This article was originally published on TomDispatch.
On October 3, as the spreading economic meltdown threatened to topple financial behemoths like American International Group (AIG) and Bank of America and plunged global markets into freefall, the US government responded with the largest bailout in American history. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, better known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), authorized the use of $700 billion to stabilize the nation’s failing financial systems and restore the flow of credit in the economy.
The legislation’s guidelines for crafting the rescue plan were clear: the TARP should protect home values and consumer savings, help citizens keep their homes and create jobs. Above all, with the government poised to invest hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars in various financial institutions, the legislation urged the bailout’s architects to maximize returns to the American people.
That $700 billion bailout has since grown into a more than $12 trillion commitment by the US government and the Federal Reserve. About $1.1 trillion of that is taxpayer money–the TARP money and an additional $400 billion rescue of mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The TARP now includes twelve separate programs, and recipients range from megabanks like Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase to automakers Chrysler and General Motors.
Seven months in, the bailout’s impact is unclear. The Treasury Department has used the recent “stress test” results it applied to ninteen of the nation’s largest banks to suggest that the worst might be over; yet the International Monetary Fund, as well as economists like New York University professor and economist Nouriel Roubini and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman predict greater losses in US markets, rising unemployment and generally tougher economic times ahead.
What cannot be disputed, however, is the financial bailout’s biggest loser: the American taxpayer. The US government, led by the Treasury Department, has done little, if anything, to maximize returns on its trillion-dollar, taxpayer-funded investment. So far, the bailout has favored rescued financial institutions by subsidizing their losses to the tune of $356 billion, shying away from much-needed management changes and–with the exception of the automakers–letting companies take taxpayer money without a coherent plan for how they might return to viability.
The bailout’s perks have been no less favorable for private investors who are now picking over the economy’s still-smoking rubble at the taxpayers’ expense. The newer bailout programs rolled out by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner give private equity firms, hedge funds and other private investors significant leverage to buy “toxic” or distressed assets, while leaving taxpayers stuck with the lion’s share of the risk and potential losses.