Smackdown of the day: Bloomberg vs the Fed

By Felix Salmon
December 7, 2011

Historically, it was hard for institutions to reply in any effective manner to press reports which they thought were full of egregious errors and mistakes. They could complain to various editors, and maybe even get a short response on the letters page, but they rarely got the opportunity to reply in their own words and at the length they thought the reply deserved.

The web, of course, has changed all that, and ISDA’s media.comment blog is a great example of a criticized institution taking matters into its own hands. It names and links to the articles it’s criticizing, and I’m pretty sure that it would happily engage in real debate, if those organizations ever deigned to reply. Which they don’t. As a result, ISDA seems — is — more transparent and open than the likes of the New York Times and Bloomberg.

The Federal Reserve, on the other hand? Not so much.

In a six-page letter today addressed to the Senate Banking Committee, Ben Bernanke lashes out at “a series of articles–one just last week–concerning the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending activities”. He says those articles “have contained a variety of egregious errors and mistakes”. And he encloses “a memo prepared by Board staff that addresses some of the most serious errors and claims in those articles”.

Nowhere in those six pages is a single article actually identified. The Fed memo, similarly, has no named author. And the whole thing is available only as one of those PDFs-from-a-copy-machine, which makes it impossible to copy-and-paste or to search. The Fed put the letter up on its website and made sure that various economic journalists, like myself and Binyamin Appelbaum, knew all about it. But the whole thing is an incredibly passive-aggressive way of attacking Bloomberg, which, to reiterate, is never actually named.

Bloomberg did not let the opportunity go to waste. It’s clearly the main object of the Fed’s ire, but because it isn’t named, it can do two rather clever things in its official response. The first is to respond to the Fed’s complaints by citing various different stories it’s written over the years — since the Fed never actually specified which story or stories it had issues with. And the second is to simply deny that it said what the Fed is complaining about at all. When the Fed, for instance, says that “the articles misleadingly depict financial institutions receiving liquidity assistance as insolvent,” Bloomberg simply and effectively replies that it “never described any of the financial institutions mentioned in its bailout stories as insolvent”.

All of which makes the exchange less of an actual debate and more of a case of two powerful institutions talking past each other.

The Fed has various blogs; it could easily have used one to single out specific errors in the Bloomberg article, which Bloomberg would then have had to respond to directly. But instead it just writes a memo talking vaguely about “these articles”, and in doing so plays straight into Bloomberg’s hands.

And of course both the Fed memo and the Bloomberg response perpetuate the myth that Fed officials don’t talk to Bloomberg reporters on a daily basis. There’s lots of back-channel noise, here, which isn’t seeing the light of day; the memo and official response are just the carefully-chosen public face of a debate which is happening primarily in private. (The Fed’s a bit like Goldman Sachs: it loves talking “on background”, but hates saying anything on the record. Which is why a large part of Fed-watching is working out which reporters are getting the coveted phone calls from Fed board members, and then reading between the lines to work out who’s telling them what.)

Bloomberg has won this particular round, just because it’s being very open about what it’s saying, while the Fed memo seems mealy-mouthed and less than fully open about what it’s trying to say. If you’re going to complain about “egregious errors and mistakes”, it behooves you to be specific about exactly where the errors and mistakes lie, and to quote them directly. If you don’t do that, you automatically look as though you have a weak case, and you open yourself up to counterattacks like the one from Bloomberg.

Which is not to say that the Fed is being completely disingenuous here. The Bloomberg article in question ginned up rather more scandal than there really was. “Details suggest taxpayers paid a price beyond dollars as the secret funding helped preserve a broken status quo and enabled the biggest banks to grow even bigger,” it says, breathlessly — but really they don’t: the details that Bloomberg managed to obtain really don’t tell us anything about the Fed’s lender-of-last-resort operations in aggregate that we didn’t already know. They do give us new information about a few specific banks, none more so than Morgan Stanley.

Or, take this passage, under the sub-head “$7.77 Trillion”:

The amount of money the central bank parceled out was surprising even to Gary H. Stern, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis from 1985 to 2009, who says he “wasn’t aware of the magnitude.” It dwarfed the Treasury Department’s better-known $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Add up guarantees and lending limits, and the Fed had committed $7.77 trillion as of March 2009 to rescuing the financial system, more than half the value of everything produced in the U.S. that year.

If you read the passage very carefully, there’s nothing actually inaccurate there. But the impression given is that “the amount of money the central bank parceled out” was $7.8 trillion, a sum which “dwarfed” TARP and is more than half of US GDP. And that’s not true — the actual amount that the central bank parceled out never exceeded $1.2 trillion, a fact you won’t find in the Bloomberg article.*

And this, too, is misleading:

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, says banks “were either in bad shape or taking advantage of the Fed giving them a good deal. The former contradicts their public statements. The latter — getting loans at below-market rates during a financial crisis — is quite a gift.”

The Fed says it typically makes emergency loans more expensive than those available in the marketplace to discourage banks from abusing the privilege. During the crisis, Fed loans were among the cheapest around, with funding available for as low as 0.01 percent in December 2008, according to data from the central bank and money-market rates tracked by Bloomberg.

The 0.01% funding was one loan, to one bank, on New Year’s Eve, as the emergency-lending program was coming to an end: in no way is it indicative of the interest rates charged by the program as a whole. And Baker’s characterization of the Fed loans as being “at below-market rates” is left conveniently undefined, in the context of the fact that the credit market had seized up and that there were no real “market rates” any more in the interbank market. Indeed, the comment makes it into a caption in the article, which says that “banks reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Fed’s below-market rates”.

The fact of the matter is, as the Fed points out in its letter, that the Fed set the interest rates on the lending at a penalty over normal market rates. And — you really have to work to get this — Bloomberg’s methodology doesn’t actually take into account the interest rates charged by the Fed at all! Bloomberg just takes the amount of money that the banks borrowed from the Fed, and then multiplies it by their net interest margin — the profit they reported on loans. The Fed could have been lending at a penalty rate of 25%, and according to Bloomberg the banks would still have made $13 billion in profits on the loans, so long as their net interest margin didn’t change. Just because the banks had a positive net interest margin does not mean that the Fed was lending them money at below-market rates, as Bloomberg would have you believe.

The Bloomberg article reads like a highly partisan attempt to paint the Fed in the worst possible light, with misleading assertions and extensive quotes from Fed critics. The Fed could, if it wanted to, have spelled this out. But in attempting to be high-handed and refusing so much as to utter Bloomberg’s name, it just seems out of touch and opaque — which is exactly the impression Bloomberg would love you to have.

So Bloomberg wins — and the Fed ends up looking even worse. Maybe next time the Fed will be a bit more transparent and heartfelt and honest. It will find itself in a much stronger position if it goes there.

*Update: You will find the fact that the banks never borrowed more than $1.2 trillion in the article, but it’s subtle enough that I missed it on multiple readings. At the top of the piece, we’re told that the banks”required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day”.

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