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Foreign Banks Tapped Fed’s Secret Lifeline Most at Crisis Peak

Posted on: April 2, 2011

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s two-year fight to shield crisis-squeezed banks from the stigma of revealing their public loans protected a lender to local governments in Belgium, a Japanese fishing-cooperative financier and a company part-owned by the Central Bank of Libya.

Dexia SA (DEXB), based in Brussels and Paris, borrowed as much as $33.5 billion through its New York branch from the Fed’s “discount window” lending program, according to Fed documents released yesterday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Dublin-based Depfa Bank Plc, taken over in 2007 by a German real-estate lender later seized by the German government, drew $24.5 billion.

The biggest borrowers from the 97-year-old discount window as the program reached its crisis-era peak were foreign banks, accounting for at least 70 percent of the $110.7 billion borrowed during the week in October 2008 when use of the program surged to a record. The disclosures may stoke a reexamination of the risks posed to U.S. taxpayers by the central bank’s role in global financial markets.

“The caricature of the Fed is that it was shoveling money to big New York banks and a bunch of foreigners, and that is not conducive to its long-run reputation,” said Vincent Reinhart, the Fed’s director of monetary affairs from 2001 to 2007.

Commercial Paper

Separate data disclosed in December on temporary emergency- lending programs set up by the Fed also showed big foreign banks as borrowers. Six European banks were among the top 11 companies that sold the most debt overall — a combined $274.1 billion — to the Commercial Paper Funding Facility.

Those programs also loaned hundreds of billions of dollars to the biggest U.S. banks, including JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Bank of America Corp. (BAC), Citigroup Inc. and Morgan Stanley. (MS)

The discount window, which began lending in 1914, is the Fed’s primary program for providing cash to banks to help them avert a liquidity squeeze. In an April 2009 speech, Bernanke said that revealing the names of discount-window borrowers “might lead market participants to infer weakness.”

The Fed released the documents after court orders upheld FOIA requests filed by Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and News Corp.’s Fox News Network LLC. In all, the Fed released more than 29,000 pages of documents, covering the discount window and several Fed emergency-lending programs established during the crisis from August 2007 to March 2010.
Public Outrage

“The American people are going to be outraged when they understand what has been going on,” U.S. Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the Fed, said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

“What in the world are we doing thinking we can pass out tens of billions of dollars to banks that are overseas?” said Paul, who has advocated abolishing the Fed. “We have problems here at home with people not being able to pay their mortgages, and they’re losing their homes.”

David Skidmore, a Fed spokesman, declined to comment. Fed officials have said all the discount window loans made during the worst financial crisis since the 1930s have been repaid with interest.

The Monetary Control Act of 1980 says that a U.S. branch or agency of a foreign bank that maintains reserves at a Fed bank may receive discount-window credit.

“Our job is to provide liquidity to keep the American economy going,” Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve’s regional bank in Dallas, told reporters today. “The loans were all paid back and they were well-collateralized.”

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