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Fed aid in financial crisis went beyond U.S. banks to industry, foreign firms

These leaders have been a driving force behind the nation's economic policies since the financial crisis of 2008.

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By Jia Lynn Yang, Neil Irwin and David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 12:15 AM

The financial crisis stretched even farther across the economy than many had realized, as new disclosures show the Federal Reserve rushed trillions of dollars in emergency aid not just to Wall Street but also to motorcycle makers, telecom firms and foreign-owned banks in 2008 and 2009.

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The Fed's efforts to prop up the financial sector reached across a broad spectrum of the economy, benefiting stalwarts of American industry including General Electric and Caterpillar and household-name companies such as Verizon, Harley-Davidson and Toyota. The central bank's aid programs also supported U.S. subsidiaries of banks based in East Asia, Europe and Canada while rescuing money-market mutual funds held by millions of Americans.

The biggest users of the Fed lending programs were some of the world's largest banks, including Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Swiss-based UBS and Britain's Barclays, according to more than 21,000 loan records released Wednesday under new financial regulatory legislation.

The data reveal banks turning to the Fed for help almost daily in the fall of 2008 as the central bank lowered lending standards and extended relief to all kinds of institutions it had never assisted before.

Fed officials emphasize that their actions were meant to stabilize a financial system that was on the verge of collapse in late 2008. They note that the actions worked to prevent a complete financial meltdown and that none of the special lending programs has lost money. (Some have recorded healthy profits for taxpayers.)

But the extent of the lending to major banks - and the generous terms of some of those deals - heighten the political peril for a central bank that is already under the gun for a wide range of actions, including a recent decision to try to stimulate the economy by buying $600 billion in U.S. bonds.

"The American people are finally learning the incredible and jaw-dropping details of the Fed's multitrillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street and corporate America," said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), a longtime Fed critic whose provision in the Wall Street regulatory overhaul required the new disclosures. "Perhaps most surprising is the huge sum that went to bail out foreign private banks and corporations. As a result of this disclosure, other members of Congress and I will be taking a very extensive look at all aspects of how the Federal Reserve functions."

The Fed launched emergency programs totaling $3.3 trillion in aid, a figure reached by adding up the peak amount of lending in each program.

Companies that few people would associate with Wall Street benefited through the Fed's program to ease the market for commercial paper, a form of short-term debt used by major corporations to fund their daily activities.

By the fall of 2008, credit had frozen across the financial system, including the commercial paper market. The Fed then purchased commercial paper issued by GE 12 times for a total of $16 billion. It bought paper from Harley-Davidson 33 times, for a total of $2.3 billion. It picked up debt issued by Verizon twice, totaling $1.5 billion.

"It is hard to say what would have happened without the facility, and how its absence might have affected GE, but overall the program was extremely effective in helping stabilize the market," GE spokesman Russell Wilkerson said by e-mail.

Verizon spokesman Robert A. Varettoni said that it was "an extraordinary time," adding that there was no credit available otherwise at the time.


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