James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

8 reasons TARP is a bust

Dec 9, 2009 17:26 UTC

The oversight panel led by television funnywoman Elizabeth Warren has concluded that TARP has been asset for the economy. Except for this part (in the panel’s own words):

1) It is apparent that after fourteen months the TARP’s programs have not been able to solve many of the ongoing problems Congress identified. Credit availability, the lifeblood of the economy, remains low.

2) In light of the weak economy, banks are reluctant to lend, while small businesses and consumers are reluctant to borrow.

3) In addition, questions remain about the capitalization of many banks, and whether they are focusing on repairing their balance sheets at the expense of lending.

4) The FDIC, facing red ink for the first time in 17 years, must step in to repay depositors at a growing number of failed banks. This problem may well worsen, as deep-seated problems in the commercial real estate sector are poised to inflict further damage on small and mid-sized banks.

5) Large banks have problems of their own. Some of them, waiting for a rebound in asset values that may still be years away, continue to hold the toxic mortgage-related securities that contributed to the crisis. Consequently, the United States continues to face the prospect of banks too big to fail and too weak to play their role adequately in keeping credit flowing throughout the economy.

6) The foreclosure crisis continues to grow.

7) Furthermore, the market stability that has emerged since last fall’s crisis has been in part the result of an extraordinary mix of government actions, some of which will likely be scaled back relatively soon, and few of which are likely to continue indefinitely. The removal of this support too quickly could undermine the economy’s nascent stability.

8) While strong government action helped prevent a worse crisis, it may have done so at a significant long run cost to the performance of our market economy. Implicit government guarantees pose the most difficult long-term problem to emerge from the crisis. Looking ahead, there is no consensus among experts or policymakers as to how to prevent financial institutions from taking risks that are so large as to threaten the functioning of the nation’s economy. Congress is currently grappling with this issue as it considers how to respond legislatively to the financial crisis. It is clear that a failure to address the moral hazard issue will only lead to more severe crises in the future.

Me: Oh, and then you have the devolution of TARP into a slush fund to bail out AIG, union auto workers and congressional Democrats worried about how the high unemployment rate will hurt their 2010 chances. Thus the new jobs bill. But it did stop the panic, unless you believe John Taylor that it really made the panic worse through uncertainty.

Just how much danger is Tim Geithner in?

Nov 20, 2009 14:29 UTC

When both Paul Krugman and the WSJ editorial page are hammering you, as they are Geithner, either you are doing something really right or really wrong.

First Krugman:

For the A.I.G. rescue was part of a pattern: Throughout the financial crisis key officials — most notably Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Fed in 2008 and is now Treasury secretary — have shied away from doing anything that might rattle Wall Street. And the bitter paradox is that this play-it-safe approach has ended up undermining prospects for economic recovery. For the job of fixing the broken economy is far from done — yet finishing the job has become nearly impossible now that the public has lost faith in the government’s efforts, viewing them as little more than handouts to the people who got us into this mess.

Now the WSJ:

In the fall of 2008 the New York Fed drove a baby-soft bargain with AIG’s credit-default-swap counterparties. The Fed’s taxpayer-funded vehicle, Maiden Lane III, bought out the counterparties’ mortgage-backed securities at 100 cents on the dollar, effectively canceling out the CDS contracts. This was miles above what those assets could have fetched in the market at that time, if they could have been sold at all.

The New York Fed president at the time was none other than Timothy Geithner, the current Treasury Secretary, and Mr. Geithner now tells Mr. Barofsky that in deciding to make the counterparties whole, “the financial condition of the counterparties was not a relevant factor.”

This is startling. In April we noted in these columns that Goldman Sachs, a major AIG counterparty, would certainly have suffered from an AIG failure. And in his latest report, Mr. Barofsky comes to the same conclusion. But if Mr. Geithner now says the AIG bailout wasn’t driven by a need to rescue CDS counterparties, then what was the point? Why pay Goldman and even foreign banks like Societe Generale billions of tax dollars to make them whole?

This means a more complete explanation from Mr. Geithner of what really drove his decisions last year, how he now defines systemic risk, and why he wants unlimited power to bail out creditors—before Congress grants the executive branch unlimited resolution authority that could lead to bailouts ad infinitum.