caved, and how Wall Street still owns the place.
In early November 2010, as the Federal Reserve began to weigh whether the nation’s biggest financial firms were healthy enough to return money to their shareholders, a top regulator bluntly warned: Don’t let them.
“We remain concerned over their ability to withstand stress in an uncertain economic environment,” wrote Sheila Bair, the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., in a previously unreported letter obtained by ProPublica.
The letter came as the Fed was launching a “stress test” to decide whether the biggest U.S. financial firms could pay out dividends and buy back their shares instead of putting aside that money as capital. It was one of the central bank’s most critical oversight decisions in the wake of the financial crisis.
“We strongly encourage” that the Fed “delay any dividends or compensation increases until they can show” that their earnings are strong and their assets sound, she wrote. Given the continued uncertainty in the markets, “we do not believe it is the right time to allow transactions that will weaken their capital and liquidity positions.”
Four months later, the Federal Reserve rejected Bair’s appeal.
In March 2011, the Federal Reserve green-lighted most of the top 19 financial institutions to deliver tens of billions of dollars to shareholders, including many of their own top executives. The 19 paid out $33 billion in the first nine months of 2011 in dividends and stock buy-backs.
That $33 billion is money that the banks don’t have to cushion themselves — and the broader financial system — should the euro crisis cause a new recession, tensions with Iran flare into war and disrupt the oil supply, or another crisis emerge.
This is the first in-depth account of the Fed’s momentous decision and the fractious battles that led to it. It is based on dozens of interviews, most with people who spoke on condition of anonymity, and on documents, some of which have never been made public. By examining the decision, this account also sheds light on the inner workings of one of the most powerful but secretive economic institutions in the world.