Fed Must Release Bank Loan Data as High Court Rejects Appeal

Statement by Bloomberg News Editor in Chief Matthew Winkler:

“At some point long before the credit markets seized up in 2007, financial markets collapsed and the economy plunged into the worst recession since the 1930s, the Federal Reserve forgot that it is the central bank for the people of the United States and not a private academy where decisions of great importance may be withheld from public scrutiny. As only Congress has the constitutional power to coin money, Congress delegates that power to the Fed and the Fed must be accountable to Congress, especially in disclosing what it does with the people’s money.”

New York, March 21 – The Federal Reserve must disclose details of emergency loans it made to banks in 2008, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an industry appeal that aimed to shield the records from public view.

The justices today left intact a court order that gives the Fed five days to release the records, sought by Bloomberg News’s parent company, Bloomberg LP. The Clearing House Association LLC, a group of the nation’s largest commercial banks, had asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

The order marks the first time a court has forced the Fed to reveal the names of banks that borrowed from its oldest lending program, the 98-year-old discount window. The disclosures, together with details of six bailout programs released by the central bank in December under a congressional mandate, would give taxpayers insight into the Fed’s unprecedented $3.5 trillion effort to stem the 2008 financial panic.

“I can’t recall that the Fed was ever sued and forced to release information” in its 98-year history, said Allan H. Meltzer, the author of three books on the U.S central bank and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Under the trial judge’s order, the Fed must reveal 231 pages of documents related to borrowers in April and May 2008, along with loan amounts. News Corp.’s Fox Business Network is pressing a bid for 6,186 pages of similar information on loans made from August 2007 to November 2008.

The records were originally requested under FOIA, which allows citizens access to government papers, by the late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman.

As a financial crisis developed in 2007, “The Federal Reserve forgot that it is the central bank for the people of the United States and not a private academy where decisions of great importance may be withheld from public scrutiny,” said Matthew Winkler, editor in chief of Bloomberg News. “The Fed must be accountable to Congress, especially in disclosing what it does with the people’s money.”

The Clearing House Association contended that Bloomberg was seeking an unprecedented disclosure that might dissuade banks from accepting emergency loans in the future.

“Disclosure of this information threatens to harm the borrowing banks by allowing the public to observe their borrowing patterns during the recent financial crisis and draw inferences — whether justified or not — about their current financial conditions,” the group said in its appeal.

A federal trial judge ruled in 2009 that the Fed had to disclose the records in the Bloomberg case, and a New York-based appeals court upheld that ruling.

The Clearing House Association’s chances at getting a Supreme Court hearing suffered a setback when the Obama administration urged the justices not to hear the appeal. The government said the underlying issues had limited practical significance because Congress last year laid out new rules for disclosing Fed loans in the Dodd-Frank law.

“Congress has resolved the question of whether and when the type of information at issue in this case must be disclosed” in the future, the administration said in a brief filed by acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, President Barack Obama’s top Supreme Court lawyer.

The Fed had previously fought alongside the banks in opposing disclosure. It also sought to join the industry group in seeking high court review, only to be overruled by Katyal, according to court documents.

Bloomberg initially requested similar information for aid recipients under three other Fed emergency programs. The central bank released details for those facilities and others in December, after Congress required disclosure through the Dodd-Frank law.

The legislation didn’t apply retroactively to the discount window lending program, which provides short-term funding to financial institutions. Discount window loans made after July 21, 2010, must be released following a two-year lag.

The New York-based Clearing House Association, which has processed payments among banks since 1853, includes Bank of America NA, Bank of New York Mellon, Citibank NA, Deutsche Bank Trust Co. Americas, HSBC Bank USA NA, JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, U.S. Bank NA and Wells Fargo Bank NA.

In trying to shield the documents from disclosure, the Clearing House invoked a FOIA exemption that covers “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.”

The cases are Clearing House Association v. Bloomberg, 10-543, and Clearing House Association v. Fox Business Network, 10-660.

About Bloomberg

Bloomberg is the world’s most trusted source of information for financial professionals and businesses. Bloomberg combines innovative technology with unmatched analytics, data, news, and display and distribution capabilities, to deliver critical information via the Bloomberg Professional service and multimedia platforms. Bloomberg’s media properties span television, radio, digital and print, making up one of the world’s largest news organizations with more than 2,300 news and multimedia professionals at 146 bureaus in 72 countries.

Official Company Statement:

“Bloomberg L.P.’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Federal Reserve represents the lengths to which the company will go to defend its core value of transparency. Transparency results in accountability and Bloomberg remains committed to the public’s right to know.”

Full Bberg story online at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-21/fed-must-release-bank-loan-data-as-high-court-rejects-appeal.html

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