Three months ago, the country was galled by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s offhand request that taxpayers hand over billions to a tanking financial sector with no strings attached. Lawmakers keen on salvaging the bailout rushed to add amendments intended to ensure proper oversight of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The bill that passed established a Congressional Oversight Panel, a tiny, underresourced but committed watchdog team that on December 10 issued its first report in the form of Questions About the $700 Billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Funds. The panel wrote, “We are here to ask the questions that we believe all Americans have a right to ask: who got the money, what have they done with it, how has it helped the country, and how has it helped ordinary people?”
So far, the answers are: the banks that made billions and risked more; they’ve stockpiled capital injections in reserves while withholding credit; and it hasn’t helped any ordinary people. The Government Accountability Office put it bluntly: “Treasury has not yet set up policies and procedures to help ensure that [TARP] funds are being used as intended.”
The fact is, no accountability is possible until the recipients of the bailout funds are forced to operate with the transparency that democracy requires–and this goes for TARP benefits as well as for other aid. There’s a shroud of secrecy around the loan facilities set up by the Federal Reserve and other Treasury Department measures (together totaling more than $7 trillion) now propping up Wall Street. In return for loans, the Fed has taken on nearly $3 trillion in credit-risky collateral, including subprime and other underwater asset-backed securities like lower-standard mortgages, small-business loans and securitized credit card payments, none of which can be sold into the capital markets. In addition, Treasury agreed to back $1.4 trillion of FDIC guarantees if needed, and Congress voted to back a half-trillion of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA mortgages. Cash injections and backups have become regular features of federal banking policy.
All of this should be sounding alarm bells about what exactly is going on between Wall Street, the Fed and the Treasury. Yet opacity remains the rule: Bloomberg News’s repeated attempts to use the Freedom of Information Act to discover details of the Fed’s lending program for financial firms have been stymied.
Some basic moves toward greater transparency and accountability are necessary if we are even to begin to ensure that the bailout money is not being squandered.
For starters, the firms that want to be rescued by the government must make clear their true position.
Quantifying the scope of risk and magnitude of further potential losses is key to determining a bottom-line value to this crisis. This requires more disclosure from Wall Street, including lists of assets and market prices for the assets (which are super-low, given the collapse of liquidity for these assets, but still worth knowing). Every institution that wants a loan on ridiculously good terms from the Fed or a bailout from the government should have to disclose this information. It might be an ugly number–which, like all bad news, will rattle the stock markets–but it will come out sooner or later and should be revealed now.