Fed Documents Fuel Concerns About Expanding Central Bank’s Role
WASHINGTON — Documents unearthed by congressional investigators reveal disagreements among senior Federal Reserve officials about how to handle Bank of America Corp.’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch, fueling concern on Capitol Hill over giving the central bank even more power to regulate the financial system.
The glimpse inside the regulatory machinery provided by emails, memorandums and handwritten notes show a Fed that wrestled with how tough it should be on Bank of America, one of the biggest U.S. banks. It also shows Fed officials questioning more broadly their response to the financial crisis months earlier.
In December, Bank of America approached top U.S. officials about abandoning a deal, forged in the heat of the crisis, to buy investment bank Merrill Lynch. In the end, the government arranged a $20 billion rescue package for the bank to cover growing losses at Merrill.
In between, the documents show areas of disagreement within some of the Fed’s 12 regional reserve banks.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, where supervision of Bank of America’s parent company is based, pushed for a tougher approach than other regulators, emails suggest. Bank of America officials appealed more than once to the Fed’s Washington headquarters to intervene.
Bank of America CEO “Ken [Lewis] may also raise his favorite perennial issue — that is, is the Richmond supervisory team on the same page as the [Fed] Board,” Fed governor Kevin Warsh wrote in an email Dec. 30 to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and other senior officials. “Richmond staff was on our call today, but prior to the call, it sounds like they may have threatened a little more than ideal…”
On Jan. 10, Fed General Counsel Scott Alvarez wrote to Mr. Bernanke and others that Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker was raising some issues over the final deal. Mr. Lacker wanted the entire Federal Open Market Committee to vote on any loan to Bank of America.
Mr. Bernanke responded at 2:01 a.m.: “Thanks. If we are nimble we can manage this.”
Whether or not Mr. Bernanke threatened Mr. Lewis’s ouster over the rescue remains a source of contention. Mr. Lewis suggested in testimony to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo that the Fed chief did just that. Mr. Bernanke has denied making such a threat to Mr. Lewis.
On Jan. 16, just days before government aid for the deal was supposed to be announced, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston president Eric Rosengren sent Mr. Bernanke an email saying that the Fed shouldn’t dismiss too hastily the idea of tossing management at Bank of America.
Mr. Rosengren suggested such a shake up might be necessary, “particularly if we believe that existing management is a significant source of the problem.”
Mr. Bernanke, at a contentious hearing Thursday, defended the Fed against suggestions it had been too lenient with management.
“The supervisory process is not a onetime thing. It’s an ongoing process, and in an ongoing supervisory process, we have made demands of the Bank of America on terms of their board and management,” he told Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Ohio).
The documents reveal Fed officials questioning the central bank’s response to the financial crisis even before negotiations began on the effort to aid Bank of America’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch.
“At this point I have [the] sense that the hearts and minds war in Iraq was handled better than it has been in this crisis, particularly within the Fed system,” wrote Meg McConnell, a top Federal Reserve Bank of New York official, on the day the House of Representatives voted down the Bush administration’s first financial-rescue package, sending the Dow industrials down almost 800 points.
The Obama administration earlier this month proposed giving the Fed powers to oversee and examine the largest companies in the financial system.
The disclosures could bolster the central bank’s argument that it needs more power to manage future crises. One reason for the government’s lurching response last year, officials say, was that it didn’t have the needed tools.
The Fed has been dealing with a steady stream of criticism from Republicans. Democrats have recently joined in, and the disclosures being aired through the congressional inquiry have put the central bank on the defensive.
Write to Damian Paletta at email@example.com