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Top U.S. Officials Consulted With BlackRock as Markets Melted Down

As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin scrambled to save faltering markets at the start of the pandemic last year, America’s top economic officials were in near-constant contact with a Wall Street executive whose firm stood to benefit financially from the rescue.

Laurence D. Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, was in frequent touch with Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Powell in the days before and after many of the Fed’s emergency rescue programs were announced in late March. Emails obtained by The New York Times through a records request, along with public releases, underscore the extent to which Mr. Fink planned alongside the government for parts of a financial rescue that his firm referred to in one message as “the project” that he and the Fed were “working on together.”

While some conversations were previously disclosed, the newly released emails, together with public calendar records, show the extent to which economic policymakers worked with a private company as they were drawing up a response to the financial meltdown and how intertwined BlackRock has become with the federal government.

60 recorded calls over the frantic Saturday and Sunday leading up to the Fed’s unveiling on Monday, March 23, of a policy package that included its first-ever program to buy corporate bonds, which were becoming nearly impossible to sell as investors sprinted to convert their holdings to cash. Mr. Mnuchin spoke to Mr. Fink five times that weekend, more than anyone other than the Fed chair, whom he spoke with nine times. Mr. Fink joined Mr. Mnuchin, Mr. Powell and Larry Kudlow, who was the White House National Economic Council director, for a brief call at 7:25 the evening before the Fed’s big announcement, based on Mr. Mnuchin’s calendars.

book on funds.

On March 24, 2020, the New York Fed announced that it had again hired BlackRock’s advisory arm, which operates separately from the company’s asset-management business but which Mr. Fink oversees, this time to carry out the Fed’s purchases of commercial mortgage-backed securities and corporate bonds.

BlackRock’s ability to directly profit from its regular contact with the government during rescue planning was limited. The firm signed a nondisclosure agreement with the New York Fed on March 22, restricting involved officials from sharing information about the coming programs.

were contracting and its business outlook hinged on what happened in certain markets.

While the Fed and Treasury consulted with many financial firms as they drew up their response — and practically all of Wall Street and much of Main Street benefited — no other company was as front and center.

Simply being in touch throughout the government’s planning was good for BlackRock, potentially burnishing its image over the longer run, Mr. Birdthistle said. BlackRock would have benefited through “tons of information, tons of secondary financial benefits,” he said.

Mr. Mnuchin could not be reached for comment. Asked whether top Fed officials discussed program details with Mr. Fink before his firm had signed the nondisclosure agreement, the Fed said Mr. Powell and Randal K. Quarles, a Fed vice chair who also appears in the emails, “have no recollection of discussing the terms of either facility with Mr. Fink.”

“Nor did they have any reason to do so because the Federal Reserve Bank of New York handled the process with great care and transparency,” the central bank added in its statement.

Brian Beades, a spokesman for BlackRock, highlighted that the firm had “stringent information barriers in place that ensure separation between BlackRock Financial Markets Advisory and the firm’s investment business.” He said it was “proud to have been in a position to assist the Federal Reserve in addressing the severe downturn in financial markets during the depths of the crisis.”

The disclosed emails between Fed and BlackRock officials — 11 in all across March and early April — do not make clear whether the company knew about any of the Fed and Treasury programs’ designs or whether they were simply providing market information.

Fed chair’s official schedule from that March. Those calendars generally track scheduled events, and may have missed meetings in early 2020 when staff members were frantically working on the market rescue and the Fed was shifting to work from home, a central bank spokesman said.

Mr. Powell’s calendars did show that he talked to Mr. Fink in March, April and May, and he has previously answered questions about those discussions.

“I can’t recall exactly what those conversations were, but they would have been about what he is seeing in the markets and things like that, to generally exchanging information,” Mr. Powell said at a July news conference, adding that it wasn’t “very many” conversations. “He’s typically trying to make sure that we are getting good service from the company that he founded and leads.”

BlackRock’s connections to Washington are not new. It was a critical player in the 2008 crisis response, when the New York Fed retained the firm’s advisory arm to manage the mortgage assets of the insurance giant American International Group and Bear Stearns.

Several former BlackRock employees have been named to top roles in President Biden’s administration, including Brian Deese, who heads the White House National Economic Council, and Wally Adeyemo, who was Mr. Fink’s chief of staff and is now the No. 2 official at the Treasury.

in early 2009 to $7.4 trillion in 2019. By the end of last year, they were $8.7 trillion.

As it expanded, it has stepped up its lobbying. In 2004, BlackRock Inc. registered two lobbyists and spent less than $200,000 on its efforts. By 2019 it had 20 lobbyists and spent nearly $2.5 million, though that declined slightly last year, based on OpenSecrets data. Campaign contributions tied to the firm also jumped, touching $1.7 million in 2020 (80 percent to Democrats, 20 percent to Republicans) from next to nothing as recently as 2004.

short-term debt markets that came under intense stress as people and companies rushed to move all of their holdings into cash. And problems were brewing in the corporate debt market, including in exchange-traded funds, which track bundles of corporate debt and other assets but trade like stocks. Corporate bonds were difficult to trade and near impossible to issue in mid-March 2020. Prices on some high-grade corporate debt E.T.F.s, including one of BlackRock’s, were out of whack relative to the values of the underlying assets, which is unusual.

People could still pull their money from E.T.F.s, which both the industry and several outside academics have heralded as a sign of their resiliency. But investors would have had to take a financial hit to do so, relative to the quoted value of the underlying bonds. That could have bruised the product’s reputation in the eyes of some retail savers.

fund recovery was nearly instant.

When the New York Fed retained BlackRock’s advisory arm to make the purchases, it rapidly disclosed details of those contracts to the public. The firm did the program cheaply for the government, waiving fees for exchange-traded fund buying and rebating fees from its own iShares E.T.F.s back to the New York Fed.

The Fed has explained the decision to hire the advisory side of the house in terms of practicality.

“We hired BlackRock for their expertise in these markets,” Mr. Powell has since said in defense of the rapid move. “It was done very quickly due to the urgency and need for their expertise.”

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Janet Yellen says interest rates might need to rise to keep economy from overheating.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said higher interest rates might be needed to keep the economy from overheating given the large investments that the Biden administration is proposing to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and remake its labor force.

The comments, shown on Tuesday at an event sponsored by The Atlantic, come amid heightened concern from some economists and businesses that the United States is in for a period of higher inflation as stimulus money flows through the economy and consumers begin spending again. The Treasury secretary has no role in setting interest rate policies.

Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said last month that the central bank is unlikely to raise interest rates this year and wants to see further healing in the American economy before officials will consider pulling back their support by slowing government-backed bond purchases and lifting interest rates.

While the Fed is watching for signs of inflation, Mr. Powell and other Fed officials have said they believe any price spikes will be temporary and will not be sustained. On Monday, John C. Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said that while the economy is recovering, “The data and conditions we are seeing now are not nearly enough” for the Fed’s policy-setting committee “to shift its monetary policy stance.”

spending approximately $4 trillion over a decade and would pay for the investments with tax increases on companies and the rich.

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The Financial Crisis the World Forgot

By the middle of March 2020 a sense of anxiety pervaded the Federal Reserve. The fast-unfolding coronavirus pandemic was rippling through global markets in dangerous ways.

Trading in Treasurys — the government securities that are considered among the safest assets in the world, and the bedrock of the entire bond market — had become disjointed as panicked investors tried to sell everything they owned to raise cash. Buyers were scarce. The Treasury market had never broken down so badly, even in the depths of the 2008 financial crisis.

The Fed called an emergency meeting on March 15, a Sunday. Lorie Logan, who oversees the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s asset portfolio, summarized the brewing crisis. She and her colleagues dialed into a conference from the fortresslike New York Fed headquarters, unable to travel to Washington given the meeting’s impromptu nature and the spreading virus. Regional bank presidents assembled across America stared back from the monitor. Washington-based governors were arrayed in a socially distanced ring around the Fed Board’s mahogany table.

Ms. Logan delivered a blunt assessment: While the Fed had been buying government-backed bonds the week before to soothe the volatile Treasury market, market contacts said it hadn’t been enough. To fix things, the Fed might need to buy much more. And fast.

announced an enormous purchase program, promising to make $500 billion in government bond purchases and to buy $200 billion in mortgage-backed debt.

It wasn’t the central bank’s first effort to stop the unfolding disaster, nor would it be the last. But it was a clear signal that the 2020 meltdown echoed the 2008 crisis in seriousness and complexity. Where the housing crisis and ensuing crash took years to unfold, the coronavirus panic had struck in weeks.

As March wore on, each hour incubating a new calamity, policymakers were forced to cross boundaries, break precedents and make new uses of the U.S. government’s vast powers to save domestic markets, keep cash flowing abroad and prevent a full-blown financial crisis from compounding a public health tragedy.

The rescue worked, so it is easy to forget the peril America’s investors and businesses faced a year ago. But the systemwide weaknesses that were exposed last March remain, and are now under the microscope of Washington policymakers.

cut interest rates to about 1 percent — its first emergency move since the 2008 financial crisis. Some analysts chided the Fed for overreacting, and others asked an obvious question: What could the Fed realistically do in the face of a public health threat?

“We do recognize that a rate cut will not reduce the rate of infection, it won’t fix a broken supply chain,” Chair Jerome H. Powell said at a news conference, explaining that the Fed was doing what it could to keep credit cheap and available.

But the health disaster was quickly metastasizing into a market crisis.

Lockdowns in Italy deepened during the second week of March, and oil prices plummeted as a price war raged, sending tremors across stock, currency and commodity markets. Then, something weird started to happen: Instead of snapping up Treasury bonds, arguably the world’s safest investment, investors began trying to sell them.

The yield on 10-year Treasury debt — which usually drops when investors seek safe harbor — started to rise on March 10, suggesting investors didn’t want safe assets. They wanted cold, hard cash, and they were trying to sell anything and everything to get it.

officially declared the virus outbreak a pandemic, and the morning on which it was becoming clear that a sell-off had spiraled into a panic.

The Fed began to roll out measure after measure in a bid to soothe conditions, first offering huge temporary infusions of cash to banks, then accelerating plans to buy Treasury bonds as that market swung out of whack.

But by Friday, March 13, government bond markets were just one of many problems.

Investors had been pulling their cash from prime money market mutual funds, where they park it to earn a slightly higher return, for days. But those outflows began to accelerate, prompting the funds themselves to pull back sharply from short-term corporate debt markets as they raced to return money to investors. Banks that serve as market conduits were less willing than usual to buy and hold new securities, even just temporarily. That made it harder to sell everything, be it a company bond or Treasury debt.

The Fed’s announcement after its March 15 emergency meeting — that it would slash rates and buy bonds in the most critical markets — was an attempt to get things under control.

But Mr. Powell worried that the fix would fall short as short- and long-term debt of all kinds became hard to sell. He approached Andreas Lehnert, director of the Fed’s financial stability division, in the Washington boardroom after the meeting and asked him to prepare emergency lending programs, which the central bank had used in 2008 to serve as a support system to unraveling markets.

short-term corporate debt and another to keep funding flowing to key banks. Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, March 18, the Fed announced a program to rescue embattled money market funds by offering to effectively take hard-to-sell securities off their hands.

But by the end of that week, everything was a mess. Foreign central banks and corporations were offloading U.S. debt, partly to raise dollars companies needed to pay interest and other bills; hedge funds were nixing a highly leveraged trade that had broken down as the market went haywire, dumping Treasurys into the choked market. Corporate bond and commercial real estate debt markets looked dicey as companies faced credit rating downgrades and as hotels and malls saw business prospects tank.

The world’s most powerful central bank was throwing solutions at the markets as rapidly as it could, and it wasn’t enough.

hit newswires at 8 a.m., well before American markets opened. The Fed promised to buy an unlimited amount of Treasury debt and to purchase commercial mortgage-backed securities — efforts to save the most central markets.

serve as a lender of last resort to troubled banks. On March 23, it pledged to funnel help far beyond that financial core. The Fed said it would buy corporate debt and help to get loans to midsize businesses for the first time ever.

It finally worked. The dash for cash turned around starting that day.

The March 23 efforts took an approach that Mr. Lehnert referred to internally as “covering the waterfront.” Fed economists had discerned which capital markets were tied to huge numbers of jobs and made sure that every one of them had a Fed support program.

On April 9, officials put final pieces of the strategy into play. Backed by a huge pot of insurance money from a rescue package just passed by Congress — lawmakers had handed the Treasury up to $454 billion — they announced that they would expand already-announced efforts and set up another to help funnel credit to states and big cities.

The Fed’s 2008 rescue effort had been widely criticized as a bank bailout. The 2020 redux was to rescue everything.

The Fed, along with the Treasury, most likely saved the nation from a crippling financial crisis that would have made it harder for businesses to survive, rebound and rehire, intensifying the economic damage the coronavirus went on to inflict. Many of the programs have since ended or are scheduled to do so, and markets are functioning fine.

But there’s no guarantee that the calm will prove permanent.

“The financial system remains vulnerable” to a repeat of last March’s sweeping disaster as “the underlying structures and mechanisms that gave rise to the turmoil are still in place,” the Financial Stability Board, a global oversight body, wrote in a meltdown post-mortem.

Industry players are already mobilizing a lobbying effort, and they may find allies in resisting regulation, including among lawmakers.

“I would point out that money market funds have been remarkably stable and successful,” Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said during a Jan. 19 hearing.

Matt Phillips contributed reporting.

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