Thursday, March 31, 2011

The failure of TARP

In an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Neil Barofsky, the outgoing Special Inspector General from 2008 until yesterday of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), lamented that the program had failed to meet “some of its most important goals.”

Though there is no question that the country benefited by avoiding a meltdown of the financial system, this cannot be the only yardstick by which TARP’s legacy is measured. The legislation that created TARP, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, had far broader goals, including protecting home values and preserving homeownership.

These Main Street-oriented goals were not, as the Treasury Department is now suggesting, mere window dressing that needed only to be taken “into account.” Rather, they were a central part of the compromise with reluctant members of Congress to cast a vote that in many cases proved to be political suicide.
The act’s emphasis on preserving homeownership was particularly vital to passage. Congress was told that TARP would be used to purchase up to $700 billion of mortgages, and, to obtain the necessary votes, Treasury promised that it would modify those mortgages to assist struggling homeowners. Indeed, the act expressly directs the department to do just that.

But it has done little to abide by this legislative bargain. Almost immediately, as permitted by the broad language of the act, Treasury’s plan for TARP shifted from the purchase of mortgages to the infusion of hundreds of billions of dollars into the nation’s largest financial institutions, a shift that came with the express promise that it would restore lending.

Barofsky goes on to say that mismanagement of TARP turned it into a program that helped almost exclusively the nation’s largest banks and deprived everyone else of its benefits. That has tainted the legacy of TARP and pretty much ensures that any

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