Fishy bailout profits and ephemeral gains

By J Saft
September 1, 2009

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

There is a long list of outfits which have done well out of the banking bailout, but the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve are not among them.

According to calculations made for the New York Times, the Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) has reaped profits of about $4 billion, or 15 percent annualized, as eight of the largest banks to participate have fully repaid what they owe.

Meanwhile unnamed Federal Reserve officials told the Financial Times that the central bank’s liquidity facilities have generated a “gain” of $14 billion since August of 2007.

The notion of TARP profits is only true if looked at in the narrowest sense, and even then may prove to be a return as real as those of the Florida condo flippers in the summer of 2007.

The Fed, on the other hand, incontrovertibly has earned more by buying and lending against poorer quality paper, but they did it by taking on more risk – a leaf out of the book of the industry they were helping to rescue.

Wait until the Fed starts making payday loans or gets into the reconditioned small appliance finance business, then you will see what kind of “gains” a bank with a printing press and the power to create money can really generate.

I suppose the idea is to make taxpayers and voters grateful that they had the opportunity to participate in such profitable ventures – doing well by doing good, or some similar fluff.

A number of leading banks have repaid their loans made under TARP, and the government has profited by warrants it held under the deals, but this is really only a bit of runoff from the great jet of liquidity that the government has concentrated on the industry as a whole.

“What this is more appropriately described as is a return of capital; to call this a profit is to ignore trillions of dollars in taxpayer monies that have been spent, lent, guaranteed, drawn against and otherwise consumed in what will likely be the greatest transfer of wealth in the planet’s history,” Barry Ritholz, of research firm Fusion IQ, wrote on his blog.

It is one thing to justify an enormous outlay and subsidy – and make no mistake this is what the bailouts were – on the basis that it was a needed evil, but it borders on the offensive to sell it as a successful investment.

DOING WELL FROM DOING LESS

The first to repay within any loan portfolio are by definition the strongest; it is only later that the laggards show the losses. We do not know how the TARP and other programs of support will look in three or four years time, but it is likely to be worse than they look today.

Moreover, the whole idea of rigging the game and then declaring a profit is wrong. Governments can ever and always create the conditions under which their financial sectors can turn nominal profits.

They do this in a number of ways; through lax regulation, by engineering low interest rates with a sharply sloping yield curve, by limiting competition, or by providing term financing when the markets won’t do so.

These profits though are effectively a tax on the rest of the economy, and I am betting that the taxpayer and government are not getting their fair share, which is virtually all of it.

Billions and billions of dollars are flowing elsewhere – to investors, to borrowers and to employees.

There is also the bald fact that, given that there were no effective funding markets at the time that many of the loans and investments were made, the government could have extracted far higher compensation for its support.

And what about opportunity cost? How would the government and taxpayer have fared if instead of rescuing the banks, and thereby privatizing much of the profit, it seized them and sold them off in the normal fashion? Or what about if the trillions of dollars in support were used in different ways, for different purposes, or even, heaven forfend, not spent at all?

As for the Fed and its gains, the key point is that this money, which represents the extra earned above what three-month Treasury bills would have generated, is not risk adjusted.

The Fed isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a hedge fund — leveraging up and going out the risk curve to generate profits.

It too, conceivably, can allocate credit to a particular part of the economy, say housing, and thereby make the loans it makes to that sector perform and generate “profits.” But this begs two questions; is it right for them to allocate credit in this way and are the profits real or symptoms of a bubble?

This will work for a while, but as we have seen, not forever.

(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.)

4 comments

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Thanks for the commentary James. This needs to be revisited every 3- to 6-months and thoroughly analyzed with the results put into perspective. Perspective means no spin by the government!

Posted by Jim | Report as abusive

What childish and ridiculous spinning by the Fed. Look, look!! We made $14 Billion profit on TARP!! It is to be expected that some of these loans would be profitable, but any idiot should know the majority will result in HUGE losses, otherwise they never would have been necessary to extend in the first place. And it’s a shame that REUTERS just reports this garbage without asking some questions.

Posted by blackbean | Report as abusive

Thank you Jim!

Posted by Pedro | Report as abusive

What’s so fishy about profits from loans made during the protracted bubble economy paid out by the government with funny money? As for your contention that taxpayers and governments aren’t getting their “fair share” what does that matter? They’re only there to pay for the nonpareil!

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

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