The idea that there's so-called "regulatory capture" of the Federal Reserve by the very Wall Street bankers they're supposed to regulate isn't one that's particularly surprising to anyone. It's been obvious for quite some time, but everyone in power has generally looked the other way about it. ProPublica and This American Life teamed up this week to reveal the the secret recordings of Carmen Segarra
, a bank examiner of the Fed, who was supposed to be watching over Goldman Sachs. When she realized what was truly
going on (basically, her bosses keep suggesting she tone down her criticism and concerns of Goldman), she bought a hidden recorder and started recording. The resulting story is astounding
and incredibly revealing -- even if you already assumed much of it was true. Michael Lewis -- who's been reporting on Wall Street for decades -- describes the recordings as the "Ray Rice video for the financial sector"
, which may be a slight exaggeration, but the story is still quite telling.
The report starts off by detailing how the Fed conducted a (for internal use only) study on how it totally missed the financial meltdown of 2008. And the answer won't surprise you, even if those close to the system claim they were surprised:
The most daunting obstacle the New York Fed faced in overseeing the nation's biggest financial institutions was its own culture. The New York Fed had become too risk-averse and deferential to the banks it supervised. Its examiners feared contradicting bosses, who too often forced their findings into an institutional consensus that watered down much of what they did.
From there, the story moves on to Segarra, who had been hired to be a senior examiner watching over Goldman Sachs. She actually tried to do her job, and for that was fired after just seven months on the job
. She had discovered serious conflict of interest problems on certain deals, and then (on top of that) discovered that Goldman Sachs had no official "conflict of interest policy" that conformed with what was required by the Fed. When she wrote up a report on this, her boss insisted that she take out the claim that there was no policy, despite it being true. She was soon fired -- and then sued the Fed (and lost).
However, this desire to whitewash embarrassment seems endemic at the Fed. It happened to the guy who wrote that report detailing the Fed's cultural problems:
One New York Fed employee, a supervisor, described his experience in terms of "regulatory capture," the phrase commonly used to describe a situation where banks co-opt regulators. Beim included the remark in a footnote. "Within three weeks on the job, I saw the capture set in," the manager stated.
Confronted with the quotation, senior officers at the Fed asked the professor to remove it from the report, according to Beim. "They didn't give an argument," Beim said in an interview. "They were embarrassed." He refused to change it.
The report goes on to detail how quickly the Fed seemed to take orders from Goldman Sachs. There was a situation in which a Fed examiner, Michael Silva, expressed concerns about a probably-legal, but still ethically-questionable, deal that Goldman was involved in -- effectively moving around some shares in a Spanish bank to make the bank look fiscally more sound than it really was. But, expressing concern about the deal apparently wasn't allowed:
Shortly after the Santander transaction closed, Segarra notified her own risk-specialist bosses that Silva was concerned. They told her to look into the deal. She met with Silva to tell him the news, but he had some of his own. The general counsel of the New York Fed had "reined me in," he told Segarra. Silva did not refer by name to Tom Baxter, the New York Fed's general counsel, but said: "I was all fired up, and he doesn't want me getting the Fed to assert powers it doesn't have."
This conversation occurred the day before the New York Fed team met with Goldman officials to learn about the inner workings of the deal.
In the audio version on This American Life
, you can hear the incredible sequence in which Silva "fires up" his team to go confront Goldman about a specific problem with the deal (the other bank had required to get the Fed to sign off and say there were "no objections" and Goldman hadn't done so). However, then there's the recording of the meeting that happens right after Silva talks about going in and asking this important question -- and Silva doesn't get around to asking it until an hour into the meeting, and does so incredibly meekly, basically backing off the question before he's even finished answering it, handing Goldman an out.
There's also audio of other Fed employees talking about how they should almost apologize
to Goldman for all their questions, out of fear that Goldman (1) will think they're being "critical" of the bank and (2) won't share information on future deals (even though they're legally required to do so).
It's classic regulatory capture. The Fed guys -- who literally work in the building with Goldman -- want the Goldman guys to like them.
There's a lot more in the report, leading to a point in which Segarra is basically told to not be so good at doing her examiner job, but to instead build more relationships. The Fed employee doing the scolding, Segarra's supervisor who used to have her job, points out that she's upset some people with her brusque language, her "sharper elbows" and the fact that she was "breaking eggs." Segarra points out that she's doing her job and, furthermore, doing a "good job"
"I'm here to change the definition of what a good job is," Kim said. "There are two parts it: Actually producing the results, which I think you're very capable of producing the results. But also be mindful of enfolding people and defusing situations, making sure that people feel like they're heard and respected."
In other words, don't do your job quite so well, because you're pissing off people at Goldman Sachs. That eventually led to the fight over the conflict of interest policy. After investigating it for a while, having Goldman officials and Michael Silva directly admit that there was no real policy, suddenly Silva tells her she can't actually say that in the report she's writing up. This is because folks at Goldman got upset about it, pointing to a generally vague policy statement on conflicts of interests (which doesn't come close to actually being a policy), and insisted that they had a policy.
"You have to come off the view that Goldman doesn't have any kind of conflict-of- interest policy," are the first words Silva says to her. Fed officials didn't believe her conclusion — that Goldman lacked a policy — was "credible."
Segarra tells him she has been writing bank compliance policies for a living since she graduated from law school in 1998. She has asked Goldman for the bank's policies, and what they provided did not comply with Fed guidance.
"I'm going to lose this entire case," Silva says, "because of your fixation on whether they do or don't have a policy. Why can't we just say they have basic pieces of a policy but they have to dramatically improve it?"
Later in the conversation, Silva says that he "didn't get taken seriously" when he challenged higher-ups in the past over that shady banking deal, and thus Segarra should just give in to the higher-ups demands. A week later, she was fired.
There's also this story, which Lewis summarizes:
In meetings, Fed employees would defer to the Goldman people; if one of the Goldman people said something revealing or even alarming, the other Fed employees in the meeting would either ignore or downplay it. For instance, in one meeting a Goldman employee expressed the view that "once clients are wealthy enough certain consumer laws don't apply to them." After that meeting, Segarra turned to a fellow Fed regulator and said how surprised she was by that statement -- to which the regulator replied, "You didn't hear that."
In the actual This American Life
episode, the story is even more damning. There were other regulators (not from the Fed) there as well, who all heard it too. And they were all talking about (something that was confirmed by others there) and the other Fed employee insisted that Goldman must have been joking and no one should pay attention to it.
The end result of all this: the banks run the show.
I actually didn't find the full report to be quite
as damning as Lewis does. Some of the issues raised by Segarra do appear to be slightly overstated, and there do seem to be reasonable explanations for some
of the things she found questionable. But it doesn't change the overall issue, which is that the banks effectively control the regulator, not through direct intimidation (or at least not in ways that are directly evident in this report), but because the Fed itself seems unwilling to ever actually rock the boat and make sure that Goldman is held to account.
Now, I'm among those who are concerned about situations involving over-regulation and government interference where it's not necessary. But we should also be concerned about companies that are simply too powerful, and are able to engage in activities that abuse market power to harm the public -- and to engage regulatory capture to rubber stamp them. This episode shows how that's apparently the norm on Wall Street.