TARP's lifespan: Keep it short or keep it going?

Battles are brewing in Washington about whether to allow TARP to die a quiet death on December 31 or start a fight to extend its life. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has not yet decided if he will recommend a TARP extension, but even if he decides against an extension, he wants to keep the left over money in case financial conditions worsen and the government needs to step in again.

Right now there are about $128 billion -- of the total $700 billion originally approved -- in untapped TARP funds. But given how unpopular the program has been, it is doubtful Congress will want to extend it. In fact, 39 Senate Republicans and one Democrat have already sent a letter to Geithner asking that the program not be continued. They want unused TARP funds to be used to pay down the debt.

Even if Congress does not extend the program, it won't die until the government's investments are repaid or the U.S. is no longer a shareholder in financial institutions. That could be years from now.

Neil Barofsky, special inspector general for TARP, told the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday that it's "extremely unlikely" that taxpayers will see a full return on their investment. He does believe that TARP "played a significant role" in saving the financial system from meltdown, according to his testimony.

The government has made significant returns on some of the money already repaid. For example, Goldman Sachs' (GS) TARP loan netted the government a 23 percent annualized return on its investment. While large banks are expected to repay TARP in full, many smaller banks may end up defaulting on their obligations. Also the $50 billion foreclosure prevention program will never be repaid.

Controversy still brews about whether or not TARP was at all successful. Barofsky does think the program improved market stability but fell short on its broad goals, especially the goal to spur lending. Congress originally intended the program to remove toxic assets from the balance sheet of banks. That effort failed miserably and many banks still hold those assets.

I think Geithner would be wise to let this unpopular program die. It was never well designed and its purpose changed regularly with the financial winds. If Geithner does think funds are needed in the future, he should make a strong case for those funds, develop the appropriate program to deal with the problem and then ask for the funds.

Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books including Reading Financial Reports for Dummies and Trading for Dummies.

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