Despite Secretary Geithner’s statement to the contrary, I still think the Administration is running out of room within the $700 B Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). In my last four posts on TARP funding (1 2 3 4), I have stuck to what I think I can demonstrate analytically. I am now going to shift to some educated guessing about what may be going on within the Administration that is contributing to confusion on the outside. The prior posts involved math, while now I am analyzing people, so I am far less certain about what you read here than when I walked through the TARP arithmetic.

I think the senior economic policymakers in the Administration are overconstrained and have several bad options in front of them. This is not an unusual situation, but to a certain extent they put themselves into this box by spending TARP money on every problem that popped up. $50 B on housing, $5 B on auto parts suppliers, $15 B on small business loans, additional unspecified sums for GM and Chrysler, and new as well as old mortgage-backed securities — things add up. I think they’re in a box.

The box has three sides:

  1. They have created expectations among various constituencies for programs announced over the past two months. These expectations would consume most of the remaining $700 B of TARP funds. If their new programs are successful, they will want to expand them to further strengthen financial institutions and markets. If they are unsuccessful, they will need more TARP funds to try something else.
  2. They are justifiably afraid of asking Congress for more TARP funds.
  3. They could create some room for themselves by taking taxpayer funds back from some of the healthy big banks, but they may be worried about the signals that sends about the others.

It appears that they are testing all three sides of this triangular box to figure out which is their least worst option.

Senior Administration policymakers are operating in an ever-changing financial, economic, and legislative environment. When they developed the President’s budget in February, asking Congress for more TARP funds probably seemed difficult but not necessarily impossible. In that circumstance, it was reasonable and responsible for them to put a $250 B placeholder in their budget for a potential future TARP request.

The legislative environment is now much more hostile. It would not surprise me if, for the moment, they have ruled out asking Congress for more TARP funds, and are instead trying to figure out how to create as much room as possible within their existing constraint.

Commenter Wayne Marr asked a good question.

… But the main point is that Obama and team (Larry, Christy, Austan, Geithner, etc) can simply go to

[the] well (Congress) since Democrats can pass pretty much what they want. The recovery plan was not named the “Great Bailout:” but the “American Reconstruction and Recovery Plan” or some such nonsense for a reason.

Why not another funding program called “The Better Banking Plan for the 21th Century” to provide more cash for technically insolvent banks? Or those that posed a systemic risk? So does it really matter that we have 30B left of TARP or 100B left for TARP?

While I generally agree that the President has tremendous leverage to get Congress to pass his agenda on a wide range of topics, I seriously doubt that is the case here:

  • 95 of 235 House Democrats voted no the first time on TARP (on September 29, 2008), and 63 House Democrats voted no on the successful vote four days later. Speaker Pelosi now has a significantly larger majority (254), but she would still need Republican votes.
  • TARP is far more unpopular now than last Fall.
  • President Obama could undoubtedly get some House D votes who we (the Bush Administration) could not, but not enough to pass such a bill.
  • I surmise that House Republicans are in no mood to go out of their way to help the majority or the White House, given how aggressively the Speaker and White House have been in passing other legislation without their input. That does not mean that all of them would vote no, merely that the Administration will have a hard sell to make.
  • Finally, even if she had the votes, I would bet heavily against the Speaker bringing up such a bill if she thought the vote would be partisan, because she would conclude that such a vote would expose her House Democrats to too great of a political risk in the next election. I think that she thinks that she would need bipartisan cover from Republicans as a condition for bringing such a bill to the floor.

As background, the Temporary Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) is what the Fed and Treasury are doing together to keep securitization markets going for things like student loans and car loans. They now want to expand it to include securitizations for new mortgages, and to use it to buy toxic mortgage-backed securities. TALF was created during the Bush Administration. This is the second major expansion since President Obama took office.

PPIP is the Public-Private Investment Partnership, Secretary Geithner’s plan to buy toxic assets from banks. It has two parts, one of which works in conjunction with the Fed, and the other with the FDIC.

Secretary Geithner’s comments that they have $135 B of room left in the TARP is testing side #1 of the triangular box to its maximum possible extent. In an attempt to convince people that they have sufficient room, to reassure both markets and the Congress, I think his staff put together the biggest number they could plausibly say with a straight face. They have not, to my knowledge, explained what $135 B of room would mean for the TALF and buying toxic assets, and I fear that such an answer would tremendously disappoint market participants who are expecting a $1+ trillion TALF and a $100 B PPIP. If the Administration has made policy decisions that lock in $135 B of room, then they have scaled something way back beyond what they had previously said publicly.

The Administration faces a choice: scale back these two programs to be smaller than what they had previously suggested to market participants, or squeeze something else hard to create more room within the $700 B limit.

The other option is to get some TARP funds back from the healthiest big banks. Since the law allows the Administration to recycle returned funds for other purposes, every invested dollar repaid can be spent again.

Certain large banks (e.g., JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs) are publicly signaling that they would like to repay the Treasury. It is hard to blame them, considering the political and legislative environment. Martha MacCallum of Fox News pushed me on this point, correctly pointing out that it seems un-American to dissuade banks from paying back the taxpayer.

The banks are reportedly being told “not yet” by the Administration. I will guess that the Administration is concerned about something that worried some of our experts — if healthy banks return their funds, then investors will conclude that every bank who is not returning their funds must therefore be unhealthy.

This logic becomes strained, however, when those banks find other avenues for signaling to the market that they are healthy, as they are doing now by screaming “WE WANT TO GIVE IT BACK.”

At some point the banking policy concern may be overwhelmed by the near-impossibility of getting more funding from Congress and the policy and political undesirability of scaling back on PPIP, TALF, or the housing commitment. If this happens, then the Administration will happily start accepting funds from banks. The numbers are large enough that this could create room for them to do other things, and as a long-run policy matter, we want the taxpayer to be paid back. These are supposed to be temporary investments in the banks, in which public capital substitutes for private capital that was unwilling to show up last Fall.

There is another outside-the-box possibility that I am sure the White House has considered. Part of their resource constraint arises from having made a $50 B TARP commitment to housing.

They could push this program out of the TARP, and ask Congress for these housing funds anew. It would be much easier for a heavily Democratic Congress to pass $50 B for housing than for them to pass the same amount (or much more) for “Wall Streeet banks.”

I would oppose such a request, because I oppose this housing spending inside or outside of TARP. But I’m sure they could pass it, given their large partisan majorities in both bodies. This option would cause the White House political pain on its left, which pushed hard for these programs, and could cause FDIC Chairman Bair heartburn, given her impassioned support for these housing programs.

Things probably look a little different to the folks sitting inside the West Wing and at Treasury than I have described here, but I would wager heavily that a discussion at least similar to this is ongoing within the senior ranks of the Administration. As long as that decision is unresolved, it will be confusing as we try to interpret statements like Secretary Geithner’s that he has $135 B of room within the $700 B TARP allocation. Those policymakers need to balance the benefits of decision-making flexibility with the costs and repercussions, from markets and/or Congress, of the bad news when it is eventually delivered. They may be waiting for the right time to signal that a previous commitment will be scaled back, or instead for the right time to ask Congress for more funds. I think it is better for market participants and Congress to have early clarity, especially if it’s bad news.

In my experience, it is better to deliver the bad news as soon as you have made the decision. Rip off the band-aid quickly.

I will end with a thought experiment. Suppose my analysis is roughly correct. It is easy to figure out what you don’t want to do. It is much more difficult to decide what you do want to do. If the President asked you for your recommendation, what would it be?

  1. Scale back on PPIP and TALF as necessary to avoid having to ask Congress for more funds.
  2. Ask Congress for more funds. Follow-up: how much more?
  3. Tell banks that you welcome them repaying the Treasury early.
  4. Push housing outside of TARP and make a separate request of Congress for those funds.
  5. Wait and hope.