The Fed and the Wall Street Journal have both taken issue with Bloomberg’s article Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress

In response to the above article, the Fed went on a publicity campaign, lashing back at Bloomberg and others (but did not mention anyone by explicit name) in this Memo to Congress.

Bloomberg Stands By Its Reporting

Bloomberg pounced on the Fed with a point-by-point rebuttal Bloomberg News Responds to Bernanke Criticism of U.S. Bank-Rescue Coverage which should have ended the debate.

Essentially, Bloomberg stands by its numbers and the way it reported them, not necessarily the way others reported them, including my own headline, Banks Make $13 Billion on $7.7 Trillion in Secret Fed Loans; SEC Stands by Does Nothing

The only thing inaccurate in my post was the title. This title would be technically accurate “Banks Make $13 Billion on $7.7 Trillion in Secret Fed Loans and Pledges; SEC Stands by Does Nothing“. However, to be perfectly fair, pledges far exceeded actual loans.

At any rate, Bloomberg’s response should have ended the issue right then and there but for some inexplicable reason David Wessel at the Wall Street Journal felt the need to chime in with Separating Fact From Fiction on the Fed’s Loans

Wessel essentially did a Fed Suck-Up in his piece, which is of course what one might expect from this line in his article: Full disclosure: My 2009 book, “In Fed We Trust,” recounted the Fed’s handling of the crisis favorably.

Fed’s “Mealy-Mouthed” Memo

Felix Salmon hands the round to Bloomberg in Smackdown of the day: Bloomberg vs the Fed

In a six-page letter today addressed to the Senate Banking Committee, Ben Bernanke lashes out at “a series of articles–one just last week–concerning the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending activities”. He says those articles “have contained a variety of egregious errors and mistakes”. And he encloses “a memo prepared by Board staff that addresses some of the most serious errors and claims in those articles”.

Nowhere in those six pages is a single article actually identified. The Fed memo, similarly, has no named author. And the whole thing is available only as one of those PDFs-from-a-copy-machine, which makes it impossible to copy-and-paste or to search. The Fed put the letter up on its website and made sure that various economic journalists, like myself and Binyamin Appelbaum, knew all about it. But the whole thing is an incredibly passive-aggressive way of attacking Bloomberg, which, to reiterate, is never actually named.

Bloomberg did not let the opportunity go to waste. It’s clearly the main object of the Fed’s ire, but because it isn’t named, it can do two rather clever things in its official response. The first is to respond to the Fed’s complaints by citing various different stories it’s written over the years — since the Fed never actually specified which story or stories it had issues with. And the second is to simply deny that it said what the Fed is complaining about at all. When the Fed, for instance, says that “the articles misleadingly depict financial institutions receiving liquidity assistance as insolvent,” Bloomberg simply and effectively replies that it “never described any of the financial institutions mentioned in its bailout stories as insolvent”.

The Fed has various blogs; it could easily have used one to single out specific errors in the Bloomberg article, which Bloomberg would then have had to respond to directly. But instead it just writes a memo talking vaguely about “these articles”, and in doing so plays straight into Bloomberg’s hands.

Bloomberg has won this particular round, just because it’s being very open about what it’s saying, while the Fed memo seems mealy-mouthed and less than fully open about what it’s trying to say. If you’re going to complain about “egregious errors and mistakes”, it behooves you to be specific about exactly where the errors and mistakes lie, and to quote them directly. If you don’t do that, you automatically look as though you have a weak case, and you open yourself up to counterattacks like the one from Bloomberg.
So Bloomberg wins — and the Fed ends up looking even worse. Maybe next time the Fed will be a bit more transparent and heartfelt and honest. It will find itself in a much stronger position if it goes there.

*Update: You will find the fact that the banks never borrowed more than $1.2 trillion in the article, but it’s subtle enough that I missed it on multiple readings. At the top of the piece, we’re told that the banks”required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day”.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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