Documents shed light on Fed lending practices

The Federal Reserve lent vast sums of money to a long list of banks during the financial crisis, according to newly released documents, supporting institutions gigantic and minuscule, and those based throughout United States and from many corners of the globe.

The New York office of Bahrain-based Arab Banking Corp. borrowed $1.1 billion from the Fed’s emergency lending program for banks during October 2008, according to the documents. That bank is currently 59 percent owned by the Libyan Investment Authority, which invests money for the government of the Middle Eastern state now enmeshed in conflict. (At the time, Libya was making slow progress at mending its relationship with the United States and other Western governments.)

“It is incomprehensible to me that while creditworthy small businesses in Vermont and throughout the country could not receive affordable loans,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) in a statement Thursday, the Fed was extending credit “to a bank that is substantially owned by the Central Bank of Libya.”

The Treasury Department excluded Arab Banking from recent sanctions against Libya, as it is headquartered in Bahrain and governed by that nation’s laws, and was complying with sanctions against the Libyan government.

It wasn’t the only foreign bank to borrow money from the Fed: On Oct. 27, 2008, when the crisis was near its peak, the New York branches of Belgian bank Dexia and Irish bank Depfa received $28.5 billion and $24.5 billion, respectively. Austria’s Erste Group and the Bank of Scotland were major borrowers in the immediate aftermath of the failure of Lehman Brothers, in mid-September 2008.

Many of the nation’s large banks, including J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America, made extensive use of the loan program, called the discount window, starting when the financial crisis arose in summer 2007 and then as it deepened in 2008. The scale of the lending had been disclosed at the time, but not the names of borrowers.

The Fed said it needed to keep the details of discount-window lending confidential, lest the disclosure deepen the panic and loss of faith in the banking system.

The new documents — 900 files totaling 29,000 pages, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Bloomberg and Fox Business — show an institution that had become the global lender of last resort. In addition to some of the biggest Wall Street firms and hundreds of smaller U.S. banks, the Fed’s emergency lending supported the U.S. branches of foreign banks, including one partly owned by the Libyan government.

Washington Mutual, which was on the verge of collapse in September 2008, borrowed $2 billion for several consecutive days before being taken over by J.P. Morgan Chase. IndyMac, another mortgage lender, borrowed $500 million just before regulators seized it in July 2008.

All of the loans were repaid with interest, Fed officials have said in public testimony, and the central bank held collateral for each to guard against losses.

Since it was founded in 1914, the Fed has offered banks access to emergency money when they find themselves “illiquid,” or unable to meet their short-term cash needs. It is the primary tool in the Fed’s role as lender of last resort to the banking system.

In normal times, banks rarely use the window, fearful that it will make them look weak and because there are other sources of short-term cash. Last week, there was only $11 million in credit outstanding at the discount window, the Fed said Thursday. That changed during the financial crisis, when the number was about $100 billion some weeks.

In fighting the Bloomberg and Fox lawsuits, lawyers for the Federal Reserve and banking industry groups said that if the details were made public, it would create a stigma to using the window that would make the Fed less able to respond to a crisis. A federal judge found that the public interest in disclosing the use of public funds overrode those concerns.

The documents, in addition to laying bare massive lending to some of the world’s largest banks, shows the mundane side of the Fed’s discount window. For example, on June 17, 2008, the same day the New York Fed lent $7 billion to Bear Stearns, it also extended $120,000 to the Bank of Cattaraugus in western New York, according to the records.

And on Oct. 27, 2008, Capital One, the McLean-based credit card giant, went to the discount window for a less-than-princely sum: $1,000. Less, in other words, than many of its individual customers carry as a balance on their credit cards.

It was part of a regular test of the discount window process, a spokeswoman for Capital One said Thursday.

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