So the mother of all bailouts is upon us, and with the government signaling flexibility on the direction of its Troubled Asset Relief Program earlier this week, the number of door-knockers at the U.S. Treasury has grown interminably long. The $700 billion plan, initially put into play to stabilize global credit markets and prop up ailing financial institutions, has turned into a veritable political football — with lobbyists and legislators pushing for their own piece of the pie for their voting constituencies, working to position themselves as more needy than the next company, or next industry. The trouble is, nearly everyone has capital needs, even in good times. Cities need roads and funding for teachers. Companies have legacy pensions to fund. Health care costs continue to escalate. And, of course, mortgages must be paid. The list goes on and on. Which means that anyone with the means to lobby for a handout is now doing so. The latest scuttlebutt on the state of TARP finds both insurers and cities doing their very best to wiggle their way into some of the bailout funds. Three cities — Philadelphia, Atlanta and Phoenix — have made national headlines with their requests; mayors in each city are painting as bleak a picture as they can, too. Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin told Bloomberg News that the city is going to be laying off workers and begin cutting critical services if they can’t get a federal handout. “We are going to start hitting bone,” she told the news service. Atlanta has a $60 million gap in its $570 million budget. New Jersey’ state budget has a $1.2 billion deficit, and governor Jon Corzine has said he favors giving money to cities. Which means, of course, that mayors nationwide are now racing to see who can make the best case — and ask for the most money. There are voters to appease, after all. Thus far, the cake must go to San Jose mayor Chuck Reed, who told the Associated Press on Friday morning that he intended to ask for as much as $14 billion; that’s two percent of the entire TARP funding package, and four times greater than the city’s current budget. For one single city. According to the San Jose Mercury News, later recanted on his figure, but said that his city has $1.6 billion in unfunded retiree health care obligations, $500 million in infrastructure needs, and $750 million in funding he wants to bring BART into the South Bay. In other words: hey, if the government’s giving out money, why can’t we get some, too? Consumers have been asking themselves the same question, with many starting web sites to list items they’d like to sell to the government in exchange for cash. Insurers, too But cities and consumers seem less likely to tap directly into the TARP spigot than another group: insurers. Key insurers — Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., Genworth Financial Inc., Lincoln National Corp. and Aegon NV, a Dutch company that owns U.S. insurer Transamerica — each asked the government on Friday to allow them to buy a thrift, so they’d be eligible for bailout funding via the TARP. Hartford said Friday it would buy Florida-based Federal Trust Bank for about $10 million; Genworth applied to acquire Minneapolis-based Inter Savings Bank; Lincoln wants to buy Indiana-based Newton County Loan & Savings; while Transamerica has its eyes on Maryland-based Suburban Federal Savings Bank. But the actual would-be targets don’t matter too much; what matters is moving up from the state-regulatory framework, which currently governs most insurance operations, into the federal net — which would bring the trappings of TARP funding. And, of course, automakers are painting apocalyptic pictures of what would happen should the U.S. auto industry fail to get its own piece of the pie. Whether forecasts of economic ruin are true or not is open to debate — one research firm has forecast that the failure of General Motors Corp. (GM) would cost the government as much as $200 billion — but key lawmakers have signaled a showdown with the Bush administration over the issue of bailing out automakers. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Saturday that he intends to move forward with legislation that would give the auto industry access to TARP funding. Bottom line: it’s unclear who’s going to get money, and who won’t. But most experts now seem to think the cost of propping up ailing industries in the midst of a prolonged recession will end up being much greater than $700 billion. And, of course, still lurking — almost lost in the mix — is a housing correction and mortgage mess that has yet to come close to resolving itself. That sort of recovery may yet be years away. Write to Paul Jackson at email@example.com. Disclosure: The author held no relevant investment positions when this story was published. Indirect holdings may exist via mutual fund investments. HW reporters and writers follow a strict disclosure policy, the first in the mortgage trade.
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