Botched bailout could spell trouble in future

The response from the highest levels of the financial hierarchy in the US to the economic crisis lacked clarity, transparency and good sense.

Neil M. Barofsky, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) waits to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009, before a House Financial Services subcommittee hearing. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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The back-room machinations of senior politicians are invariably revealed so long after being uttered that they usually fail to have any impact beyond the academic. Not so with the latest report from Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general of the US Troubled Asset Relief Programme, or Sigtarp - a name that ought to belong to a chest of drawers hidden somewhere in the middle an IKEA catalogue.

Mr Barofsky's latest report, released on Monday, reveals misinformation and skulduggery at the highest levels of the US Treasury and Federal Reserve. Many who read through the report will struggle to ever again believe a word that comes out of either office. Mr Barofsky lifts the lid on the crucial negotiations between Wall Street, the Treasury and the Fed in October of last year, as the financial system was on the brink of collapse.

It was decided in a series of closed-door meetings that the nine biggest and most influential banks in the country would be given up to $25 billion (Dh91.82bn) each in order to oil the wheels of the credit markets and restore some sort of equilibrium to the collapsing system. One crucial element of this plan was the insistence by the then Treasury secretary Henry Paulson, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, that the banks involved were all "healthy" and that they accepted the money for "the good of the US economy".

The banks, he said, would be better able to increase their lending to consumers and businesses. Mr Paulson's statement of last October 14 was interpreted at the time to mean that the banks did not actually need all those billions to survive. Instead, they would somehow act as agents of the government and assist in distributing this much needed capital to the rest of us, who were not as healthy as they were.

Looking back on those words, as Mr Barofsky has spent the past few months doing, Mr Paulson's explanation seems utterly implausible. For banks to be in good health, they have to have enough money to fulfil their role as middleman in the economy. If they are healthy enough for that role, then by definition they should not need any money from the government, and certainly not $25bn each. But Mr Barofsky is clear in his report that Mr Bernanke, at least, was very worried about the health of some of the banks.

"Chairman Bernanke told Sigtarp that there were differences in the nine banks in terms of strength and weakness, but that the selection was generalised in order to avoid stigmatising any one bank as being a weak bank and creating a panic," reads the report. "He recounted, for example, that a few of the banks were under stress, but that they were included because they were key players in the financial markets."

Mr Paulson and Mr Bernanke, along with the former New York Fed chief and current Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, also gave the impression last year that there was some sort of agreement between the government and these nine banks in drawing up this plan. The situation was grave, we were told, but everyone involved had stepped up to the plate for the greater good. It was never mentioned last year that Mr Paulson and his cohorts had basically threatened the nine and forced them to take the money. But that is what the Sigtarp report seems to clearly show.

"Officials at Treasury, the Federal Reserve and other federal regulators felt strongly that the nine institutions should not be permitted to reject the government's capital infusions," the report says. These were not passing comments made by the officials in question, but were enshrined in a set of chief executive "talking points" provided for Mr Paulson to be used in his dealings with the banks.

"Taken together, your nine firms represent a significant part of our financial system, therefore in our view you must be central to any solution," the talking points state. "We don't believe it is tenable to opt out because doing so would leave you vulnerable and exposed," the points continue. "If a capital infusion is not appealing, you should be aware that your regulator will require it in any circumstance."

Worse still, Mr Paulson confirmed in his interview with Mr Barofsky that, if necessary, he would tell the banks' chief executives that they would be forced to sell shares of their companies to the government as part of the plan. Where I come from that is called fighting talk, and is a long way from the happy clappy agreement we were led to believe had been signed by all participants in unison last year.

Aside from revealing this threatening behaviour by Mr Paulson and others, the Sigtarp report seems to highlight a complete lack of consistency in the allocation of the government's bailout funds to the banks. The report states that the banks were supposed to get an amount equal to 3 per cent of their risk-weighted assets, with aid capped at $25bn for each. Citigroup, JP Morgan and Bank of America met the requirements for the full $25bn but only the first two banks were given that amount.

BofA was only given $15bn, despite qualifying for more, because it was in the middle of negotiating a merger with Merrill Lynch, which was due $10bn under the scheme. So it seems that Mr Paulson anticipated the success of the BofA-Merrill Lynch merger and allocated the two banks $25bn between them, even though shareholders and regulators had not yet voted on the deal. Another bank in the process of a merger was not treated the same. Wells Fargo was acquiring Wachovia and it received both companies' money at the start. Maybe Mr Paulson wasn't able to do the maths?

Whether by accident or design, it turned out to be a total mess. There are many revelations in Mr Barofsky's report that pundits and commentators will doubtless be screaming about for months to come, but the overall impression given by the results of his meticulous research is far more important to underscore. In a time of financial crisis, the US government embarked on a mission of obfuscation and opacity when what were needed were clarity of purpose and transparency of procedure.

Until and unless these crucial tenets are observed in relations between government and business, the US financial system will not only fail to recover in full, but it will be ever more vulnerable in the future.