Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Looking back on TARP

The last major bank (Wells Fargo) paid down its TARP debt yesterday, after the two weakest banks (BofA and Citi) had paid theirs back within the prior two weeks. There are some regional banks (PNC and Suntrust, I think, are two of the bigger ones).
The Federal Government lost money on CIT, which went bankrupt, and profited substantially from the other banks who used TARP. It was a tremendously successful program - it kept the banks afloat and also made money for the government. Forcing all of the banks to participate was a lowlight (JP Morgan, for one, certainly didn't need it, and it cost their shareholders millions), but on the whole, TARP was administered very intelligently on the banking side.
The extension of TARP to the automakers has been far less successful. It was rightly criticized at the time as being protectionist and union-oriented, and the government is very likely to lose a lot of money on its automaker investments.
The moral of the story is that intervening to save competitive, viable industries in the middle of a liquidity crisis is advisable. Intervening to save obsolete, inefficient companies that were dying anyway in order to save jobs is a far more dangerous and questionable game. Not to say it's entirely wrong (who knows what the consequences would have been of adding another couple million unemployed to the ranks), but the use of the TARP bailouts on the automakers can be fairly questioned, while the use of the TARP on banks was correct. The moral hazard issue with banks will have to be addressed, but that's a better problem to address than the unwinding of ~15% of the US economy in one year.

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