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Watchdog Says Fed Paid Too Much In AIG Bailout

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Watchdog Says Fed Paid Too Much In AIG Bailout

Economy

Watchdog Says Fed Paid Too Much In AIG Bailout

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Sports phrases are common in talk about finance. Well, here's one: Monday morning quarterback. That's the accusation some finance experts are aiming at the government auditor who is looking into last year's bank bailouts. The auditor, Inspector General Neil Barofsky, said the Federal Reserve of New York caved in to pressure from major banks when it bailed out insurance company AIG. The New York Fed was run at the time by Timothy Geithner, who is now the Treasury secretary.

NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD: The report basically says that the government played a bad game of poker with the country's biggest banks. It agreed to provide the banks with a hundred cents on the dollar for what in hindsight were risky bets that the banks had made with AIG. The report says that the government could have played a stronger hand and forced the banks to accept less.

Mr. NARIMAN BEHRAVESH (Chief Economist, IHS Global Insight): The fed was in a strong position. It had the leverage, if you will, to negotiate better deals from these banks and they should have. I mean, that's - that the general conclusion of the report.

ARNOLD: That's Nariman Behravesh, the chief economist of IHS Global Insight. But he thinks that the report actually sort of misses the bigger picture.

Mr. BEHRAVESH: In the midst of a crisis is not really the time to be exercising this kind of tough love on financial institutions that are already reeling, already in trouble.

ARNOLD: And Behravesh says at the end of the day´┐Ż

Mr. BEHRAVESH: The approach taken by the fed worked and we were able to avert basically a financial Armageddon.

ARNOLD: Administration officials had similar responses. Jake Siewert is a counselor to Secretary Geithner. He put it this way.

Mr. JAKE SIEWERT (Counselor, Treasury Department): If you're steering a boat through a category five hurricane and you come back ashore and you're happy to be alive again, not always that constructive to be told, oh, you could have taken a slightly different course. We were just trying to stay alive out there.

ARNOLD: Secretary Geithner himself addressed a question about the report at a press conference today. He said of course a range of people will evaluate all of the decisions that were made during this crisis.

Secretary TIMOTHY GEITHNER (Department of Treasury): And you're going to see a lot of conviction in this, a lot of strong views, a lot of it untainted by experience. The most important thing to understand about this, and this was a tragic failure of our country, is that we came into this crisis without the basic set of tools we needed to help contain the damage caused by hugely costly mistakes in parts of our financial system.

ARNOLD: The administration is pushing for broader powers to monitor and intervene in financial firms. Still, some economists think that the government has made some pretty big mistakes with taxpayer money.

Professor ALBERT KYLE (Professor of Finance, University of Maryland): This AIG deal is just one example.

ARNOLD: Pete Kyle is a finance professor at the University of Maryland. He has consulted on similar government watchdog efforts.

Prof. KYLE: In all of these different bailouts, time and time again, the taxpayers have overpaid for securities or offered sweetheart deals to the banks.

ARNOLD: Kyle says, for example, when the government has injected money into a bank, say such as CitiGroup, to prop it up, the taxpayers haven't gotten a fair share of the bank's equity, its stock, in return for that taxpayer money.

Prof. KYLE: That was a huge problem. So, in general, the government should have taken a much bigger stake in the banks than it actually took.

ARNOLD: Had the government done that, Kyle argues that taxpayers would be getting paid back tens of billions of dollars more as the financial system recovers and the stocks of those big banks rise.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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