Friday, March 19, 2010

Court: Fed Must Reveal Data On Loans To Firms

A 360 Degrees Perspective

The Federal Reserve must reveal documents identifying financial companies that received Fed loans to survive the financial crisis, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

A panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said in two separate opinions that such information isn't automatically exempt from requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

News Corp.'s Fox News Network LLC and Bloomberg L.P. sued separately for details about loans that commercial banks and Wall Street firms received and the collateral they put up. Other news agencies including The Associated Press filed briefs with the appellate court in their support.

The Fed argued that if it identified banks that drew emergency loans, it could cause a run on those institutions, undermine the loan programs and potentially hurt the economy, and lower-court judges were split on the issue.

The Federal Reserve said it's studying Friday's ruling.

"We are reviewing the decision and considering our options for reconsideration or appeal," said Fed spokeswoman Michelle Smith.

Until a final ruling, the Fed is not compelled to turn over any documents.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, who has pressed the Fed to release details about the loan programs, urged Chairman Ben Bernanke on Friday to "immediately" identify the firms that drew emergency loans and the amounts.

Failing to do so after the court rulings "would be a pretty arrogant thing for the Fed to do," Dorgan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

In the Fox case, a three-judge panel concluded Friday that the documents should be available for review by news organizations and the public. A lower-court judge had agreed with the Fed that the documents belonged to the Federal Reserve banks and were off limits to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

Kevin Magee, executive vice president of Fox Business Network, said: "We are pleased that this information is finally, and rightfully, going to be made available to the American public."

In the Bloomberg case, the court rejected the Fed's argument that identifying the banks and providing other information would harm them and discourage other distressed banks from seeking the Fed's help. The court said the disclosure requirements under FOIA are set by Congress, not the court.

The Fed has been fighting the matter in court and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers, picking up on public anger over the Fed's role in bailing out Wall Street, have demanded the Fed be more open about its operations.

Offering an olive branch, Bernanke in late February said the Fed would support legislation to identify companies that used the Fed's special lending facilities -- "after an appropriate delay." A delay in identifying the companies would help discourage investors from viewing a company as having financial troubles, he said.

But Bernanke said the confidentiality of banks drawing emergency loans from the Fed's "discount window" must be preserved. The Fed acts as lender of last resort for banks that can't get money from private sources.

The Fed's discount window is a permanent fixture. That's in contrast to a series of special lending programs set up during the financial crisis. Virtually all those programs have been dismantled now that financial and economic conditions are improving.

Still, those emergency efforts swelled the Fed's balance sheet to $2.29 trillion, more than double where it stood before the crisis struck.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who has been one of Bernanke's leading critics, welcomed the court ruling, saying the "American people have a right to know where more than $2 trillion of their money has gone."

The American Bankers Association had no immediate comment on the ruling.

2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

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