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How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street

About The Book

Bailout is a jaw-dropping play-by-play of how the Treasury Department bungled the financial bailouts…With a prosecutor’s logic and copious footnotes, Barofsky makes it clear that things are rarely what they seem in Washington.”—USA TODAY

At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, Neil Barofsky gave up his job as a prosecutor in the esteemed US Attorney’s Office in New York City, where he had convicted drug kingpins, Wall Street executives, and perpetrators of mortgage fraud, to become the inspector general in charge of overseeing administration of the bailout money. From the onset, his efforts to protect against fraud and to hold big banks accountable for how they spent taxpayer money were met with outright hostility from Treasury officials in charge of the bailouts.

In this bracing, page-turning account Barofsky offers an insider’s perspective on the mishandling of the $700 billion TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout fund. With vivid behind-the-scenes detail, he reveals the extreme lengths to which our government officials were willing to go in order to serve the interests of Wall Street firms at the expense of the broader public—and at the expense of effective financial reform.

Bailout is a riveting account of Barovsky’s plunge into the political meat grinder of Washington, as well as a vital revelation of just how captured by Wall Street our political system is and why the too-big-to-fail banks have become even bigger and more dangerous in the wake of the crisis.



IN WRITING BAILOUT, I was given the opportunity to relive the tumultuous twenty-seven months of my life that are recounted in the pages that follow. It was a harrowing time, both for me and for the country, but it was an experience I will always treasure. As a line prosecutor in Manhattan, I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to serve my country at such a crucial time, and while I certainly had more than my fair share of setbacks, I believe that the work we did at the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) played an important role in protecting TARP from greater abuse and in bringing to justice those who sought to criminally profit from it.

Although I was initially reluctant to take the job in Washington, I felt it was my duty, and I felt a similar call to write this book, in order to bring attention to what I saw as a hijacking of both the bailouts and the government itself by a handful of Wall Street financial institutions and their executives. I saw how they were able to exert their power and influence to protect and reinforce a dangerous status quo that worked brilliantly for them but has left the rest of the country behind. In writing this book, I wanted to send a warning about what I see as a treacherous future given the banks’ continued dominance.

Events that have happened since I finished the original hardcover version have unfortunately only further confirmed my fears about where we are headed as a country if we continue to ignore the dangers presented by banks deemed “too big to fail.” Specifically, in the past several months we have seen a parade of banking scandals that have reflected just as poorly on the government and its captured regulators as on the banks themselves.

First, we learned of what appears to be a global conspiracy among several of the largest banks to manipulate one of the most important interest rate benchmarks in the world, the London InterBank Offered Rate (LIBOR), which is used to set interest rates for everything from complex derivative contracts to home and auto loans. A few banks are supposed to send in estimates of their borrowing costs each day to the British Bankers’ Association, which then averages the reported numbers and issues the official LIBOR rate for that day. One of those reporting banks, Barclays, settled allegations that its employees had taken part in cooking the rate. The bank lied about its estimated costs in order to manipulate this number, originally so that its traders could rip off its counterparties and earn illicit profits, and then later to make it appear that the bank was in better financial shape than it actually was, thus potentially lowering its costs and fooling potential shareholders, regulators, and others.1 A number of other banks are also apparent subjects of the ongoing investigation, including the all-too-familiar triumvirate in banking scandals: JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citigroup.2

As damning as the breathtaking arrogance, size, and scale of the alleged misconduct by the banks were the allegations indicating that one of the banks’ primary regulators, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and its president at the time, Timothy Geithner, were made aware by Barclays by April 2008 both of the ongoing manipulation and that other banks were involved.3 But rather than immediately alerting the Department of Justice or even calling in the banks subject to his jurisdiction and warning them that they needed to cease the manipulation immediately, Geithner took far more modest steps. He apparently did little more than send a memo to his regulatory counterparts in England, recommending that the rate-setting process be changed,4 and call a meeting of U.S. regulators, during which the New York Fed generally reported that the LIBOR process was vulnerable to potential manipulation but reportedly did not cite the actual manipulation to which Barclays had confessed.5

This regulatory response was so remarkably tepid that Barclays actually continued to manipulate LIBOR for a full year after Geithner took the actions he later defended as “necessary and appropriate” which apparently included relying on the British regulators to “fix this.”6 Indeed, although at the time some suspicions were reported in the press that LIBOR was being manipulated,7 rather than alerting the public, Geithner effectively endorsed the rate by baking it into several bailout programs, using it as a benchmark to determine the interest rate that taxpayers would receive from AIG and in certain TARP programs. According to news reports, it wasn’t until 2010 that a referral was made to the Department of Justice, and even then it came from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, not the New York Fed or Treasury.8

A number of other banking scandals have also broken since Bailout’s completion. Standard Chartered joined JPMorgan Chase in settling charges that they illicitly processed monetary transactions for institutions in nations such as Iran and Cuba,9 and a Senate Committee detailed HSBC’s apparent facilitation of financial transactions for rogue organizations, including those potentially involved in terrorism or narcotics traf-ficking.10 The Department of Justice has also brought civil charges against Wells Fargo and Bank of America for defrauding the government of more than a billion dollars in connection with fraudulent mortgage activity that continued through 2009, well after the banks had accepted TARP funds. These cases, brought in October 2012, followed the settlement of similar charges against Citigroup and Deutsche Bank. Also in October, the New York State attorney general brought a broad civil case against JPMorgan Chase for fraud committed by Bear Stearns in the assembling and sale of mortgage-related securities during the run-up to the financial crisis, and he filed a similar case against Credit Suisse the following month. The SEC also settled cases against both JPMorgan Chase and Credit Suisse over the packaging and sale of similar securities.11

To date, however, all of these cases and scandals have one thing in common. Not a single institution or senior executive has been criminally charged for the underlying conduct. And while there have been leaked news stories suggesting that some of the lower-level Barclays traders may in fact be charged criminally in the LIBOR case, it seems as if the likelihood of high-level criminal charges for cases related to the financial crisis or actions taken in its aftermath has diminished to close to zero. As the New York attorney general told reporters, he chose civil over criminal cases not necessarily because of a paucity of evidence, but because the authorities had waited too long to file criminal charges.12 The five-year statute of limitations in New York for criminal cases (as opposed to the six-year statute for civil cases) had run its course. Similarly, it now appears to be too late for the president’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, originally announced in October 2009, to do its promised job “to hold accountable those who helped bring about the last financial meltdown.”13

There are a number of potential explanations for the failure to bring criminal cases, some of which are detailed in the pages that follow. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, federal law enforcement personnel and resources were understandably redirected toward counter-terrorism efforts, creating a significant shortfall in white-collar criminal investigative expertise. As a result, as I saw firsthand, by 2008 the Department of Justice lacked sophistication when it came to investigating complex accounting fraud cases.

But there was another reason for the lack of cases: a staggering absence of referrals from regulators—such as Geithner’s New York Fed—to the Department of Justice. As William K. Black, a banking regulator during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, has explained, prosecutors back then leaned heavily on banking experts at the regulatory agencies to refer and shape the cases, with Black’s agency making 30,000 referrals to the Department of Justice relating to frauds committed by the banks.14 In contrast, Black reported that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision, the two bank regulators housed at Treasury, had made only a handful of referrals in connection with the current crisis.15 Also, despite the promising announcement of the president’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, there was never a significant commitment of investigative and prosecutorial resources to focus exclusively on sophisticated crisis-related crimes.

The absence of cases is likely also related to the power, influence, and control in Washington of the largest banks. The entire federal regulatory and political apparatus coalesced during the crisis and in the aftermath around one goal—to rescue the “too big to fail” banks by any means necessary, with trillions of taxpayer dollars flowing out the door with few conditions and little accountability. With Treasury having invested so much time, effort, and treasure into saving the big banks, it was simply inconceivable that the Department of Justice could have sought criminal indictments against any of the largest banks or their top executives. Doing so would have risked causing them to fail, thereby undoing all of Treasury’s and the Federal Reserve’s efforts and putting the entire financial system at risk once again.

These problems, of course, endure, with the largest banks now nearly 25 percent bigger than they were before the crisis. If they were too big to fail in 2008, they became too big to jail in 2009. Worst of all, Wall Street knows this to be true, and each settlement of a civil case on favorable terms, and with no accountability for the individuals who committed the fraudulent acts, reinforces the most dangerous perception of all: for a select group of executives and institutions, crime pays. Why not risk crossing the line and continue to perpetrate fraud in the assembling and sale of mortgages if the penalty for getting caught is a fine that can be paid off with a few days or weeks of earnings? Why worry about violating sanctions in order to profit illegally by laundering money for terrorist-sponsoring states? Why not rip off investors by selling bonds that are designed to fail so that you can profit from your bet against them?16 Why not spend ten years defrauding the Federal Housing Administration? You know you’ll get to keep all of the ill-gotten profits if you go undetected, and on the off chance that you’re caught, your shareholders will pay a minor fine that will not affect your bottom line. In other words, the complete lack of meaningful consequences—financial or penal—for those committing these frauds encourages future fraudulent conduct.

Ultimately, the financial crisis was a game of incentives gone wild, and the lack of accountability in the aftermath of the crisis only reinforced those bad incentives. We had a chance to bring real accountability to the system in 2009 with the announcement of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, but it was left underfunded and under-resourced. We had a second chance to fix the system in 2010 by breaking up the largest banks through regulatory reform, but the banks—with a healthy assist from Geithner and the Treasury Department—won that battle too. And we had an election in 2012 that could also have been an opportunity for meaningful change. But both candidates staunchly defended the status quo, which maintained the size and power of the banks, even as they made the incredible claim that they would never bail them out again. I fear that we may not have many more opportunities left before it is too late, and that meaningful reform will arise only out of the ashes of the next economic conflagration. That is a sequel I would prefer not to have to write.

About The Author

Photograph © John Earle

Neil Barofsky served as the Special Inspector General in charge of overseeing TARP from December 2008 until March 2011. For eight years prior, he was a federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, during which time he headed the Mortgage Fraud Group. Currently, Neil Barofsky is a senior fellow at New York University School of Law. An alum of the University of Pennsylvania and the New York University School of Law, this is his first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (February 5, 2013)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451684957

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Raves and Reviews

"Witty and've gotta get this. It's unbelievable."

– Jon Stewart, The Daily Show

"[Neil Barofsky is] a born writer…. Bailout is a kind of Alice in Wonderland tale of an ordinary, sane person disappearing down into a realm of hallucinatory dysfunction, with Tim Geithner playing the role of the Mad Hatter and Barofsky the increasingly frustrated Alice who realizes he's stuck at the stupidest tea party he ever was at… wry… morbidly funny… one of the best."

– Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

Bailout is a jaw-dropping play-by-play of how the Treasury Department bungled the financial bailouts… With a prosecutor's logic and copious footnotes, Barofsky makes it clear things are rarely what they seem in Washington.”

– USA Today

“[Bailout] is an interesting behind-the-scenes account of how Washington tried to save the economy… [and] an enjoyable tale of how a prosecutor of Colombian drug gangs got drafted for the thankless task of policing a $700 billion bailout from a dank basement office of the Treasury.”

– Fortune

“[An] everyman account of the pervasive cynicism and insider-dealing of the D.C. establishment.”

– The American Spectator

“[One] of our favorite business books so far this year…The former special inspector general policing the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program lifts the lid on the U.S. Treasury and settles scores… [an] illuminating memoir.”

– Bloomberg Businessweek

“A damning indictment of the Obama administration's execution of the TARP program.”

– Washington Examiner

“A quick, intense, read.”

– Business Insider

“[Barofsky] set out to account for the TARP spending in a transparent, nonpartisan manner. However, as he demonstrates in his energetically written first-person account, he and his staff met resistance every time they tried to share the truth with Congress, the White House and the American public… a courageous, insightful book that offers no cause for optimism.”

– Kirkus (starred review)

“Blistering in its assessment of the Treasury Department's handling of the bailouts.”

– Huffington Post

“In his scathing new book, Barofsky says taxpayers got shafted while the rich got richer… a true expose…. Taxpayers who feel helpless in the midst of the extended economic recession are likely to feel energized to metaphorically blow up the system after reading Barofsky’s account.”

– St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[An] explosive account of the mishandling of the Troubled Asset Relief Program funds.”

– Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“[Barofsky] unleashes a blistering attack on President Barack Obama’s Treasury Department and its management of government bailout programs.”

– Politico

“In Bailout, [Barofsky] gives a detailed account of just how far-reaching, and how much, the corruption spread.”

– Publishers Weekly

"Best book about the financial crisis yet"

– Peter Osnos, The Atlantic

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