TARP Was a $700 Billion Disaster for Everyone But the Banks
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Two years ago, the top honchos at the Fed, Treasury and the Wall Street banks were running around like Chicken Little warning that the world was about to end. This fear mongering, together with a big assist from the elite media (i.e. NPR, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, etc.), earned the banks their $700 billion TARP blank check bailout. This money, along with even more valuable loans and loan guarantees from the Fed and FDIC, enabled them to survive the crisis they had created. As a result, the big banks are bigger and more profitable than ever.
Now, the same crew that tapped our pockets two years ago is eagerly pitching the line that their bailout was good for us. It may be the case the history books are written by the winners, but that doesn't prevent the rest of us from telling the truth.
Let's step back to where we were two years ago. The huge investment bank Bear Stearns had collapsed. So had Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants. Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest investment bank, had also gone down. AIG, the country's largest insurer, had been put on life support by the government.
At this point, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, the three remaining independent investment banks, all faced runs that would quickly sink them absent government intervention. Citigroup and Bank of America, two of the three largest commercial banks, were also almost certainly insolvent. Many other banks also faced insolvency, especially if they took big losses on their loans to other institutions that were about to go bankrupt.
This was when the Wall Street boys made their mad rush for the public trough. They enlisted everyone that mattered in the effort, including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner, then the head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
The line was that the economy would collapse if Congress did not immediately rescue the banks. They were prepared to make up anything to save the banks in their hour of need. Bernanke was probably caught in the biggest fabrication when he told Congress that the commercial paper market was shutting down.
If true, this would have been disastrous, since most major companies rely on selling commercial paper to meet their payroll and other routine expenses. If this market shut down, it would mean that even healthy businesses could not pay their workers and suppliers, which would quickly cause the whole economy to grind to a halt.
Bernanke did not bother to inform Congress and the public that he had the ability to single-handedly support the commercial paper market. He waited until the weekend after Congress approved the TARP to announce that he would establish a special Fed lending facility to buy commercial paper.
In reality, the Fed almost certainly had the ability to keep the economy going by sustaining the system of payments even if the chain of bank collapses was allowed to run its course. In the 80s Latin American debt crisis, the Fed had an emergency plan to seize the money center banks, and keep them operating, if a default by a major Latin American country pushed them into insolvency.
By the time of the Lehman crisis the financial markets had been severely stressed for over a year. The first major bank collapse had occurred more than 6 months earlier. It would have required a degree of unbelievable incompetence and/or irresponsibility for the Fed not to have devised a similar emergency plan to keep the systems of payments operating in a worst case scenario.