Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash

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Propublica.org

A confidential report and a fired examiner’s hidden recorder penetrate the cloistered world of Wall Street’s top regulator—and its history of deference to banks.

Barely a year removed from the devastation of the 2008 financial crisis, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York faced a crossroads. Congress had set its sights on reform. The biggest banks in the nation had shown that their failure could threaten the entire financial system. Lawmakers wanted new safeguards.

The Federal Reserve, and, by dint of its location off Wall Street, the New York Fed, was the logical choice to head the effort. Except it had failed miserably in catching the meltdown.

New York Fed President William Dudley had to answer two questions quickly: Why had his institution blown it, and how could it do better? So he called in an outsider, a Columbia University finance professor named David Beim, and granted him unlimited access to investigate. In exchange, the results would remain secret.

After interviews with dozens of New York Fed employees, Beim learned something that surprised even him. The most daunting obstacle the New York Fed faced in overseeing the nation’s biggest financial institutions was its own culture. The New York Fed had become too risk-averse and deferential to the banks it supervised. Its examiners feared contradicting bosses, who too often forced their findings into an institutional consensus that watered down much of what they did.

The report didn’t only highlight problems. Beim provided a path forward. He urged the New York Fed to hire expert examiners who were unafraid to speak up and then encourage them to do so. It was essential, he said, to preventing the next crisis.

A year later, Congress gave the Federal Reserve even more oversight authority. And the New York Fed started hiring specialized examiners to station inside the too-big-to fail institutions, those that posed the most risk to the financial system.

One of the expert examiners it chose was Carmen Segarra.

Segarra appeared to be exactly what Beim ordered. Passionate and direct, schooled in the Ivy League and at the Sorbonne, she was a lawyer with more than 13 years of experience in compliance – the specialty of helping banks satisfy rules and regulations. The New York Fed placed her inside one of the biggest and, at the time, most controversial banks in the country, Goldman Sachs.

It did not go well. She was fired after only seven months.

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