The U.S. Treasury reported this week that taxpayers will make a $20 billion profit from the Troubled Asset Relief Program for banks, the government’s emergency support during the financial crisis.
That’s because banks have been paying dividends to the government on what was essentially borrowed capital and now 99 percent of the funds have been paid back.
The latest banks to pay back TARP, as announced this week, were Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Bancorp; Boyertown, Pa.’s National Penn Bancshares; Rapid City, South Dakota’s Stockmens Financial Corp.; San Jose, California’s Bridge Capital Holdings; and Norfolk, Virginia’s Heritage Bankshares.
Separately, the Congressional Budget Office has brought down its estimate of the total cost of TARP to taxpayers, which included investments in automobile manufacturers and insurer AIG, down to $25 billion, must less than the $356 billion the budget office previously estimated.
Winding down its work this week, the Congressional Oversight Panel for TARP released its final report on the program, saying TARP helped avert an even worse financial meltdown, which has become a pretty standard line for economists on both sides of the political aisle.
The Congressional Oversight Panel said: “The TARP does not deserve full credit for this outcome, but it provided critical support to markets at a moment of profound uncertainty. It achieved this effect in part by providing capital to banks but, more significantly, by demonstrating that the United States would take any action necessary to prevent the collapse of its financial system.”
The report goes on to criticize TARP as well, saying part of the reason the program has cost so little is because some of it didn’t work. For instance, the home affordable modification program (HAMP) was designed to lose money and benefit three to four million homeowners, but the U.S. Treasury hastily crafted it, and relied on voluntary participation from mortgage servicers.
“The program now appears on track to help only 700,000 to 800,000 homeowners,’’ the Congressional Oversight report says.
Also, TARP probably cost less than expected because of other government aid to the economy, the report says.
Plus, TARP leaves an even bigger problem on the table: the problem of moral hazard, the report says.
“By protecting very large banks from insolvency and collapse, the TARP also created moral hazard: very large financial institutions may now rationally decide to take inflated risks because they expect that, if their gamble fails, taxpayers will bear the loss. Ironically, these inflated risks may create even greater systemic risk and increase the likelihood of future crises and bailouts.”
The Congressional Oversight Panel is not the only one to bring up this problem. Many economists have been calling attention to the same issue. Whether the topic will resonate with the American public, still reeling from high unemployment, remains to be seen.