Tag Archives: TARP

Larry Summers and Finance

By James Kwak

I think some people didn’t understand the point I was making about the question of whether the government made money on TARP in my earlier post. Summers said, “The government got back substantially more money than it invested.” This is true, at least if you give him some slack on the word “substantially.” The money repaid, including interest on preferred stock and sales of common stock, exceeded the money invested.

My point begins with the observation that, as of late last year, the government had earned an annual return of less than 0.5%. My point itself is that it is silly to evaluate an investment by whether or not it has a positive return in nominal terms. You can only meaningfully evaluate an investment by comparing it to some benchmark. Saying that a nominal return of 0.5% is greater than 0% is meaningless, since the 0% benchmark is meaningless. Most obviously, it doesn’t account for inflation; since inflation has been about 1–2%, the government lost money in real terms.

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Not with a Bang

By James Kwak

In the Times, Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General for TARP, performed the admirable feat of fitting a clear, comprehensive, sober critique of how TARP was implemented and what its long-term impact will be in fewer than 1,000 words. It’s a perspective I mainly agree with,* and it highlights the different priorities that the administration put on aid to large banks and aid to homeowners, even though both were goals of the bill.

Back in late 2008 and early 2009, there was a lot of talk about how a true solution for the problems of the banking system would require a solution for the problems of homeowners, since the banks’ losses were largely the result of mortgage defaults. One of the major technical achievements of the administration was showing that it was possible to stabilize the financial system and restore the banks to short-term profitability without doing much for homeowners. As Barofsky says, and as the Times reports in yet another article today, the administration’s programs to help homeowners obtain loan modifications had little impact on the behavior of the banks that service mortgages and foreclosures continue unabated. Real housing prices have fallen below the previous lows of 2009 and now look likely to overcorrect on the downside.**

Housing modifications are admittedly more difficult than bailing out banks. It’s administratively easier to write a few $25 billion checks and create unlimited low-interest credit lines for a few of the Federal Reserve’s existing customers than to intervene in millions of mortgages. But the financial crisis was a time of bold action on other fronts. Treasury and the Federal Reserve were willing to push the limits of the law, for example in J.P. Morgan’s takeover of Bear Stearns. (See the chapter in Steven Davidoff’s book Gods at War for the details.) Henry Paulson threatened to declare the nation’s largest banks insolvent if they didn’t agree to sell preferred stock to the government. By contrast, as law professor Katherine Porter says in the Times article, “The banks were so despised, and TARP was so front and center, you could have actually done something. In the midst of real boldness in bailing out the banks, we get this timid, soft, voluntary conditional program.”

The lesson we learned learned is that homeowners were only a priority insofar as their health mattered to the banks’ health. When those two things became unmoored, the administration was willing to declare victory.

* The main thing I don’t agree with is Barofsky’s implied criticism of the Bush administration for using TARP money to buy preferred stock from banks rather than buying mortgage-backed securities directly. While I have often criticized various aspects of the preferred stock purchases, I think it was a more direct way to stop the panic of September-October 2008, and at that point a program to purchase MBS would probably have been an even more blatant transfer to the banks.

** I’m all for prices falling from bubble levels, but the policy goal should have been preventing them from falling through the long-term trend.

“A Healthy Financial System Cannot Be Built On The Expectation Of Bailouts”

By Simon Johnson.  Testimony submitted to the Congressional Oversight Panel, “Hearing on the TARP’s Impact on Financial Stability,” Friday, March 4, 2011.

I.                   Summary

1)      The financial crisis is not over, in the sense that its impact persists and even continues to spread.  Employment remains more than 5 percent below its pre-crisis peak, millions of homeowners are still underwater on their mortgages, and the negative fiscal consequences – at national, state, and local level – remain profound. 

2)      To the extent that a full evaluation is possible today, the financial crisis produced a pattern of rapid economic decline and slow employment recovery quite unlike any post-war recession – it looks much more like a mini-depression of the kind the US economy used to experience in the 19th century.  In addition, the fiscal costs of the disaster in our banking system so far amount to roughly a 40 percentage point increase in net federal government debt held by the private sector, i.e., roughly a doubling of outstanding debt. 

3)      In this context, TARP played a significant role preventing the mini-depression from becoming a full-blown Great Depression, primarily by providing capital to financial institutions that were close to insolvency or otherwise under market pressure.

4)      But part of the cost is to distort further incentives at the heart of Wall Street.  Neil Barofsky, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Assets Relief Program put it well in his latest quarterly report, which appeared in late January, emphasizing: “perhaps TARP’s most significant legacy, the moral hazard and potentially disastrous consequences associated with the continued existence of financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail.’” Continue reading

TARP Is Gone – But May Soon Be Back

The Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, is over – more specifically, its legal authority expires on Sunday, so it cannot be used for new “bailout” activities (although legacy programs, with money already disbursed, could last 5 to 10 years.)

The first draft of its history, looking back over the past two years, may be this: TARP was an essential piece of a necessary evil – that is, it saved the American financial system from collapse — but it was implemented in a way that was excessively favorable to the very bankers who had presided over the collapse. And this sets up exactly the wrong incentives as we head into the next credit cycle. Continue reading

What’s Up with Citigroup?

On Monday, Citigroup received permission from its regulators to buy back the remaining $20 billion in preferred shares held by Treasury because of its investments under TARP. (Treasury invested $25 billion in October 2008 and another $20 billion November 2008; however, $25 billion worth of preferred shares were converted into common shares earlier this year, giving the government about a 34% ownership stake in the bank.) The stock then fell by 6%. What’s going on?

This is another example of a bank doing something stupid in order to say that it is no longer receiving TARP money, and probably more importantly so it can escape executive compensation restrictions. As Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit himself said last October, TARP capital is really cheap (quoted in David Wessel, In Fed We Trust). Instead of paying an 8% interest rate* on $20 billion in preferred shares, Citigroup chose to issue $17 billion of new common shares while its share price is below $4/share. Citigroup’s cost of equity is certainly more than 8%, so it just increased its overall cost of capital. The stock price fell because existing shareholders are guessing that the dilution they suffered (because new shares were issued) will more than compensate for the fact that Citi no longer has to pay dividends to Treasury.

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Casey Mulligan’s Straw Man

Casey Mulligan argues that bank recapitalization under TARP was a failure because it did not lead to increased bank lending. He argues that this was a necessary outcome, because (a) public purchases of bank capital crowd out private purchases of bank capital, and (b) new capital does not necessarily flow into lending, and concludes: “This episode is an expensive example of public policy promises that were doomed to failure because they were known at the outset to defy economic theory.”

I have often argued that there were many things wrong with TARP. But this is not one of them.

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Cash for Trash: Better Never than Late

The following guest post was written by Linus Wilson, a finance professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the media’s go-to guy on calculating the value of transactions between the government and the banks, and an occasional commenter on this blog. Linus also analyzes government-bank transactions at Seeking Alpha.

The U.S. government does few thing better than create debt.  After a year of talking about it, the government is going to have the chance to throw their good debt, Treasury bills notes and bonds, after bad, non-performing toxic loans and securities.  The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the U.S. Treasury are going their separate ways on their cash for trash schemes at this point.  Accountants and investors should be wary of the big prices they see coming from the FDIC’s auctions, but taxpayers should be afraid of the U.S. Treasury’s efforts to re-inflate the securitization bubble.

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