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How TARP Staved Off Disaster

Did the Troubled Assets Relief Program save the world? I think I can make a good case that this much-reviled government “bailout” did just that.

Two years ago the banking system, and the world economy, stood on the brink of disaster. Nobody trusted that they knew the value of anything, rendering everyone effectively broke. It was a bad situation for all involved, but an impossible situation for banks, which responded by limiting lending, even to one another. Without lending there could hardly be an economy, let alone an economic recovery.

TARP was first and foremost a commitment by the U.S. government that America’s banking system, and the world’s, would not be allowed to collapse. This provided time for things to settle down, for markets to begin functioning again, and for everyone to appreciate that the banking system’s problems were manageable, as was later documented by the stress tests. TARP did not just rescue the banks; it rescued everything and everyone from financial chaos.

But now, as the program is wrapping up, few Americans are inclined to see the legislators who voted for TARP as heroes. “This is the best federal program of any real size to be despised by the public like this,” Douglas J. Elliott, a former investment banker now associated with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, told The New York Times. In a July poll for Bloomberg News, fewer than three in 10 Americans said they thought TARP had been necessary “to prevent the financial industry from failing and drastically hurting the U.S. economy.” And, as the campaign season continues, voters are ready to blackball any candidate who so much as hints that TARP might have been a good idea.

This ongoing hostility toward the program continues even as new reports show that, in the end, TARP may not cost taxpayers anything. The Treasury Department reported recently that, in the worst case scenario, the net cost of TARP will be about $50 billion. In the best case scenario, the government may actually make money off its investments.

Since Oct. 1, the Treasury can no longer commit money to new initiatives under the program. Of the $700 billion that Congress authorized, the Treasury only ever committed $470 billion, $387 billion of which has actually been disbursed.

Even though the news from the accounting department is good, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been quick to point out that the real achievement of TARP is not that it recouped taxpayers’ money, but that it provided enough of a boost to restart the economy. “We weren't in the business to make money,” he said.

As an economic intervention, TARP was highly effective. The price of borrowing fell rapidly in 2009 as banks were convinced to write more loans. As the economy rebounded, banks were able to quickly replace public funds with private capital, indicating a renewal of confidence.

Of course some TARP money was undoubtedly misused or even abused. Those who put TARP together and those who oversaw its implementation had no cookbook to follow; they had to invent everything as they went along. Mistakes were inevitable.

Using TARP money to rescue auto companies was, I believe, questionable. Even with the new optimistic estimates, the Treasury still expects to come out in the red on its auto industry investments, and it’s debatable whether the booster shot to auto companies really did much for the economy as a whole. But, if you ask a group of actors to simultaneously write, rehearse and perform a Broadway show, you ought to be happy if they pull it off. You can’t expect them to win a Tony. The authors of TARP pulled it off.

Americans who loathe TARP often conflate the costs of the program with other costs from the economic meltdown. The real costs of the financial crisis are embedded in the millions of underwater mortgages and in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars it will take to clean up the mess of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other elements of the mortgage system. Most of those costs are not reflected in the TARP figures. The public is right to suspect that a big and unpleasant surprise is coming, but it is wrong to believe that TARP will be the vehicle for that surprise, or that we would have been better off without TARP.

Regardless of the facts, many people insist on believing that TARP was a “bank bailout,” which handed taxpayer money over to big businesses while leaving middle-income people to suffer the recession out in the cold. They argue that the government should have instead put money toward job creation, without realizing that employers depend on banks in order to stay in business. If banks disappear, so do jobs — everybody’s jobs.

Given all the economy’s other problems, it’s not easy to celebrate TARP. But we ought to at least recognize it for the success that it was, and credit those who came up with it in a moment of true desperation. We are a long way from being out of the financial woods. It will be a lot easier to make things right if we can at least distinguish between success and failure.

A lot of politicians who supported TARP are going to lose their jobs this year. They fell on their swords for us, and I believe historians will someday take note of their sacrifice.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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2 Responses to "How TARP Staved Off Disaster"

  • Jon Burchfield
    October 14, 2010 - 12:12 pm

    It was stated in the article that you believe “the public is right to suspect a big and unpleasant surprise is coming, but it is wrong to believe that TARP will be the vehicle for that surprise”. Could you elaborate on what you believe the big and unpleasant surprise is and what the vehicle for the surprise is? Thanks.

  • Larry Elkin
    October 14, 2010 - 1:01 pm

    There are big troubles ahead in the area of public finance — federal, state, local and, as we have seen in Europe this year, overseas as well. This is part of a broader, fundamental problem in the credit markets. We have created an environment in which the use of money is, essentially, free — for those who can get it. But capital is not worthless; therefore money cannot be free. The situation is unsustainable.

    There are many ways in which this can play out, and a lot of the scenarios are not mutually exclusive. State and municipal insolvency, a crashing dollar, rapid inflation and another big economic downturn (not immediately, but somewhere near the middle or latter part of this decade) are all distinct possibilities.

    It all boils down to one thing: Society has made many promises it cannot possibly keep. Because impossible things never happen, this means a lot of the promises will be broken. What remains to be seen is which promises will be broken, when they will be broken, and the manner in which they will be broken.

    I’ll have more to say in future columns in this space.