Talking about TARP and Chairman Bernanke

The Business News Network of Canada interviewed me yesterday about TARP and Fed Chairman Bernanke’s “Person of the Year” award from Time Magazine.

Here’s a link to the video of the interview. Going in, I was focused on the following talking points:

  • Within current budget rules, the Congress can indeed use unspent TARP money to “pay for” new spending initiatives. However, it needs to cut TARP authority by $2 for every $1 it wants to spend.
  • Those “savings” are mythical, however. Treasury Secretary Geithner recently predicted that TARP would use at most $550 billion of its $699 billion in authority. Trimming TARP’s authority by a moderate amount (e.g., $50 billion) will thus generate no actual budget savings. Only deep cuts would begin to generate some savings.
  • The financial system is not fully healed, and the United States still lacks a coherent system for dealing with large, failing financial institutions. For that reason, I support Geithner’s extension of TARP as an insurance policy. However, I do not support the TARP extension if its main effect it to allow Congress to use TARP “cuts” to generate mythical budget “savings” or to encourage creative uses of TARP money.
  • Usain Bolt had a remarkable year, but Chairman Bernanke is still the right choice as Person of the Year. And he’s the right choice for Fed Chairman.
  • But his work is only half done. If he can figure out an exit strategy that keeps the economy growing, avoids new asset bubbles, and sidesteps inflation, then maybe he will be Person of the Year again next year.

Another Issue With Redirecting TARP Money

Last week I noted two challenges that Congress will face if it wants to use unused TARP money to “pay for” new spending efforts. The first is that each dollar of redirected TARP money generates only 50 cents in budget “savings” (because TARP budgeting uses credit principles that immediately recognize the potential for some money to be repaid in the future). The second is that the alleged budget “savings” are likely mythical (because the existing TARP program is on track to use much less than its full $699 billion authority).

A third issue, recently pointed out to me by a friend, is that the original TARP legislation includes language that’s intended to prevent TARP money from being redeployed to other uses. As I say in a new piece at e21:

When Congress created TARP, it specified that future TARP rescissions should not be used to pay for new spending. Section 204 of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act indicates that the costs of TARP were being incurred because of an emergency (and therefore were exempt from certain congressional budget requirements) and that “rescissions of any amounts provided in this Act shall not be counted for purposes of budget enforcement.” In other words, Congress wanted to make sure that the emergency spending in TARP wouldn’t subsequently be rescinded to pay for new, non-emergency spending.

That limitation has not been a factor thus far when Congress has used TARP rescissions to pay for new legislation. In the spring, Congress used a $1.26 billion TARP rescission to help pay for legislation to help struggling homeowners. A few weeks ago, the House used a $34 million TARP rescission to pay for a new TARP database. In both cases, the resulting budget savings were relatively small ($630 million and $17 million, respectively) and were used to pay for programs related to TARP’s goals (housing and transparency). Looking ahead, a key question is whether Section 204 will play a bigger role now that Congress is considering larger TARP rescissions that would be used to fund programs well outside TARP’s scope.

I am not sure whether section 204 will have any practical relevance to today’s TARP debate (insights from folks close to the process would be appreciated). At a minimum, however, it is interesting that someone in Congress saw the potential for today’s TARP debate and tried to prevent it.

P.S. In case you’d like to check my interpretation, here’s the complete language of Section 204 of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act:

SEC. 204. EMERGENCY TREATMENT.

All provisions of this Act are designated as an emergency requirement and necessary to meet emergency needs pursuant to section 204(a) of S. Con. Res 21 (110th Congress), the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2008 and rescissions of any amounts provided in this Act shall not be counted for purposes of budget enforcement.

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.

Treasury Extends, but Limits, TARP

Well that was quick. This morning Treasury Secretary Geithner laid out the administration’s vision for TARP, answering the questions I posed yesterday.

As expected, Secretary Geithner is using his authority to extend the TARP program to October 3, 2010 (it otherwise would have expired at the end of this month). As I’ve suggested in earlier posts, I don’t see how he could have chosen otherwise. The administration is committed to programs that aren’t complete yet, and it needs to worry about unpleasant surprises. In the words of his letter to House Speaker Pelosi:

This extension is necessary to assist American families and stabilize financial markets because it will, among other things, enable us to continue to implement programs that address housing markets and the needs of small businesses, and to maintain the capacity to respond to unforeseen threats.

Second, Geithner announced that henceforth TARP will be used for only four programs: to mitigate home foreclosures, provide capital to small and community banks, additional efforts to facilitate small business lending, and, possibly, to expand the TALF program that supports securitization markets for loans to small businesses, commercial real estate, etc. Notably (and correctly) absent from this list are some of the ideas — funding for new infrastructure, assistance to state and local governments — that have been floated in recent days.

Geithner is right to draw a moat around TARP and to limit its use to specific activities, except in emergencies:

Beyond these limited new commitments, we will not use remaining EESA funds unless necessary to respond to an immediate and substantial threat to the economy stemming from financial instability.

Third, Geithner provided a new forecast of how much TARP money will eventually be used:

While we are extending the $700 billion program, we do not expect to deploy more than $550 billion.  We also expect up to $175 billion in repayments by the end of next year, and substantial additional repayments thereafter.  The combination of the reduced scale of TARP commitments and substantial repayments should allow us to commit significant resources to pay down the federal debt over time and slow its growth rate.

In short, the administration believes that at least $150 billion of TARP money will never be used. That’s great news. But now attention will turn to Congress to see whether it tries to use that $150 billion to “pay for” new initiatives. As I noted the other day, current budget rules would give Congress credit for 50 cents of savings for each dollar that’s removed from overall TARP authority. But such savings are an accounting fiction, not real, if the TARP authority never would have been used anyway.

Some Questions about TARP’s Future

As I discussed the other day, using TARP to pay for new jobs programs faces some serious practical issues. First, the administration is limited in how it can deploy existing TARP funds. It should be straightforward to use more funds to support lending to small businesses (which TARP already does to some extent), but it would take great legal ingenuity to use it to fund infrastructure projects or aid to state and local governments.  Indeed, in an article titled “Use of Cash from TARP Hits Hurdle“, the Wall Street Journal reports that top Democrats have concluded that TARP money can’t be used for either of those ideas.

Second, legislative use of TARP money are limited by budget scoring rules, which currently would attribute only 50 cents of budget savings to each dollar by which TARP’s authority might be reduced. And even then, careful budgeteers would realize that such savings are make-believe if, as seems likely, any such limits would apply only to TARP authority that was unlikely to be used anyway.

In short, the rhetoric about using TARP to finance various proposals seems to have gotten ahead of reality.

The President’s speech at the Brookings Institution today provided some additional insight into the Administration’s plans for TARP, but some important questions still remain.

Here are the President’s three forward-looking statements about TARP (he also made some comments about TARP’s origin and history, but that’s a topic for another day):

I’m asking my Treasury Secretary to continue mobilizing the remaining TARP funds to facilitate lending to small businesses. …

[W]ith a fiscal crisis to match our economic crisis, we also must be prudent about how we fund [initiatives to accelerate the pace of private hiring].  So to help support these efforts, we are going to wind down the Troubled Asset Relief Program — or TARP — the fund created to stabilize the financial system so banks would lend again. …

TARP is expected to cost the taxpayers at least $200 billion less than what was anticipated just this past summer.  And the assistance to banks, once thought to cost taxpayers untold billions, is on track to actually reap billions in profits for the taxpaying public.  So this gives us a chance to pay down the deficit faster than we thought possible and to shift funds that would have gone to help the banks on Wall Street to help create jobs on Main Street.

If I am reading that right, the President would like to (a) continue Treasury’s existing effort to support small business lending through TARP, (b) wind down the TARP program, and (c) shift funds to other purposes. That leaves me with some important questions, including:

  • Does the administration plan to expand TARP’s small business lending support or just execute the one that’s already been announced? (NB: The President also endorsed several other steps to help small businesses, including easier access to SBA loans.)
  • Does “wind down the TARP program” mean that Secretary Geithner won’t use his authority to extend the program beyond December 31, 2009? If I were him I would sleep much better at night if I had some “dry powder” in an extended TARP, just in case we have another September-October of 2008. Such a replay seems highly unlikely (knock on wood), but if that exceedingly remote event did happen, I wouldn’t want to be the Treasury Secretary who went up to Capitol Hill to ask for a TARP II.

Can TARP Be Used to Pay for a New Jobs Program?

Washington is abuzz with the idea that Congress, the White House, or both may try to use unspent TARP funds as a way to promote job creation (see, e.g., this WSJ story and this WaPo story). Over the past two days, many reporters have asked me about the mechanics of this idea–can the government really use unspent TARP money this way? Here’s my best answer (given what I have learned so far).

There are two basic ways that our leaders could try to use TARP money to pay for new initiatives: through executive action or through new legislation.

Executive Action

Treasury Secretary Geithner has the ability to use TARP funds largely as he sees fit, as long as those uses are within the boundaries set out by the original legislation. As you may have noticed, the exact location of those boundaries–well, even the rough location of those boundaries–has been a topic of great debate during TARP’s existence. But the basic idea is that TARP can be used to purchase troubled assets, which the bill defines as follows:

(A) residential or commercial mortgages and any securities, obligations, or other instruments that are based on or related to such mortgages, that in each case was originated or issued on or before March 14, 2008, the purchase of which the Secretary determines promotes financial market stability; and

(B) any other 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, but only upon transmittal of such determination, in writing, to the appropriate committees of Congress.

If our leaders want to use TARP through executive action, they will have to come up with programs that fit within these limits. Additional support for small-business financing or home mortgages could certainly be structured to fit within these parameters; indeed, TARP already has programs for both of those. It would require substantial ingenuity, however, to figure out a way to support some of the other ideas being floated (e.g., aid to local governments).

New Legislation

The second approach would be for Congress to enact legislation that would increase spending on various programs and then pay for it, at least in part, by reducing the amount of money in the TARP program.

There have already been at least two pieces of legislation that have taken this approach:

Continue reading “Can TARP Be Used to Pay for a New Jobs Program?”

Capital One Warrants Bring in $146.5 Million

Yesterday the Treasury auctioned off its TARP warrants in Capital One. Treasury sold the warrants for $11.75 a piece, well above its $7.50 reserve price, but below some private estimates of $19.00 or more. I wouldn’t have gone as high as $19.00 myself, but I would have ended up a winner in the auction if I had found a broker with access. Oh well, maybe I can pick some up when they start trading on the NYSE (ticker COF WS) in the next week or two.

Disclosure: I have no position in any Capital One securities.

TARP Warrants: Let the Bidding Begin

Thursday is a nice milestone in TARP’s history: with the help of Deutsche Bank, Treasury is auctioning off the warrants it received when it invested in Capital One. The company has already paid off the preferred stock that the government purchased last fall, and will now be free from TARP oversight once the warrants are in private hands. Or, perhaps, in its own hands. Although Capital One declined to purchase the warrants from Treasury at a negotiated price (as had other firms that repaid the government’s TARP investments), it can still bid in the auction.

A few months ago, I pointed out many benefits from auctioning the warrants rather than selling them back to the companies at negotiated prices. To my mind, the biggest benefits are transparency and the fairness of market pricing. Everyone—including, at least in principle, small investors—can bid in the auction.

If you are interested, here’s the prospectus, which includes (pp. S-15 to S-16) a list of participating brokers. I don’t see my broker on the list, which is disappointing, but maybe others will be luckier.

For a nice discussion of the auction mechanism (a modified Dutch auction in which all winning bidders pay the market-clearing price, very similar to the method used to sell Treasury bonds) and some estimates of the warrant values, see this Seeking Alpha piece by Linus Wilson.

Disclosure: I have no position in Capital One and, apparently, no way to bid on the warrants. If I find a way, I might do it for fun.

Looking Back at Fiscal 2009

A few days ago, CBO released its latest snapshot on the federal budget, documenting the remarkable challenges of fiscal 2009, which ended on September 30. The key phrase in the report is “in over 50 years” as in:

  • At $1.4 trillion, the budget deficit was 9.9% of gross domestic product, the largest, relative to the economy, in over 50 years.
  • At $3.5 trillion, spending was almost 25% of GDP, the largest, relative to the economy, in over 50 years.
  • At $2.1 trillion, tax revenues were about 15% of GDP,  the lowest, relative to the economy, in over 50 years. (I get the sense that this point is less well-known than the other two.)

Other highlights from the report:

  • As expected, CBO estimates that the 2009 deficit was about $1.4 trillion, below the $1.58 trillion estimate in the Administration’s August budget forecasts. Assuming CBO is right, that means that next week, when the official Treasury figures are released, the Administration will be able to put a good news spin on the results, saying the deficit was less than it anticipated.  (As noted in an earlier post, CBO’s summer update, released on the same day as the Administration’s, predicted a $1.4 trillion full-year deficit, when calculated on an apples-to-apples basis. The report was a bit complicated to interpret, however, because its headline deficit estimate used different accounting for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which resulted in a higher figure of about $1.6 trillion.)
  • As shown in the following chart, the deficit exploded in 2009 for three main reasons:

Budget Deficit Fiscal 2009

  • Tax revenues fell off a cliff (down 17% or $419 billion relative to fiscal 2008). The sharpest declines were in corporate income taxes (down 54%) and individual income taxes (down 20%). The declines reflect both the weak economy and, to a lesser extent, efforts to provide stimulus.
  • The financial rescue required $245 billion in new spending. TARP accounted for $154 billion, while cash injections into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac accounted for $91 billion.
  • Other spending increased (up 13% or $347 billion relative to last year). These increases were spread across many spending programs, but were most pronounced for unemployment insurance (up 156%) and Medicaid (up 25%).

In addition:

  • Interest payments provided a sliver of good news. Interest payments fell by 23% (or $61 billion) thanks to low interest rates and small inflation adjustments on indexed bonds.
  • CBO estimates that the budget impact of the stimulus totaled about $200 billion by the end of September.

Wall Street Goes to Washington

A front page story in today’s Washington Post (“In Shift, Wall Street Goes to Washington“) documents the Capital’s rising importance in the financial world:

J.P. Morgan Chase for the first time convened its board in Washington this summer, calling the directors to a meeting at the downtown Hay-Adams hotel, then dispatching them to Capitol Hill for meet-and-greets.

Last month, a firm run by the billionaire investor Wilbur Ross hired the head of Washington’s top mortgage regulator to pick through the wreckage of the housing bust looking for bargains.

And the world’s largest bond fund, Pimco, which has traditionally assessed the risk of any new investment according to five financial criteria, recently added one more: the impact of any change in federal policy.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well. . . . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

The Ross example doesn’t tell us much — the financial world has always recruited government officials. The J.P. Morgan and Pimco examples, however, highlight how much the playing field has changed over the past two years. Washington is not just a more aggressive regulator. Given the stresses on the system, it has become a serial intervener — stepping in to prop up specific firms or credit channels that appear too important to fail. And it is now a major investor, with a burgeoning portfolio of investments in financial firms, auto companies, and mortgage backed securities.

As we commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Lehman, it appears that the worst of the financial and economic crisis is behind us. And the policy conversation should increasingly focus on exit strategies. Not just the narrow question of how the Federal Reserve eventually unwinds the extraordinary expansion of its programs. But also how the Treasury eventually unwinds it TARP investments. How the FDIC walks back from offering guarantees on bank debt. How the government restructures Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And, perhaps most importantly, how policymakers recalibrate their relationship with financial markets. To paraphrase Mohamed A. el-Arian: can Washington return to being a referee on the sidelines or will it continue to be a player?