The Cost of the TARP: One More Time

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Sunday, 03 October 2010 15:07

Since some folks are determined to spread nonsense about the TARP, I suppose it's necessary for those of us not on Wall Street's payroll to keep trotting out the truth. The basic points of the TARP backers are:

1) it didn't cost us anything;

2) it was necessary; and

3) Dodd-Frank ensures that it will never happen again.

 

Claim 1 is just absolute nonsense. We gave the banks trillions of dollars worth of loans and loan guarantees through the TARP, the Fed and the FDIC at way below market rates at the time. It is true that most of this money was paid back, so the government got back what it lent, but that does not mean there was no cost to the taxpayer.

Without TARP and the other government bailout programs, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Bank of America, and many other large banks would have gone bankrupt. Their top executives would be unemployed today and their shareholders would have lost hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth, as would their creditors.

Thanks to their access to below market credit in their time of need, courtesy of the taxpayer bailouts, the Wall Street executives are still pocketing tens of millions a year and the banks are again making record profits. Had the market been allowed to work its magic, this wealth and income would have been available for the rest of society. The financial sector will continue to be a drain on the rest of the economy because the government saved it from the consequences of its own recklessness.

 

Claim 2 implies that the economy would have collapsed absent the TARP. It assumes an absurd counter-factual: that the government and the Fed would have allowed the banks to collapse and then done nothing in response to boost the economy. Of course that would have been a catastrophe, but it is simply a lie to claim that our options were either doing TARP or never doing anything.

There is no reason that we could not have let the banks go down in the cesspool of junk loans that they had fostered and then flooded the system with liquidity after the fact to boost the economy. This is the serious alternative scenario -- not the permanent do nothing scenario that TARP proponents have created.

 

Claim 3 ignores the fact that we have bigger too-big-to-fail banks than we did before the crisis. Most of the largest banks are larger today than they were before the crisis because we allowed a series of major mergers (e.g. J.P. Morgan Chase with Bear Stearns and Bank of America with Merrill Lynch) as a result of the crisis. It is very unlikely that the future regulators will be any more willing to tolerate the collapse of these giants than was the 2008 crew.

Resolution authority may give the regulators more flexibility in a crisis in the future than they had in the 2008 crisis, but the big problem was that they wanted the creditors paid off, not that they didn't. For example, the Treasury Department/Fed made good on 100 percent of AIG's debts, instead of trying to impose haircuts on its creditors. There is no reason to expect regulators to act any differently in future crises.

In short, the TARP opponents are absolutely right. TARP was an unnecessary giveaway to the Wall Street crew that was responsible for the financial crisis.