Bernanke set to relive his worst day ever

February 27

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke is slated on Thursday to provide a long-awaited deposition in a landmark class-action lawsuit over the government’s bailout of insurance giant AIG.

His sworn testimony comes after a long legal battle in which the government sought to shield Bernanke from providing a statement. Last summer, U.S. Federal Claims Court Judge Thomas Wheeler ruled that Bernanke’s “personal involvement” in AIG’s $85 billion bailout makes him a key witness. But an appeals court acknowledged that deposing Bernanke while he was in office could cause "significant" disruption.

Now Bernanke is a regular citizen once more, after stepping down as Fed chief last month -- and fair game for plaintiffs Starr International Co. Other high-ranking government officials including Timothy Geithner, who headed the New York Fed during the AIG bailout, and former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson have already given their depositions.

In an interview Wednesday with Fox Business, Starr CEO Hank Greenberg suggested that AIG was merely a scapegoat:

“AIG was treated differently than anybody else,” he said. “I think it was political”

The case is slated to go to trial this fall. Starr International is arguing that the government took control of its assets without just compensation, violating the Fifth Amendment. Obviously, the government begs to differ. The Fed actually lent the company $85 billion at a punitive interest rate and took 79.9 percent of the company’s assets as collateral -- though the deal eventually expanded to $182 billion and a 92 percent stake in the firm.

Bernanke testified about the bailout in 2009 before the House Financial Services Committee. He minced no words:

"AIG exploited a huge gap in the regulatory system. There was no oversight of the Financial Products division. This was a hedge fund, basically, that was attached to a large and stable insurance company, made huge numbers of irresponsible bets -- took huge losses. There was no regulatory oversight because there was a gap in the system."

And then there was this:

"I share your concern. I share your anger. It's a terrible situation. But we're not doing this to bail out AIG or their shareholders, certainly. We're doing this to protect our financial system and to avoid a much more severe crisis in our global economy."

Bernanke ended his prepared testimony in 2009 with a plea to lawmakers to give the Fed the power to dismantle systemically important financial institutions beyond traditional banks. He said AIG highlighted the “urgent need” for new regulation. Five years later, they are still a work in progress.

Bernanke’s deposition in the lawsuit over AIG could take several hours, forcing him to relive what he has called “the single one [thing] that makes me the angriest.”

But it could be worse: He could be Janet Yellen, his successor at the Fed, who will be sitting in a hot seat of her own on Thursday during her second hearing on Capitol Hill.

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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