All But One Major Firm at Risk in 2008: Bernanke

Twelve of the 13 most important U.S. financial firms were at the brink of failure at the height of the credit crisis in 2008, according to previously undisclosed remarks made by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in November 2009 to an investigative panel.

Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke
Dennis Cook
Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke

The deeply divided Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission released the notes from its private interview with Bernanke and others on Thursday as part of a final report on the origins of the 2007-2009 crisis.

The 10-member panel's final report was endorsed only by its six Democratic members. It criticized the culture of deregulation championed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and said the government had ample power to avert the crisis but chose not to use it.

The report did not identify which of the 13 firms was not considered by Bernanke to be in danger of failure, but it did say that Goldman Sachs was among those Bernanke feared could be taken down amid a huge funding crisis in late 2008.

"If you look at the firms that came under pressure in that period ... only one ... was not at serious risk of failure," Bernanke told the commission. "Even Goldman Sachs, we thought there was a real chance that they would go under."

The Fed chairman also said: "As a scholar of the Great Depression, I honestly believe that September and October of 2008 was the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression."

The commission was set up by Congress to get at the roots of the crisis, but its final product was marred by the lack of consensus and comes after last year's passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, further blunting its impact.

A competing minority report from three Republican commissioners largely exonerated Greenspan, a fellow Republican, saying, "U.S. monetary policy may have contributed to the credit bubble but did not cause it." Through a spokeswoman, Greenspan declined to comment.

A fourth Republican on the panel issued yet another report, focused mostly on U.S. housing policy in explaining the origins of the crisis.

Fodder for Both Sides

In the fight between pro-reform Democrats and anti-reform Republicans, the main report and the two dissents provide fodder for both sides, while highlighting partisan fault lines that today pervade political Washington, from financial regulation, to health care, to addressing the budget deficit.

The unveiling of the three reports was seen by markets as a nonevent that did not pose a fresh threat to financial firms.

"The market is not really going to react— the market already has a very good idea of what happened," said Matt McCormick, portfolio manager at Bahl & Gaynor Investment Counsel in Cincinnati, which owns bank shares.

One Wall Street investor, who asked not to be named, said: "We still face the same problems we did before. I don't think we're learning much from it. This is total rehash of stuff that has surfaced and been discussed and chewed over."

As banks have pulled back from the brink over the last 12 months and returned to profits, some senior bankers have gone on the offensive against critics.

Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond told UK lawmakers earlier this month that it was time for banks to stop apologizing for the mistakes that caused the financial crisis.

"There was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over," Diamond told a committee during 2-1/2 hours of questioning.

Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Holds First Public Hearing
Getty Images
Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Holds First Public Hearing

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chasesaid not all banks were in trouble during the crisis. "There is a huge misconception. Not all banks needed that (rescue money). Not all banks would have failed," Dimon said on Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy clashed with Dimon at a later Davos session,telling him, "The world has paid with tens of millions of unemployed, who were in no way to blame and who paid for everything."

Regardless of the policy implications, a mountain of interview notes and internal documents obtained by the panel contained some revelations.

For instance, the main report says Goldman Sachs capitalized on the government's bailout of American International Group to get even more payments from the beleaguered insurer, including $2.9 billion from proprietary trades Goldman placed for its own profit.

The FCIC says that beyond the $14 billion in AIG bailout funds that Goldman distributed to clients, Goldman received an additional $3.4 billion from AIG related to credit default swaps; that the bulk of that was made possible by the AIG bailout; and that Goldman kept $2.9 billion for its own books.

The crisis that peaked in the fall of 2008 pushed some of the most storied financial firms to the brink of collapse. Some, such as AIG, were bailed out by the government; others, such as Lehman Brothers, were not and vanished.

Democratic commissioner Brooksley Born told a news conference that the panel made "several" referrals to authorities about potential violations of U.S. law related to the crisis, but panel members declined to give further details.

The commission was set up by Congress in May 2009.

The hope was that its work would rip the lid off the crisis in the comprehensive way that the Pecora Commission did in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Arthur Levitt, a former head of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and now an advisor with The Carlyle Group, said the FCIC paled in comparison to the Pecora Commission, whose findings laid the groundwork for creating the SEC.

"This particular commission was so political from start to finish in terms of both its composition and leadership that it was doomed from the outset," Levitt told Reuters.

All three of the FCIC's reports generally agree the crisis was not, as some bankers have tried to portray it, some sort of unavoidable natural phenomenon.

"We conclude this financial crisis was avoidable. The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire," said the majority report of the six Democrats.

"The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public," it said.