March 24, 2009 / 1:21 PM / 10 years ago

Bernanke's House testimony on AIG bailout

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Following is the full text of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s prepared testimony delivered on Tuesday before the House Financial Services Committee on federal aid to American International Group:

“Chairman Frank, Ranking Member Bachus, and other members of the Committee, I appreciate having this opportunity to discuss the Federal Reserve’s involvement with American International Group, Inc. (AIG). In my testimony, I will describe why supporting AIG was a difficult but necessary step to protect our economy and stabilize our financial system. I will also discuss issues related to compensation and note two matters raised by this experience that merit congressional attention.

Reasons for Our Original Lending Decision

We at the Federal Reserve, working closely with the Treasury, made our decision to lend to AIG on September 16 of last year. It was an extraordinary time. Global financial markets were experiencing unprecedented strains and a worldwide loss of confidence. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had been placed into conservatorship only two weeks earlier, and Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy the day before. We were very concerned about a number of other major firms that were under intense stress.

AIG’s financial condition had been deteriorating for some time, caused by actual and expected losses on subprime mortgage-backed securities and on credit default swaps that AIG’s Financial Products unit, AIG-FP, had written on mortgage-related securities. As confidence in the firm declined, and with efforts to find a private-sector solution unsuccessful, AIG faced severe liquidity pressures that threatened to force it imminently into bankruptcy.

The Federal Reserve and the Treasury agreed that AIG’s failure under the conditions then prevailing would have posed unacceptable risks for the global financial system and for our economy. Some of AIG’s insurance subsidiaries, which are among the largest in the United States and the world, would have likely been put into rehabilitation by their regulators, leaving policyholders facing considerable uncertainty about the status of their claims. State and local government entities that had lent more than $10 billion to AIG would have suffered losses. Workers whose 401(k) plans had purchased $40 billion of insurance from AIG against the risk that their stable value funds would decline in value would have seen that insurance disappear. Global banks and investment banks would have suffered losses on loans and lines of credit to AIG, and on derivatives with AIG-FP. The banks’ combined exposures exceeded $50 billion.1 Money market mutual funds and others that held AIG’s roughly $20 billion of commercial paper would also have taken losses. In addition, AIG’s insurance subsidiaries had substantial derivatives exposures to AIG-FP that could have weakened them in the event of the parent company’s failure.

Moreover, as the Lehman case clearly demonstrates, focusing on the direct effects of a default on AIG’s counterparties understates the risks to the financial system as a whole. Once begun, a financial crisis can spread unpredictably. For example, Lehman’s default on its commercial paper caused a prominent money market mutual fund to “break the buck” and suspend withdrawals, which in turn ignited a general run on prime money market mutual funds, with resulting severe stresses in the commercial paper market. As I mentioned, AIG had about $20 billion in commercial paper outstanding, so its failure would have exacerbated the problems of the money market mutual funds. Another worrisome possibility was that uncertainties about the safety of insurance products could have led to a run on the broader insurance industry by policyholders and creditors. Moreover, it was well known in the market that many major financial institutions had large exposures to AIG. Its failure would likely have led financial market participants to pull back even more from commercial and investment banks, and those institutions perceived as weaker would have faced escalating pressure. Recall that these events took place before the passage of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which provided funds that the Treasury used to help stem a global banking panic in October. Consequently, it is unlikely that the failure of additional major firms could have been prevented in the wake of the failure of AIG. At best, the consequences of AIG’s failure would have been a significant intensification of an already severe financial crisis and a further worsening of global economic conditions. Conceivably, its failure could have resulted in a 1930s-style global financial and economic meltdown, with catastrophic implications for production, income, and jobs.

The decision by the Federal Reserve on September 16, 2008, with the full support of the Treasury, to lend up to $85 billion to AIG should be viewed with this background in mind. At that time, no federal entity could provide capital to stabilize AIG and no federal or state entity outside of a bankruptcy court could wind down AIG. Unfortunately, federal bankruptcy laws do not sufficiently protect the public’s strong interest in ensuring the orderly resolution of nondepository financial institutions when a failure would pose substantial systemic risks, which is why I have called on the Congress to develop new emergency resolution procedures. However, the Federal Reserve did have the authority to lend on a fully secured basis, consistent with our emergency lending authority provided by the Congress and our responsibility as central bank to maintain financial stability. We took as collateral for our loan AIG’s pledge of a substantial portion of its assets, including its ownership interests in its domestic and foreign insurance subsidiaries. This decision bought time for subsequent actions by the Congress, the Treasury, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Federal Reserve that have avoided further failures of systemically important institutions and have supported improvements in key credit markets.

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