“They have access to information when the Federal Reserve will try to sell securities, and what price they will accept. And they have intricate financial relations with people across the globe,” Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said. “The potential for a conflict of interest is great and it is just very difficult to police.”
Without naming BlackRock, federal auditors have warned that any private parties that purchase distressed assets on the government’s behalf could use generous federal subsidies to overpay, artificially pushing up the price of similar assets that they manage for their own portfolios.
“In other words, the conflict results in an enormous profit for the fund manager at the expense of the taxpayer,” Neil M. Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, wrote in a report last month.
Some of BlackRock’s advice to the government has in fact helped the company. For example, in its role as an informal adviser, it urged the Fed to intervene in the markets in a way that made investors feel it was safe to put money back into money market funds, including BlackRock’s.
The Federal Reserve will not reveal what it is paying BlackRock, disclosing only that on one of its five contracts, it will pay at least $71 million over three years to BlackRock and other firms to manage a portfolio of mortgage assets once owned by Bear Stearns. BlackRock says that rate is discounted and that the fees it collects on bailout-related work are only a tiny portion of its overall revenue.
BlackRock has many admirers for the range and the quality of services it has provided to the federal government. James R. Wilkinson, who served until January as the chief of staff to the former Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., described BlackRock’s co-founder and chief executive, Laurence D. Fink, as a “patriot.”
He added, “He is willing to help our country when we need it most.”
Mr. Fink said he was proud that his company was helping pull the economy back from the brink, and he bristled at the suggestion of impropriety.
Treasury and Fed officials have begun to take precautions. BlackRock’s dominance has prompted the Fed to seek an alternative partner as it prepares to expand its rescue efforts, a government official close to the situation said, requesting anonymity because the actions could affect the market.
And Treasury is holding off announcing the winning bidders for perhaps the most anticipated of all the bailout programs — the $1 trillion federally subsidized plan to purchase troubled assets from banks — in part to make sure the bidders cannot game the system. BlackRock is widely expected to win one of the contracts, in which the government would be a partner with private firms.
Andrew Williams, a Treasury Department spokesman, said that BlackRock had no special status and was among a large group of industry players consulted about bailout programs.
“We take this very seriously,” Mr. Williams said. “We talk to a lot of people — as we should.”
Now 47 percent owned by Bank of America , BlackRock offers traditional services like managing other people’s money. But the unit that has grabbed most of the attention lately is BlackRock Solutions, whose sophisticated software, fine-tuned over many years, can take apart the thousands of loans in a mortgage-backed security to estimate what it is now worth and what it will most likely be worth in the future, helping investors decide whether to hold or sell the asset.
During one frantic weekend in March 2008, when Bear Stearns was collapsing, BlackRock’s omnipresence became evident.
On a Saturday, the firm was hired by JPMorgan Chase — which was considering buying Bear Stearns — to value one type of Bear Stearns security.
The next day the Federal Reserve hired BlackRock, through a no-bid contract, to analyze and eventually sell off a $30 billion pool of risky mortgage securities that JPMorgan did not want.