TARP Accounting Shuffle: Running on Fumes or Hot Air?
(Update 1 reflects corrected repayment amounts.) Hours before the Congress passed versions of President Barack Obama's budget that omit his requested $250 reserve for future bank bailouts, reports began circulating that the Treasury Department had rearranged its investments in two key programs as part of an attempt to shore up funds in the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday that the Treasury cut its planned investment in the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility -- or TALF -- from $100 billion to $55 billion. The Treasury has also scaled back its Capital Purchase Program from the original $250 billion to $218 billion, the Journal reported. According to the Journal's article, Treasury secretary Tim Geithner had said during the weekend that the fund had a remaining $135 billion. The Treasury did not return calls regarding Geithner's comments from this weekend -- which could not be immediately located on either www.financialstability.gov or in the Treasury's press room -- before this story was published. The March 2009 report on TARP by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that remaining funds may actually be as low as $32.6 billion under the maximum allowance model, which calculates the CPP at $250 billion and TALF at $100 billion. The GAO report did, however, include a separate "projected use of funds" scenario that used the reduced amounts -- $218 billion for CPP and $55 billion for TALF -- that the Journal reported as the Treasury's new program goals. Under this scenario, the program retains $109.6 billion. Read the GAO report. According to a TARP capital investment transaction report dated April 2, the Treasury has invested -- after receiving back $353 million in repayments from five institutions -- $198.4 billion, leaving only $19.6 billion for capital investments under the reduced CPP, until other firms step up to repurchase stock from the Treasury. It was unclear at the time this story was published whether the Treasury intended to distributed only the GAO's "projected use" funds. Naturally, exactly where the new projections or Geithner's commentary from this weekend were reported by the Treasury remains obscure. Calls to the press office there were not returned before this story was published. The department's recent switch of much of its reporting initiatives to www.financialstability.gov -- touted as an unprecedented campaign for transparency -- effectively derailed the department's old method of reporting various data. Although the new site boasts some interactive bells and whistles, it fails to make up for a confused jumble of reports out regarding just how many funds remain in the TARP coin purse, a fact that seems to have caught on at the GAO. "Given the complexity of the issues involved and the heightened public scrutiny, an effective communication strategy continues to be critical, but Treasury has yet to develop a means of regularly and routinely communicating its activities to relevant congressional committees, members, the public, and other critical stakeholders," the GAO noted in its March 31 report. A cabinet secretary for the British government has been quoted in recent weeks -- as Treasury staffing issues became apparent -- as finding communication with the Treasury "unbelievably difficult." According to the British official, "There is nobody there." At no other time is that irony apparent than when critical information like the Treasury's commitment to TALF is needed; indeed, there seems to be no one at the Treasury willing to speak on the issue or provide details. The lack of communication out of the Treasury on what it has touted as a crucial program is disconcerting, especially as TALF was recently expanded and touted along with the newly-minted public-private investment plan as a tool for price discovery of so-called "toxic" or "legacy" assets (Was that a scream we heard? Read Linda Lowell's PPIP commentary.) and for encouraging investing and lending. Both the TALF and the PPIP have come under fire lately for projections of their success that critics say have been exaggerated. With Treasury commitments to the TALF receding according to various reports, the question remains wether the criticism bears some truth. Write to Diana Golobay at email@example.com.