Future historians may mark 2009 as the year when, despite ourselves, the American financial and economic systems proved sufficiently resilient to withstand and survive crises with less damage than feared. For now, however, we understandably are still focused on blame-placing and on the unfairness associated with some of the steps taken to move us back toward growth.
One such step is the blank-check approach taken by both the Bush and Obama Treasury Departments in addressing possible big-bank insolvencies.
The $700 billion Troubled Assets Recovery Program (TARP) was announced as a program whereby the federal government would purchase "troubled assets" from major financial institutions — thus enabling the institutions, free of the assets, to return quickly to normal lending and other operations. Quite soon, though, TARP became a major no-questions-asked transfer of public resources to the institutions to use as they wished. Not surprisingly, they used them in large part to strengthen their balance sheets rather than to resume lending to businesses and individuals who needed the lending to continue normal operations.
There were other big questions regarding use of TARP funds. American International Group, not a bank, got in on the act. Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail. Other institutions were forced to merge into others, resulting in greater concentration in the industry. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Chase, and other survivors considered "too big to fail" were singled out for favored treatment.
The big banks, unsurprisingly, have begun to bounce back to profitability — and to act as if nothing had changed within their industry. They have announced plans to pay salaries and bonuses at pre-crisis levels. It it as if some external, mysterious force (and not their own reckless behavior) had caused financial collapse.
Taxpayers, ordinary investors, big and small business, homeowners, middle- and smaller-sized banks, and retirees have in effect financed the big banks' recovery without getting direct benefit from it. Without grasping the irony of the situation, the big banks are now repaying the TARP money to the federal government so that (get this!) they will not be subject to limits on their executive compensation or operating practices.
The next controversial step was directing unprecedented taxpayer funds, and unprecedented federal-government involvement, to the automobile and housing sectors.
The Obama administration made a considered decision that big federal money should prop up Detroit and the housing sector, two parts of the economy where distress was greatest. Thus auto companies and auto buyers, mortgage lenders and mortgage holders got huge subsidies not extended to other parts of the economy. Taxpayers assumed the risk previously borne by private institutions.
Next on our list: The initial so-called $787 billion "stimulus program," jammed through the Congress with great urgency, which turned out to be more pork barrel than stimulus. There were some immediate tax rebates and money sent to the states. But the projects and programs within the package turned out to be a collection of things that often had nothing whatever to do with economic stimulus. Many were parts of backed-up wish lists of key Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate. At this point, much less than 50 percent of the overall stimulus money has been disbursed by the federal government.
The stimulus program, like the TARP program, turned out to be something other than what it was supposed to be. It was billed as creating or "saving" 2009 jobs. Unemployment, we were promised, would not exceed 8 percent at the bottom of the downturn. It remains above 10 percent. The promised jobs have not materialized. Most of the money will not be spent until next year.
Also in the dubious category: The projected pricetags of unrelated health-care reform and cap-and-trade legislation were introduced early in 2009, while the financial/economic crises were at their peak.
Projected federal deficits are certain to exeed $1 trillion annually over a several-year period — even without passage of the health-care and with cap-and-trade legislation still pending. The health package's effect on future deficits, rather than the actual provisions of the pending legislation, is the principal stumbling block to its enactment in this calendar year. Voters opposing the present version of reform legislation, now a strong majority in the country, do so principally because of its feared red ink.
Just over the past few days, several things have taken place which attest to the strain which these things have placed on us.
- Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner caught bipartisan congressional fire when he announced that the TARP program would not expire on Dec. 31, as originally contemplated, but would last through next October. Since big banks already are repaying some of the TARP funds, it now appears final taxpayer exposure may be no more than $150-$200 billion over the next 10 years (out of the original $700 billion appropriated). In light of this, Geithner was asked, why was the TARP being extended? It was needed just in case new needs arose, he said.
Critics on one side argued remaining TARP money should be devoted to immediate deficit reduction. Critics on the other argued that the remaining money should now be devoted to relief for businesses, consumers, homeowners, and others down the food chain from the big banks.
- The Treasury's federal pay czar, Ken Feinberg, said he shortly would announce tough new compensation limits for executives of those institutions still holding TARP funds. He did so after the United Kingdom announced such compensation limits on comparable City of London executives.
- President Obama engaged in a tough session with Republican congressional leaders in which he accused them of hoping for continued economic weakness — thus enhancing their chances in 2010 congressional elections. The GOP responded by criticizing the administration's steps toward economic recovery.
More than a year after the crises materialized, congressional consideration of financial-reform legislation is at a stalemate. There are huge differences between Senate and House concepts for reform and within the two major political parties. Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, the target of much congressional criticism for the Fed's role in the crises (and in failing to foresee them), seems headed, in meantime, toward reconfirmation in his job.
In fairness, Bernanke has been the steadiest and most professional head among those in the White House, Treasury, and other agencies in both the Bush and Obama administrations during the course of the troubles. Moreover, congressional proposals to strip the Fed of some of its present powers are misguided. The Fed's independence has helped inoculate it against mistakes far more easily made in other agencies more directly responsive to the politics of any given administration.
We have gotten through the worst of this severe downturn more because of our economy's basic strength — and our collective blind luck — than because of the skillfulness of any of the public or private leaders involved. But we might not be so lucky next time.
In meantime, we should remember that there are millions of our fellow citizens still out of work, losing their homes, and stripped of their retirement savings because of the excesses of an arrogant few. We have yet to design a new financial architecture where this cannot happen again.