http://www.nytimes.com

 

The New York Times

Sunday, December 14, 2008

WASHINGTON — As the financial crisis jolted the nation in September, Senator Charles E. Schumer was consumed. He traded telephone calls with bankers, then became one of the first officials to promote a Wall Street bailout. He spent hours in closed-door briefings and a weekend helping Congressional leaders nail down details of the $700 billion rescue package. (see below)

The next day, Mr. Schumer appeared at a breakfast fund-raiser in Midtown Manhattan for Senate Democrats. Addressing Henry R. Kravis, the buyout billionaire, and about 20 other finance industry executives, he warned that a bailout would be a hard sell on Capitol Hill. Then he offered some reassurance: The businessmen could count on the Democrats to help steer the nation through the financial turmoil.

“We are not going to be a bunch of crazy, anti-business liberals,” one executive said, summarizing Mr. Schumer’s remarks. “We are going to be effective, moderate advocates for sound economic policies, good responsible stewards you can trust.”

The message clearly resonated. The next week, executives at firms represented at the breakfast sent in more than $135,000 in campaign donations.

Senator Schumer plays an unrivaled role in Washington as beneficiary, advocate and overseer of an industry that is his hometown’s most important business.

An exceptional fund raiser — a “jackhammer,” someone who knows him says, for whom “ ‘no’ is the first step to ‘yes,’ ” — Mr. Schumer led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the last four years, raising a record $240 million while increasing donations from Wall Street by 50 percent. That money helped the Democrats gain power in Congress, elevated Mr. Schumer’s standing in his party and increased the industry’s clout in the capital.

But in building support, he has embraced the industry’s free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis.

Other lawmakers took the lead on efforts like deregulating the complicated financial instruments called derivatives, which are widely seen as catalysts to the crisis.

But Mr. Schumer, a member of the Banking and Finance Committees, repeatedly took other steps to protect industry players from government oversight and tougher rules, a review of his record shows. Over the years, he has also helped save financial institutions billions of dollars in higher taxes or fees.

He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent.

“Since the financial meltdown, people have been asking, ‘Where was Congress? Why didn’t they see this coming? Why didn’t they provide better oversight?’ ” said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America. “And the answer for some, including Senator Schumer, is that they were actually too busy pursuing a deregulatory agenda. Their focus was on how we have to lighten up regulation on Wall Street.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Schumer has worked closely with the Bush administration to try to mitigate the damage to New York’s financial institutions. And as members of Congress and President-elect Barack Obama have called for new regulations to prevent future upheavals, Mr. Schumer has endorsed the need for reforms while still trying to make them palatable for Wall Street.

Calling himself “an almost obsessive defender of New York jobs,” Mr. Schumer has often talked of the need to avoid excessive regulation of an industry that is increasingly threatened by global competition. At the same time, Mr. Schumer has cast himself as a populist who looks out for the middle class.

In an interview, Mr. Schumer said that until the recent market turmoil, he did not fully appreciate how much risk Wall Street had assumed and how much damage its practices could inflict on ordinary Americans. “It is a learning process, no question about it, an evolution,” he said, adding that he now believed that investors and homeowners must be better protected.

But he defended his record. “Wall Street and Main Street are tied together,” he said. “Often times, they are not in conflict. When they are in conflict, I tend to side with Main Street.”

While Mr. Schumer has taken some pro-consumer stances, his critics fault him for tilting too far toward Wall Street in balancing his responsibilities.

“He is serving the parochial interest of a very small group of financial people, bankers, investment bankers, fund managers, private equity firms, rather than serving the general public,” said John C. Bogle, the founder and former chairman of the Vanguard Group, the giant mutual fund house. “It has hurt the American investor first and the average American taxpayer.”

 

Credit Crisis – Bailout Plan

On Sept. 19, 2008, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. proposed a sweeping bailout of financial institutions battered by bad mortgages and a loss of investor confidence. In Mr. Paulson’s original proposal — called the Troubled Asset Relief Program — he asked Congress for $700 billion to use to buy up mortgage-backed securities whose value had dropped sharply or had become impossible to sell. While Congress eventually gave him most of the authority he sought, Mr. Paulson ended up switching gears and using the money to make direct investments in troubled financial institutions instead.

As originally outlined, the government would have bought up toxic mortgage-backed securities at a premium over their current deflated values. By paying "hold to maturity” prices, Mr. Paulson said, the government would provide troubled firms with an infusion of capital, reducing doubts about their viability and thereby restoring investor confidence.

The plan in its original form was quickly rejected by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and was criticized by many economists across the political spectrum. Congress insisted on adding provisions for oversight, limits on executive pay for participating companies and an ownership stake for the government in return for its investments.

Even so, the plan proved to be strikingly unpopular with an outraged public, and on Sept. 29 it failed in the House of Representatives, primarily from a lack of Republican support.

But as the markets continued to plunge, a slightly altered version won the support first of the Senate, on Oct. 1, and of the House, on Oct. 3. President Bush quickly signed the bill, called the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Paulson reversed course, and decided to use the $250 billion in the first round of funds allocated by Congress not to buy toxic assets, but to inject cash directly into banks by purchasing shares, an approach that many Congressional Democrats had pushed for earlier. In an initial round of financing, nine of the largest banks were given $25 billion apiece.

The Treasury also used the bailout also to steer funds to stronger banks to purchase weaker ones, as in the acquisition of National City, a troubled Ohio-based bank, by PNC Financial of Pittsburgh. To the dismay of many economists, no strings were attached to the Treasury infusions, and many of the banks appeared to be using the funds to bolster their balance sheets rather than to make new loans.

On Nov. 12, Mr. Paulson announced that he was abandoning the idea of asset purchases, and said the bailout money would be used instead for a broader campaign to bolster the financial markets and, in turn, make loans more accessible for creditworthy borrowers seeking car loans, student loans and other kinds of borrowing.

Related: Credit Crisis

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