The contradictory impulses of the federal government were on full display today. At one location on Capitol Hill, a group of so-called Senate moderates were meeting to strip some $80 billion out of the Obama Administration’s economic recovery plan. According to press accounts, they were mainly targeting proposed spending related to education, ranging from Head Start programs to Pell grants for college students. I guess they are telling us that in these hard times we shouldn’t be lavishing taxpayer funds on fat cat students.
Meanwhile, in another part of Capitol Hill, the Senate Banking Committee heard testimony from Elizabeth Warren (photo), Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel that was created by the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) legislation enacted last fall. Warren gave a preview of her panel’s new report that will contain estimates that, in its purchases of capital stakes in major banks, the Bush Treasury Department overpaid by some $78 billion.
Want to take bets on which group—students or banks—end up keeping their $80 billion?
Warren’s statement was based on a valuation study of a sample of the banks that got federal infusions. “Despite the assurances of then-Secretary Paulson, who said that the transactions were at par,” Warren said, “Treasury paid substantially more for the assets purchased under the TARP than their then-current market value.”
Being generous, Warren said that Treasury may have overpaid as part of a deliberate policy to increase the amount of assistance being given to the banks to enhance the stabilization effort. As I see it, the overpayment could just as easily be seen as incompetence or a corrupt conveyance of value by Treasury officials to their friends in the financial community.
Warren was joined at the hearing by Neil Barofsky, the TARP Special Inspector General, whose testimony echoed her concern about the failure of Treasury to explain the criteria it applied in making its TARP payouts last year. Barofsky also expressed frustration about the refusal of the TARP recipients to reveal what they are doing with the funds. Yet he made it clear that the era of non-accountability is over. Barofsky said his office is moving ahead with plans to ask all recipients for an accounting, and in some cases—such as Bank of America—he is launching an audit of where the TARP money went. Even more tantalizing was Barofsky’s statement that his office has “opened several criminal investigations.”
Warren and Barofsky’s aggressive approach meshes with the Obama Administration’s stance on executive pay, which was announced in the wake of revelations that bailed out Wall Street firms had distributed a total of some $18 billion in end-of-the-year bonuses. It’s unfortunate that the plan does not apply to the many companies and their executives who already took the money (from taxpayers) and ran (to the bank to deposit their bonus checks). Yet, given the likelihood that many more corporations will be receiving federal help in the months to come, some top executives may finally have to endure some sacrifices.
What worries me, however, is that the Administration’s assault on executive pay may be an effort to placate the public in advance of the big new bailout plan that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is expected to announce next week—a plan that could include the creation of a “bad bank” to allow financial institutions to unload their toxic assets onto the taxpayers. Cracking down on the compensation of bank executives feels good, but it will not relieve the pain of another ill-conceived giant bailout.
Given the state of the economy, more federal intervention may be inevitable. Yet Geithner will have to make it perfectly clear next week that the Obama Treasury Department has made a complete break with the irresponsible and opaque policies of the former Paulson regime.
Note: Transparency is an issue not only for the TARP program, but also for the economic recovery plan. The stimulus legislation includes provisions for federal disclosure of money flows, but a new coalition is also calling for greater transparency in the way the states will use those funds.