Mythical Budget Savings from Cutting TARP

The TARP news continues fast and furious. This afternoon’s installment involves the House’s financial regulation bill, officially known as H.R. 4173, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009. That bill would make many changes to financial regulation, one of which – enhanced dissolution authority for financial firms that run into severe trouble – would cost about $10 billion over the next five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In order to pay for those costs, the bill would reduce TARP authority by $20.8 billion. Consistent with previous scoring decisions, CBO estimates that this provision would result in budget savings of $10.4 billion (because CBO assumes, for scoring purposes, that each dollar of reduced TARP authority translates into 50 cents of reduced outlays; for more explanation, see this earlier post.)

Why is this important? Because the alleged savings are mythical.

Earlier today, Secretary Geithner predicted that the maximum draw on TARP would be $550 billion out of the $699 billion currently authorized. Reducing TARP authority from $699 billion to $678 billion, as the bill would do, would thus have no effect on spending or the deficit.

Under congressional budget rules, CBO is required to score the House bill relative to the budget baseline developed back in March. That was during the depths of the financial crisis so CBO assumed that all TARP authority would eventually be used. Happily, conditions have since improved, and that assumption is no longer realistic. But it is still used in congressional scoring.

The “savings” attributed to the House bill thus exist because the financial world has improved, not because the House bill is actually doing anything new to pay for its costs.

I hasten to add that this isn’t just my opinion. CBO itself highlights this issue in its cost estimate for the House bill, saying (in its more measured tones):

That reduction in spending relative to the March baseline might occur even in the absence of this legislation because financial conditions have improved considerably since March. Indeed, the Secretary of the Treasury noted in his December 9, 2009, letter to the Congress that “beyond these limited new commitments, we will not use remaining [TARP] funds unless necessary to respond to an immediate and substantial threat to the economy stemming from financial instability.” Thus, if CBO were to estimate the impact of the TARP provision in this legislation taking into account current financial conditions, the agency would not expect that the TARP’s ceiling on outstanding investment would be fully utilized. Therefore, the savings estimated relative to the budget resolution baseline may be attributable to the improvement in financial conditions rather than enactment of H.R. 4173. (emphasis added)

P.S. I should emphasize that there are good reasons for the current congressional budget rules. Developing legislation takes time, and it would be disruptive if CBO were constantly updating cost estimates to reflect changes in the economy. Fixing a baseline in March, however, does open up the possibility of budget game playing, particularly in budget categories that are volatile (TARP spending is one; royalties on oil and gas leases are another).  The hard question is when Congress should decide to deviate from the March baseline to reflect new realities.

9 thoughts on “Mythical Budget Savings from Cutting TARP”

  1. I think sticking with their baseline makes a lot of sense, so long as they provide, as they did here, a note of explanation. Though I would prefer if the language used was a bit more forward.

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