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Why The Fed Owns A Mall In Oklahoma City

As part of the bailouts of AIG and Bear Stearns, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York spent more than $70 billion to buy toxic assets the companies owned. Last week, prompted by a lawsuit filed by Bloomberg News, the Fed finally told the world exactly what it bought.

The Fed now owns loans to Hilton hotels in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Malaysia and Trinidad. It owns loans to the Miami airport, and the Civic Opera House in Chicago.

It also owned a loan to Crossroads Mall in Oklahoma City. Then, when the owners of the mall couldn't make the payments, the Fed foreclosed. So now it owns the mall, which includes a Chick-fil-A and an AMC theater.

The mall's for sale — cheap! "This lender owned distressed asset ... can be purchased at far below replacement cost," the listing says.

The Fed also owns credit-default swaps — basically, insurance policies that pay off if a borrower defaults on a loan. It holds swaps on the debt of Florida schools, and on debt owed by California and Nevada. So the Fed would profit if one of those states defaulted on its debt.

Here's how Vincent Reinhart, a former Fed economist who now works at the American Enterprise Institute, describes the odd state of the bank's balance sheet:

"You should have the image of Chairman Ben Bernanke flying to a speaking engagement," Reinhart says. "And he can look out the window and look down and say, 'Boy, I own a piece of that, I own a piece of that, I own a piece of that, I own a piece of that.' "

The New York Fed, which bundled the assets into special companies called Maiden Lane I, II and III, says it only bought the assets because the crisis was so extreme.

"We're not happy about it. These were special circumstances," says William Dudley, president of the New York Fed. "I did not expect as president of the New York Federal Reserve that I'd have to be worried about a mall in Oklahoma City."

The Fed is an independent entity, so it's not quite right to say that the purchases were funded with taxpayer money.

But the Maiden Lane purchases — which the Fed says were necessary to keep the financial system afloat — could wind up affecting us. Every year, the Fed passes profits on to taxpayers, via the Treasury. If the Fed winds up losing money on the Maiden Lane properties, that would mean less money flowing back to the Treasury.

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