The news outlets that insisted Congress approve TARP or the world will end have been anxiously touting the prospect of repayments and possible profits for the taxpayers from one-time basket cases like Citigroup and AIG. It is worth noting that the question of the government showing a profit or loss on its loans to these companies has little to do with whether the bailout was a net benefit to taxpayers.
Suppose the government uncovered a counterfeiting operation. Instead of shutting it down, suppose it allowed the counterfeiters to print $1 trillion in counterfeit money and buy up the stock of legitimate companies. The counterfeiters would then give ten percent of this stock, worth $100 billion, to the government and shut down their counterfeiting operations.
By the TARP accounting logic, the taxpayers made $100 billion on this deal. In reality, the counterfeiters were allowed to lay claim to $900 billion of the country's wealth based on their counterfeit currency.
The situation with the TARP is similar. Through the TARP and the much larger Fed lending operations, the Wall Street banks were able to borrow money at far below market interest rates. This allowed them to make substantial profits at the peak of the financial crisis. They are now using the profits made with government funds to repay the government with interest. However, the shareholders, creditors, and top executives of these banks are now far richer than they would be if they had not been given access to public money at below market rates.
To imply that this situation has profited the taxpaying public as a whole because the loans have been repaid is extremely misleading, just as it would be inaccurate to imply that the country had benefited by getting a cut of the counterfeiters' profits.
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