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Two commenters (Jack B. and John L.) raise an important point about the $25 billion price tag that the Congressional Budget Office recently placed on the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Their concern is that the $25 billion figure includes some impacts that should rightfully be attributed to other government actions, not to TARP itself.

To illustrate, suppose that Treasury used TARP to buy $10 of preferred stock in Bank X in 2008 and that a year later Treasury sold its position for $12, including accrued dividends. This investment would be recorded as achieving a $2 profit in TARP (subject to one technical caveat, see below).

That’s the normal way of calculating profit on an investment, and is what CBO was instructed to do for its part of TARP oversight. But as Jack and John point out, there’s an important complication here. During the year, the federal government undertook many other policy actions which may have boosted the value of Bank X (remember all the new acronyms?). From the perspective of policy evaluation, some or all of the $2 gain should be attributed to those other policies, not TARP.

It could be, for example, that absent further action, Bank X would have struggled, leaving Treasury with stock worth only $6. Other government actions, however, breathed enough life into the company (or, at least, boosted the value of its assets) that the stock ultimately became worth $12.

In that case, you could argue that TARP, by itself, resulted in a $4 loss, while the other government actions created a $6 gain. That puts the budgetary impacts of TARP in a different light: a 40% loss versus a 20% gain in this example.

Of course, you could also argue that the $6 gain was only possible because of the TARP ownership stake. There’s certainly an element of truth to that. But the basic concern still applies: the $2 gain in this example reflects both TARP and subsequent government actions, not just TARP alone. That’s an essential point when trying to evaluate these policies after the fact, and we commenters should keep that in mind when interpreting CBO’s findings.

And that’s not all. The other government actions may also have imposed additional direct or indirect costs on the federal budget. As a result, the $2 gain in this example may be offset (or more) by other costs that aren’t included in the calculation.

Bottom line: One reason that TARP appears much less expensive than originally predicted is that many of its investments benefitted from other government actions whose costs show up elsewhere in the budget.

Caveat: CBO’s methodology actually judges the profitability of investments relative to benchmark rates of return. The details are surprisingly complex, but just for purposes of illustration, suppose that the appropriate benchmark rate of return for investing in Bank X was 10%. If Treasury sold the stock for $11 after one year, CBO would deem that as breaking even. If it sold it for $12, that would be a $1 profit.

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The much-maligned TARP program will cost taxpayers only $25 billion according to the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. That’s substantially less than the $66 billion CBO estimated back in August or the $113 billion that the Office of Management and Budget estimated in October.

The good news, budget-wise, is that the government is on track to make about $22 billion on its assistance to banks.

However, CBO estimates that TARP’s other activities will cost $47 billion. This reflects aid to AIG ($14 billion), the auto industry ($19 billion), mortgage programs ($12), and a few smaller programs ($2 billion).

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Economists have traditionally drawn a sharp distinction between monetary and fiscal policy. Monetary policy should try to promote growth and limit inflation by setting short-term interest rates, managing the money supply, and providing liquidity during times of financial stress. Fiscal policy should also encourage growth and, more broadly, promote the general welfare through careful choices about spending, taxes, and borrowing. The Federal Reserve has responsibility for monetary policy, while Congress and the President handle fiscal policy.

That clean distinction was one of many casualties of the financial crisis. As credit markets froze, the Fed pursued unconventional policies that blurred the line between fiscal and monetary policy. For example, it purchased more than $1 trillion in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, created new lending facilities for commercial paper and asset-backed securities, and provided special support for such key financial institutions as AIG, Bank of America, and Citigroup.

Those actions differed from conventional monetary policy in two ways. First, they exposed the Fed to more financial risk. Short-term Treasury securities, the Fed’s usual fare, carry no credit risk and almost no interest rate risk. In contrast, the Fed’s new portfolio has healthy doses of both. Second, in several cases the Fed offered to purchase financial assets at above-market prices or, equivalently, to make loans at below-market interest rates. In effect, the Fed chose to subsidize some specific financial activities.

Both changes increased the Fed’s fiscal importance.

Most visibly, Fed profits have jumped as its portfolio expanded and it acquired higher-yielding assets. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that Fed profits will hit $77 billion in 2010, up from $32 billion in 2008. That makes them the fourth largest source of federal revenues, after personal income, social insurance, and corporate income taxes, but ahead of estate and excise taxes. Actual returns could be higher or lower, however, depending on how well its investments perform.

Also important, though less visible, are subsidies implicit in some of the Fed’s financing programs. The Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF), for example, offered favorable long-term funding to investors who wanted to finance investments in securities backed by auto loans, student loans, and certain other types of debt. Similar programs provided favorable funding to support commercial paper markets and to assist AIG, Bank of America, and Citigroup. CBO recently pegged the initial cost of the resulting subsidies at $21 billion.

Not all programs created subsidies, however. CBO concluded, for example, that the MBS purchase program did not involve subsidies because the Fed made its purchases at market prices.

To be sure, the Fed’s fiscal initiatives were dwarfed by the explicitly fiscal actions taken by Congress and Presidents Bush and Obama. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), for example, was originally estimated to involve subsidies of $189 billion (a figure that has fallen as financial markets have healed), and support to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has added tens of billions more. Still, CBO’s estimates do highlight the Fed’s move into fiscal territory as it battled the financial crisis.

Those steps were appropriate given the severity and suddenness of the crisis, but have fueled concerns about the Fed’s scope of authority. Some members of Congress, for example, have questioned whether the Fed should be able to engage in even moderate amounts of fiscal policy without congressional oversight. Their increased interest in Fed oversight, in turn, has raised concerns about defending the Fed’s traditional independence in making monetary policy.

As Chairman Ben Bernanke argued in a speech last week, maintaining the Fed’s independence in monetary policy would be easier if policymakers would “further clarify the dividing line between monetary and fiscal responsibilities.” Let’s hope such guidance comes along before the next financial crisis strikes.

This post first appeared on TaxVox, the blog of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

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Neil Barofsky, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (affectionately known as SIGTARP), is making headlines with his estimate that the government has provided “potential support totaling more than $23.7 trillion” in fighting the financial crisis. That estimate will be officially released on Tuesday morning in the SIGTARP’s latest quarterly report (you can find an early copy here – ht WSJ).

SIGTARP Totals

As the media are already noting (e.g., WSJ and Yahoo), there are many reasons to believe that the $23.7 trillion figure is overstated. For example, as noted in the footnote to the table above, the figure “may include overlapping agency liabilities … and unfunded initiatives [and] … does not account for collateral pledged.” In other words, there may be double-counting, some of the programs won’t happen or are already winding down, and the estimates assume that any collateral is worthless. For example, to get to $5.5 trillion in potential losses on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (part of the $7.2 trillion Other category), you would have to assume that all GSE-backed mortgages default and that all houses backing them are worthless.

In short, the SIGTARP estimate is a way upper-bound on likely Federal support to the financial support. That fact shouldn’t detract, however, from the importance of the rest of this report.

(more…)

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