Fed transparency puts Goldman’s Cohn in a pickle
— The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own —
By Agnes T. Crane
The Federal Reserve’s 25,000-page data dump on bank borrowings so far hasn’t unearthed any shocking revelations or sent financial markets into a tailspin. But it has caught out Goldman Sachs Chief Operating Officer Gary Cohn. Last year, Cohn told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, under oath, that Goldman tapped the Fed’s discount window — the mechanism that allows banks to get emergency funding — once for a “de minimus” amount of money.
At least he got the amount right. Goldman hit the Fed up for less than $60 million. Yes, that’s an “M” for million. But, it went to the discount window five times from the fall of 2008 to early 2010. The biggest drawdown was also the first, of $50 million. It’s possible that Cohn was only aware of this one, given its size and the timing — Sept. 23 2008, when the crisis was in full swing. It’s hardly the kind of cover-up conspiracy theorists may have hoped for. Yet, it’s still another public relations snafu — though more of a 2 than a “God’s work” 9 — for a bank that is still cleaning up its post-crisis image.
The Federal Reserve fought hard to keep information on its borrowings under wraps. A lawsuit forced its hand. And the Dodd-Frank Act makes sure the veil remains lifted. Even though bankers like JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon reckon such open books will keep banks away, it’s hard to see how a misstep by Cohn — if that’s the most controversial item found in the data trove — will cause banks to boycott the lender of last resort when crisis strikes.
Dodd-Frank mandates disclosure, but grants the Fed a two-year lag. On Wall Street, two years is a lifetime. To investors, history is of interest but not concern: to wit, Goldman shares were up 2 percent Friday. Yet it’s still important to keep the record straight. It forces bank executives to take a closer look at their own records, if for no other reason than to avoid embarrassing misstatements that could come back to haunt them.