Nearly a year after the federal rescue of the nation’s biggest banks, taxpayers have begun seeing profits from the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that many critics thought might never be seen again.
It was inevitable that the same people who pushed through the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street would come out later on and tell us what a great idea theirs turned out to be, in retrospect and under the light of evidentiary examination. And we’re getting that now, with a pair of reports, the above one in the New York Times and another in the Financial Times, telling us the bailout is working because the government has made some money on TARP. They came to this conclusion by quoting Fed officials, who apparently calculated how much interest the Fed earned on TARP investments above what it would have earned on T-bills. The amount so far, according to these worthy gentlemen: $14 billion.
This is sort of like calculating the returns on a mutual fund by only counting the stocks in the fund that have gone up. Forgetting for a moment that TARP is only slightly relevant in the entire bailout scheme – more on that in a moment – the TARP calculations are a joke, apparently leaving out huge future losses from AIG and Citigroup and others in the red. Since only a small portion of the debt has been put down by the best borrowers, and since the borrowers in the worst shape haven’t retired their obligations yet, it’s crazy to make any conclusions about TARP, pure sophistry. Moreover, a think tank set up to analyze TARP, Ethisphere, calculated in June that TARP was still $148 billion down overall, a debt of over $1200 per American. To start talking about what a success TARP is now is beyond meaningless.
The other reason for that is that it’s only a tiny sliver of the whole bailout picture. The real burden carried by the government and the Fed comes from the various anonymous bailout facilities – the TALF, the PPIP, the Maiden Lanes, and so on. The losses from the Fed’s purchase of distressed/crap Bear Stearns assets (Maiden Lane I) and AIG assets (MaidenLanes II and III) alone were as recently as late July calculated in the $8.6 billion range, and even that number is very conservative. Then there’s the trillion or so dollars that the Fed used on buying up mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries; we don’t know what their market value is now. And there are untold trillions more the Fed has loaned out in the last 18 months and which we are not likely to find out much about, unless the recent court ruling green-lighting Bloomberg’s FOIA request for those records actually goes through.
In light of all this, the Fed’s decision to brag publicly about a few loans that are actually performing is sort of scary – it speaks to a level of intellectual desperation and magical-thinking unusual even for a banker in the subprime/MBS era. Don’t be surprised if you hear more of this sort of thing in the coming years.