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THE government is pulling a sheet over TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program created during the panic of 2008 to bail out the nation’s financial institutions. With the program’s expiration on Sunday, we can expect to hear lots of claims from the folks at the Treasury that it was a great success.
Such assertions would be no surprise from a political class justifiably concerned about possible taxpayer unhappiness, the continuing economic turmoil and the midterm elections. But if we have learned anything during this crisis, it is that the proclamations emanating from the Washington spin machine must be taken with an extra-hefty grain of salt.
Consider the claims made last summer that the Dodd-Frank financial reform act reduces the threats that large, interconnected banks pose to taxpayers and the economy when the banks are deemed too big to fail. Indeed, as regulators hammer out the rules governing derivatives transactions, it’s evident that the law has created a new set of institutions that will almost certainly be deemed too important to fail if they ever get into trouble. And that means there won’t really be an effective way to keep those firms from taking big, profitable, short-term risks that are dumped on the taxpayers when the bets fail.
Our roster of bailout candidates includes the clearinghouses, created under Dodd-Frank, that are meant to increase the oversight of derivatives trading. Because most derivatives transactions are expected to go through these clearinghouses, they will be “systemically important” under the law. As such, Dodd-Frank specifically provides that “in unusual or exigent circumstances,” the Federal Reserve may provide such entities with a financial backstop, including borrowing privileges.