Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Carping about TARP

In its story yesterday about Obama pushing for release of the second half of the TARP boodle, the New York Times reported that

Lawmakers are angry about many aspects of the  bailout, which they intended for the government purchase of troubled assets, particularly mortgage-backed securities, but instead has been used  to recapitalize banks and even prop up failing Detroit automakers.

Initially, I had a lot of sympathy for this critique.  I had a little burst of outrage myself right before Christmas when I read the following quote from White House spokesman Tony Fratto, explaining why the White House was going to use the TARP authority to bail out GM and Chrysler–despite Congress’s having just voted down the auto bailout:

“Congress lost its opportunity to be a partner because they couldn’t get their job done,” Fratto said. “This is not the way we wanted to deal with this issue. We wanted to deal with it in partnership. What Congress said is … ‘We can’t get it done, so it’s up to the White House to get it done.’ “

So by not giving the president the power to bail out the automakers, Congress has “lost its opportunity to be a partner,” and the president’s going to do it anyway?  By what authority?  The TARP statute gives the Secretary of the Treasury the power to buy “troubled assets” from “financial institutions.”  Yet in the past three months TARP’s morphed from a plan to buy toxic mortgage-backed securities, to one that involves buying shares in banks (like Wells Fargo ) that aren’t themselves troubled, to a program giving loans to car companies, which surely can’t qualify as “financial institutions.”

More Bush administration lawlessness, I thought.  We already knew they didn’t care about the Constitution.  Now they’re showing they can’t be restrained by plain statutory language. 

And then I looked at the statute.  And it turns out the definitions of “troubled asset” and “financial institution” are so gobsmackingly, irresponsibly broad, that the administration has at least a colorable argument that it can legally reshape the bailout in the ways it has. ”Troubled assets” include:

any… financial instrument that the Secretary, after consultation with the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, determines the purchase of which is necessary to promote financial market stability 

And “financial institution”:

means any institution, including, but not limited to, any bank, savings association, credit union, security broker or dealer, or insurance company, established and regulated under the laws of the United States or any State, territory, or possession of the United States [emphasis added]

That’s why, as the University of Chicago’s Randy Picker argues, you can probably “fit cars under the TARP.” (For a contrary argument, see here ).

Given how far the administration has pushed loose legislative language in the past, can Congress credibly claim to be surprised here?  Lawmakers may, as the Times reports, be “angry” about the scope of the bailout, but when they write language that broad, their outrage is more than a day late and $700 billion short.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

  • Writing for Independent Advocate, a political blog devoted to “independently minded news analysis,” Wes Kimbell quotes Senior Fellow Richard W. Rhan’s December op-ed about Obama’s proposed stimulus plan.
  • The Hill’s Congress Blog posts analysis from Senior Fellow Michael D. Tanner on Barack Obama’s proposals for Social Security and Medicare.
  • Blogging for the Weekly Standard, Brian Faughnan cites Director of Health Policy Studies Michael F. Cannon’s recent post on Obama’s proposal to eliminate Medicare Advantage, which would oust nine million seniors from their health plans.
  • Baltimore Sun financial columnist and blogger Jay Hancock plugs an upcoming forum at Stanford University on the similarities and differences between liberals and libertarians, featuring Cato Research Fellow Will Wilkinson and Vice President for Research Brink Lindsey.

    Exposing the Keynesian Fallacy: The Condensed Version

    Many of you have seen the video I narrated explaining why big-government “stimulus” schemes do not make sense. That mini-documentary discussed the theoretical shortcomings of Keynesianism and also reviewed the dismal results of real-world Keynesian episodes.

    While the video has been very successful, both measured by the number of “views” and positive feedback, some have suggested that it would be good to produce shorter videos. The hypothesis is that most people have only a limited interest in economics, so a brief video is more likely to attract viewership. My personal bias is that longer videos are sometimes necessary to allow an appropriate level of analysis and explanation, but I do believe in letting the market decide. As such, I invite you to watch this condensed, four-minute video debunking Keynesian fiscal policy.

    Please feel free to provide feedback. For purposes of comparison, the original video can be seen here.

    Rubin Resigns from Giant Bank Taxpayergroup

    The Washington Post reports:

    Robert Rubin, a key figure in the U.S. financial boom as Treasury secretary and then as a senior adviser at Citigroup, announced his retirement from the troubled New York bank yesterday in the latest sign that Citigroup wants to break from its recent past.

    Rubin joined Citigroup in 1999, soon after the company emerged as a financial services giant. He has since earned more than $115 million as Citigroup has suffered through setbacks and missteps that culminated in a November bailout by the federal government….

    Citigroup, the long-time champion of free markets and deregulation, is increasingly dependent on the federal government, which has invested more than $50 billion to help it weather the economic crisis.

    After we’ve invested $50 billion in the company, seems like we ought to call it Taxpayergroup. It’s not really a private company more, though private parties like Rubin may still profit handsomely from it.

    A Bailout for Larry Flynt?

    Banks, car companies, home builders, ethanol scammers, and steel companies are among the industries and interest groups trying to stick their snouts in the public trough. Now another group is looking for a handout.

    CNN reports:

    Another major American industry is asking for assistance as the global financial crisis continues: Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and Girls Gone Wild CEO Joe Francis said Wednesday they will request that Congress allocate $5 billion for a bailout of the adult entertainment industry.

    TARP

    The Bush administration has blown through the first $350 billion of your money that Congress authorized it to spend under the Troubled Asset Relief Fund. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is now asking for the second $350 billion.

    Will Congress approve the second $350 billion of TARP money? I have no special skill at political speculation, but since a reporter asked, here are five reasons I think that it won’t, thankfully.

    1. It is not clear that the first $350 billion of TARP money has aided the economy at all. I suspect that all the recent Treasury micromanagement through TARP has destabilized the economy and delayed the recovery, not helped it. But certainly TARP supporters cannot claim any big success
    2. Congress and the general public are unhappy with the lack of transparency and poor oversight of TARP spending. President-elect Obama campaigned on creating a more transparent government. TARP spending does not fit into that Obama vision.
    3. Democrats don’t like TARP anymore. Democrats are unhappy that TARP money has bailed out Wall Street and not Main Street, to use their nomenclature. They are resisting further bailouts of financial firms.
    4. Republicans don’t like TARP anymore. Republicans in Congress are unhappy that the Treasury bailed out the auto firms with TARP money after they explictly opposed an auto bailout. They don’t want to give the new Democratic administration a similar open-ended opportunity to spend.
    5. The U.S. economy will recover from the current recession, and the Obama administration will want to take credit for it. Renewing TARP will muddy the waters for that credit-taking. For Obama, it is politically important that he “do something” in his first few months to the economy so that when the recovery comes he can claim success. TARP is a Bush thing, Obama needs something fresh and new.

    What Obama should do is a pass a large corporate tax rate cut, which would spur long-run growth. Alas, Obama appears to be an old-fashioned Keynesian, and his credit-taking vehicle is shaping up to be a gigantic “stimulus” spending plan. I think that’s crackpot, as I touched on here, and will address in future blog posts.

    I’m Changing My Name to Bank Holding Company

    It was a Merry Christmas for GMAC, which learned on Christmas Eve that the Federal Reserve had approved its application to become a bank holding company. That gives GMAC “access to new sources of funding, including a potential infusion of taxpayer dollars from the Treasury Department and loans from the Fed itself,” as the Washington Post explains. Of course, that’s on top of the $13 billion that General Motors itself has been granted as a short-term bailout until a bigger bailout can be arranged. 

    GMAC isn’t the only company that has suddenly become a “bank holding company” in order to cash in on the $700 billion financial bailout. Late one night in November, American Express was granted the same privilege. Not to mention Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, CIT…

    Maybe it’s time for a new version of Tom Paxton’s classic song “I’m Changing My Name to Chrysler,” sung here by Arlo Guthrie: “When they hand a million grand out, I’ll be standing with my hand out.” Of course, there’s already been a new version, “I’m Changing My Name to Fannie Mae,” sung here by Arlo and here by Paxton. Besides the name of the company, they had to make a few other changes in the lyrics, like “When they hand a trillion grand out, I’ll be standing with my hand out.”

    So take it away, Tom and Arlo: I’m Changing My Name to Bank Holding Company.