TARP saved us, but banks aren't lending -- and we're not getting our money back

It was an unfortunate acronym to begin with for the troubled asset relief program -- TARP -- suggesting as it does something you use to cover up an ugly mess. Now here we stand a year later and what started as a gigantic $700 billion bank bailout has ballooned into a $3 trillion behemoth covering everything from toxic assets to mortgage relief.

Is it working? Well, yes and no, TARP inspector general Neil Barofsky said Sunday on NPR's "Weekend Edition." If the goal was to save the financial system from complete and total collapse, then TARP was a success, the inspector general said.

But if the intention was to get banks lending again? Meh, not so much, Barofsky said.
Indeed, if it weren't for Uncle Sam it seems that hardly anyone is borrowing anything from anybody these days. Every major creditor group is shedding debt, save for the Federal government, according to The New York Times. Households, nonfinancial businesses, private financial businesses, government-sponsored entities and state and local governments have seen their borrowings drop sharply (as in off a cliff), Floyd Norris reports. But not the federal government, which has taken its debt burden to unprecedented levels. (See the alarming graph here.)

The national debt rose by more than a third in the last year, far more than it has done since World War II, Norris says. In the past that would have stoked fears that the Federal government is crowding out private lenders -- but not this time. That's because rather than usurp the private sector, Uncle Sam is standing in for it, Norris writes.

TARP may have prevented Great Depression II, but it's also clear that some pundits' fears that it would be akin to "pushing on a string" were not so far off the mark. The money is sloshing around, but where's the private lending?

And in another depressing admission, Barofsky repeated his view that we'll never get all our TARP money back. "It would be unrealistic to think this program would have any kind of dollar-for-dollar return," he told NPR.
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