New York Times’ Gretchen Morgenson does it again in her Sunday column “Revisiting a Fed Waltz With A.I.G.” She reviews the damning conclusions of a government report released this week and skewers Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner with information only she could know.
Earlier in the week, Neil Barofsky, the Special Inspector General for the TARP (SIGTARP), released a report detailing the mistakes and misjudgments made by Geithner as head of the New York Fed during the bailout of AIG in 2008. The SIGTARP concluded that the “very design” of the federal assistance to AIG led to tens of billions of dollars of government money being directly and secretly funneled to AIG counterparties. In other words, it wasn’t just AIG’s outrageous decision to to funnel billions of dollar to Goldman Sachs and foreign banks prompting an investigation by the New York Attorney General, it was the failed design of government regulators that led to this result.
“By providing A.I.G. with the capital to make these payments, Federal Reserve officials provided AIG’s counterparties with tens of billions of dollars they likely would have not otherwise received had AIG gone into bankruptcy,” the report concludes. Earlier we reported that Geithner blew off the steep discounts that AIG had already negotiated with its counterparties and raised the payments to 100 cents on the dollar, wasting billions of taxpayer dollars while doing so.
I do not want to reprise the complicated history further, but I do want to focus on one aspect of the story.
During the crisis, Goldman repeatedly assured shareholders that it was hedged against the potential collapse of AIG. The SIGTARP’s report casts doubt upon these assurances, noting among other things that had AIG collapsed, the impact of this collapse on other market participants might have made it difficult for Goldman to collect on the credit protection it had purchased against AIG default.
But to me the interesting part of this story is a description Mortensen gives of a conversation she had with Geithner about Goldman shortly after the AIG bailout in 2008.
Morgenson says that Geithner called her to complain about an article she had written which revealed that Goldman was one of the top beneficiaries of the AIG bailout and that the CEO of Goldman was intimately involved in the Fed’s discussions surrounding the bailout.
According to an e-mail message that Goldman sent to the New York Fed at the time, Mr. Geithner talked about the article with Mr. Viniar, Goldman’s chief financial officer, before calling me. When Mr. Geithner called, he said that Goldman had no exposure to an A.I.G. collapse and that the article had left an incorrect impression about that. When I asked Mr. Geithner if he, as head of the regulatory agency overseeing Goldman, had closely examined the firm’s hedges, he said he had not.
Mr. Geithner told me on Friday that he spoke with Mr. Viniar that day to ensure that Goldman’s hedges were adequate. And, notwithstanding the inspector general’s findings, he said he still believes Goldman was hedged.
It appears now, as well as then, Secretary Geithner is not at all interested in the truth of the matter. Apparently, he did not undertake a rigorous examination of Goldman’s books in 2008, nor has he in the year since. Rather, he would prefer to take the firm’s word for its position and carry its water in the press.
This shocking disregard for his role as a financial regulator is a bit of a theme with Secretary Geithner. The SIGTARP observed that during the AIG bailout the New York Fed refused to use its considerable leverage as the regulator of the institution involved and instead saw itself as “acting on behalf of AIG.” Mr. Geithner himself told Congress that he had “never been a regulator.” Each new revelation, each new stumble, adds to the sense that Geithner still believes his constituency is Wall Street and not the American people.
It is no wonder that chatter about his resignation is heating up on the Hill, with one Hill staffer describing it to me as an “inevitability.” I am not sure it is an inevitability, but with unemployment above 10 percent and rising, the frightening notion is not that Geithner may leave, but that he will be replaced by a friend or colleague with the same sensibility.