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Today the Senate Banking Committee will explore the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Almost 30 months after its birth, TARP is far from dead. More than 550 banks, AIG, GM, Chrysler and others still have approximately $160 billion of taxpayer money outstanding.
Even so, the administration would have us believe that TARP has been a success because it supposedly alleviated the financial crisis and is (so far) being paid back at an apparent profit for taxpayers. Perhaps because he helped invent TARP before he joined the Obama administration, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has called TARP the “most effective government program in recent memory.”
Treasury’s view is misleading. First, it hides the full story of the government’s financial crisis effort, of which TARP is but a minor part. Moreover, Treasury has not been content using rhetoric alone to try to put TARP in the best light. The Special Inspector General for TARP criticized Treasury in October for inadequately disclosing a change in its valuation methodology that reduced a $45 billion loss in AIG to $5 billion, making TARP losses appear smaller than they really are. This data manipulation is only part of a much larger problem with Treasury’s representations regarding the supposed success of the bank bailout payments that lie at the heart of TARP.
The focus on repayment fails to consider the huge taxpayer costs from non-TARP programs that directly and indirectly enabled many of the large banks to repay their TARP funds. These intertwined programs, operated by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, dwarf the size of TARP and lack its accountability.
The financial crisis was born in the housing bubble caused by the policies of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two bankrupt government-sponsored entities (GSEs) charged with buying and packaging mortgages into mortgage-backed securities (MBS). TARP banks own billions of dollars worth of MBS and have remained liquid in part because the Federal Reserve has bought more than $1.1 trillion of these GSE-guaranteed MBS in the securities markets–all outside TARP.
The Fed purchased the MBS at fair market value, but this value reflects Treasury’s bailout and continued support of the GSEs–also done outside of TARP with taxpayer money. Had the GSEs failed, TARP recipients probably would have been stuck with these MBS, writing them down at significant loss. Their ability to pay back TARP funding would have been hurt, and they might have had to obtain more TARP funds or go bust.
So the taxpayer-backed GSE guarantee enables the Fed to prop up the market with taxpayer funds, in turn allowing the TARP banks to “repay” their TARP funds. The bailout of the GSEs by Treasury thus shifts potential losses from TARP to other programs that have less oversight and public scrutiny. Any evaluation of TARP’s success must take into account the interaction among all government programs designed to prop-up the financial system, and the shifting of costs among these programs.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Treasury’s bailout of the GSEs will cost the taxpayers approximately $380 billion through fiscal year 2021. If only one-fourth of CBO’s estimate ultimately benefits TARP recipients and other financial institutions, taxpayers will have provided a subsidy to these institutions of approximately $100 billion, which is not accounted for under TARP.
Also seldom mentioned are future costs resulting from using TARP funds to rescue “systemically important” financial and other firms. TARP exacerbates the “too big to fail” phenomenon by targeting much of its funding toward large banks and automobile firms, solidifying the market’s belief in an implicit guarantee from the government for these firms. As credit-rating agencies have recognized, these large firms can borrow much more cheaply than their small-enough-to-fail competitors, which will lead to less competition, a more concentrated financial sector, and higher prices paid by consumers.
In addition, creating larger, more systemically important financial firms increases the likelihood of future financial crises because these firms have an incentive to invest in riskier projects as a result of the implicit government guarantee. The additional costs borne by consumers in the form of higher prices for financial services and the additional costs that result from future financial crises need to be included in any accounting of the costs of the TARP.
TARP was never where the real action was happening. In fact, other Fed and FDIC programs added another $2 trillion of taxpayer money at risk to the 19 stress-tested banks alone, on top of the $1.1 trillion of MBS purchased by the Fed. TARP is but one-eighth of that total.
The government’s efforts inside and outside of TARP have sown the seeds for the next crisis and, unfortunately, last year’s 2,319-page Dodd-Frank Act does nothing to fix these problems. Treasury must be more transparent regarding TARP. The real myth that the Treasury secretary should dispel is that TARP is a big win for the taxpayer.
Paul S. Atkins is a visiting scholar at AEI.
Despite a $160 million outstanding lifeline, Treasury misrepresentation paints a rosy picture of success.
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