SIGTARP is Back! Be Mad Again. And Happy

My favorite government watchdog of all time, SIGTARP[1], The Norse God of Financial Accountability, recently published another great critique of Treasury’s handling of TARP rules, this one about executive compensation within bailed out firms.

SIGTARP is a favorite of mine because they point out mistakes and errors with the TARP program. At its best, SIGTARP represents to me a hopeful sign that our federal government can learn from its mistakes.

In a time of deep cynicism about how “Washington is broken,” the Special Inspector General[2] role fills me with optimism. If our federal government is strong enough to weather pointed and non-partisan critiques from within, then we’ve got a pretty robust system.[3]

Which makes me happy. Ok, now back to the latest report.


Pay Czar blew it

SIGTARP reports that the Treasury department – and in particular the “Pay Czar”[4] put in place to limit executive compensation at bailed out firms – pretty much blew it.

Here’s what happened in simplest terms:

In 2009, Obama and then Treasury Secretary Geithner announced that firms that took TARP bailout money would be subject to rules about how much they could pay their top 25 executives.

This made and makes sense because

  1. When you take public money to save your firm, it’s a bit nasty to then turn around and send that public money out the door for private compensation in the form of salaries and bonuses. Which is EXACTLY what happened in 2008 with bailed out Wall Street firms, all of whom took TARP money, and then paid bonuses to their employees.
  2. At a time of deepening economic malaise, the ‘optics’ of bailed out executives taking big bonuses while Main Street folks lost their jobs and homes after earning 1/300th of the compensation seemed a bit, well, unfortunate.
  3. Geithner claimed that excessive executive compensation actually contributed to pre-crisis risk-taking. I don’t know if really buy this, but anyway, it was a theory of his that became part of the justification for limiting compensation.
  4. Restricting executive compensation should incentivize top executives to pay back their TARP money early, in order to return to the good old days of unrestricted compensation awards for themselves. Thus aligning taxpayer public interests with top executives’ private interests, as seems to have happened, according to Citigroup and Bank of America executives later interviewed by SIGTARP.


The Pay Czar rules said:

  1. The top 25 highest-paid executives at each firm should not receive cash compensation above $500K without special permission from the Pay Czar. Which permission, it turned out in retrospect, was not hard to get, as we read in the SIGTARP report.
  2. Compensation above $500K would have to come in the form of long-term restricted stock in the bailed company. Which is frankly not that onerous a rule, and probably ironically served to further enrich some executives who received huge stock awards at depressed 2009-2011 share prices. There’s a long and distinguished tradition of excessively compensating executes through share awards, as I’ve written about before.
  3. Compensation for the next 75 most highly-compensated employees had to be made in reference to average payments for comparable employees in similar jobs in the market. They couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be paid more than the average in the market without special permission. Which, again, makes sense because why are you being paid more than average when your freaking firm just got its ass bailed out with taxpayer money?
  4. These restrictions would stay in place until firms repaid their TARP bailout money.


My favorite GM bailout poster

My view on these rules, and what happened

When you look at these rules in aggregate, they do not seem to me restrictive at all. This is not written by some “Socialist Gubmint that wants to attack Capitalism and END OUR FREEDOMS.”

On the contrary, the only reasonable view of these rules, in my opinion, is that these rules were practically written by the bailed out firms themselves. Which, if you believe in at least the cognitive capture of the leaders of our regulatory system[5], you could plausibly argue they did write the rules.

Despite that, as SIGTARP reports, the Pay Czar totally failed to enforce even these executive-friendly rules, especially with some of the final TARP bailout companies, GM and Ally Financial.


SIGTARP: Norse God of Financial Accountability

The main points of the SIGTARP report, summarized for your reading pleasure (and to make your head explode with anger if you think about it too hard)


  • General Motors (the pension-payments company that also happens to make cars that people don’t buy) and Ally Financial (formerly GM Acceptance Corp, the auto-finance branch of General Motors) were the last of a special group of extraordinary bailout firms[6] to pay back TARP money.
  • Both firms’ executives made the case to the Pay Czar that restrictions on their executive compensation were counterproductive, because they were trying to be “competitive in the market” in order to pay back TARP money. The Pay Czar, according to SIGTARP, found this entirely self-serving argument persuasive when bending the compensation rules for GM and Ally.
  • This happened, despite the fact that other TARP firms rushed to pay back TARP money, in order to loosen up their pay restrictions. In other words, the restrictions on executive compensation effectively accelerated repayment as intended for most bailed companies, but the Pay Czar later forgot this and felt like the rules should be bent in order to accelerate the repayment to taxpayers. The Pay Czar got this backwards.
  • GM and Ally Financial in particular cost taxpayers quite a bit of money in the final accounting. Instead of collecting the repaid TARP money, the federal government sold its stakes in the companies to public markets at a loss – $11.159 B for GM, $1.763 for Ally. That didn’t stop the firms from getting the compensation rules bent repeatedly for them prior to these final accounting of losses.
  • Both companies – as detailed in the SIGTARP report – managed to get pay raises, exceptions to the $500K limit, exceptions to long-term stock restrictions, and ignored policies and procedures put in place by Treasury regarding payment restrictions.
  • Restrictions on executive compensation actually got looser and looser in the 2009 to 2014 period, even as expected losses at GM and Ally Financial became clearer and more likely.
  • Treasury approved at least $1 million in pay for every top 25 employee at GM and Ally in 2013, despite the supposed rules in place to guide the Pay Czar, and prior to the ‘repayment’ of TARP through the government sale of shares to public markets.


In Conclusion

The 2008 crisis and aftermath makes different people mad for different reasons.

For me, the most egregious part of the whole episode has been the enjoyment of private profits with the benefit of public bailout funds before, during, and after 2008.

I love SIGTARP for making available the details on this egregiousness.

I’m mad, but I’m happy we have a paper trail to help me know exactly what I’m mad about.



Please see related posts:

Book Review of Neil Barofsky’s Bailout: The Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street

In Praise of SIGTARP – Norse God of Financial Accountability

SIGTARP I – Truth in Government

SIGTARP II – Biggest Banks Still Too Big To Fail

SIGTARP III – The Citigroup Bailout

SIGTARP IV – What Small Banks Are Going Under Next?

SIGTARP V – My Front Row Seat to the AIG Debacle

[1] SIGTARP stands for the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Created by Congress, the SIGTARP periodically publishes reports on how TARP money was spent and misspent, investigations into criminal activity around TARP, and makes policy recommendations to Treasury about ways to do things better, or what it did wrong. I <3 SIGTARP.

[2] There are several Special Inspector Generals for a variety of important policy morasses in the federal government, including for “Iraq Reconstruction” and “Afghanistan Reconstruction. A big part of their role is to tell us exactly what got screwed up, how the money got wasted,  And that’s a good thing.

[3] I mean, we can all get ‘mad at Washington.’ But the fact is that Russia and China are not robust enough systems to handle an internal critique like a Special Inspector General. They are too fragile and they know it. We are anti-fragile.

[4] The Pay Czar is actually technically known as the Office of the Special Master for TARP Executive Compensation, shortened to OSM in the SIGTARP report. I like the phrase Pay Czar better, however, so I’m going to stick with it for the rest of this post. The first Pay Czar was Kenneth Feinberg, previously in charge of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, and later the BP Oil Spill Fund, and Boston Marathon Bomb Victims Fund. Feinberg was later succeeded by Patricia Geoghegan, about whom I know nothing.

[5] ‘Cognitive capture’ is shorthand for my favorite theory I learned from from Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats, which I reviewed earlier.

[6] The Treasury Department especially tracked the ‘exceptional’ TARP bailout money given to AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, Chrysler, Chrysler Financial, GM, Ally Financial (formerly GMAC), because these seven firms were especially FUBAR in 2008, meaning the amounts were really high and the risk of taxpayer losses were also exceptionally high.

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Book Review: Bailout; An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street

If every novel or Hollywood movie starts with either the premise of “A Man Walks Into a Town” or “A Man Goes On a Journey,” Bailout by Neil Barofsky begins with the former.  Neil Barofsky plays the leading Jimmy Stewart hero role in this modern update to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

In late 2008, the outgoing Bush administration nominated Barofsky, a federal prosecutor from the US Attorney General’s Office in New York, to head up the Special Investigator General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (aka SIGTARP).  After then-Treasury Secretary Paulson pushed through Congress the approval of $700 Billion in government cheese dedicated to propping up the US financial system, Congress had the foresight to demand someone who could, in Barofsky’s turn of phrase, “catch the rats” inevitably attracted to the cheese.

Much of the humor and pathos of Bailout derives from Barofsky’s naïve outsider status[1] crashing awkwardly into – or exploding spectacularly against – the self-interested forces of Washington.  Time and again, he brings his moral outrage and laugh-or-you’ll-cry innocence to a self-interested, power hungry town.

He’s brutally harsh on well-known characters such as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner[2], Paulson protégé Neil Kashkari[3], and Treasury deputy Herb Allison[4], as well as lesser known players who make up the DC financial policy world.  He’s also hilariously open about his own deficiencies for the SIGTARP job, in his role as a bridegreoom,[5] or as an initially clumsy political player on the Washington scene.

I’m not in the least surprised that I loved this book, as I’ve been a dedicated fan-boy[6] of Barofsky’s SIGTARP reports on this site (here, here, here and here), trying my hardest to make more people aware of how good and rare a job he did as SIGTARP.

I am surprised, however, at how much this book should be the book everyone reads to understand our federal government in the early 21st Century.  I’m not going to insist yet that Barofsky’s Bailout is the Washington DC version of Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker, but the parallels are strong enough that I’m putting the comparison into the conversation.

Both relate hilarious and cringe-inducing stories of ambitious, smart, successful, and powerful jerks acting badly, for personal gain, to the public’s detriment.  Both walked away from short stints in their respective centers of power with the guts to risk complete ostracism from that center of power by eviscerating the players in hilarious character sketches and painful interactions.

Throughout Bailout, Barofksy reminds us that the only possible way he could succeed as the Top Cop of TARP would be to act with complete indifference toward his next job.  Any personal consideration of the professional consequences of his actions – like money or advancement or power or prestige or making friends – would keep him from pursuing his investigatory role to its fullest extent.

It helps that Barofsky, by his own description, has an almost Aspergers-syndrome disregard for niceties like human feelings or sympathetic tones when they get in the way of what he believes to be right.  He exudes a super-hero focus on righteousness – even more than I had realized when I first dubbed him the Norse God of Financial Accountability.

If Barofsky demonstrates any character flaw in Bailout, it’s this same self-righteousness, his personal conviction that he’s got the right answers that nobody else except he (and his SIGTARP deputy Kevin Puvalowski[7]) had in Washington.  He mocks the Treasury creators of TALF[8] and PPIP[9] for not fully understanding the potential for fraud in these programs or flays them for pushing plans with overly Wall Street-friendly terms.

On the one hand I have no doubt Barofsky’s mostly right (and neither does Barofsky), but on the other hand we hear the righteousness in his voice that must have rubbed the sleep-deprived-and-making-it-up-as-they-went-along TARP bailout folks in the Treasury department the wrong way.

To nitpick a bit more, Barofsky tends not to give much credence to the Wall Street view of the world throughout Bailout.  As a former Wall Streeter, my own instinct tells me that simply ignoring Wall Street’s concerns in late 2008 and early 2009, and pursuing the purer prosecutorial approach seemingly favored by Barofsky, could have led to its own disastrous consequences as well.  I’m not happy with Paulson’s and Geithner’s coddling of the Street, but Barofsky’s hard line might not have been optimal for the public good in the long run either.

Overall though, I admire his consistent choice to be right over being liked, and his consistent choice to push public welfare over private advantage.

Why don’t more people go to Washington and do the right thing?  Barofsky clearly provides the answer: Because everybody is always looking to the next job.  You don’t uproot bad actors if those bad actors might actually help you get the next plum position.

At Bankers Anonymous I remain obsessed with the nexus of finance and politics that brought us to the brink of financial apocalypse in 2008.  Bailout isn’t the book for understanding the Wall Street side of the crisis, but it’s the best so far for understanding what deeply embedded conflicts of interest prevent government officials from doing the right thing to prevent a Credit Crisis.

Nothing I’ve seen shows any resolution of those conflicts of interest.


Please see related post: All Bankers Anonymous Book Reviews in one place.



[1] I have to admit his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington naiveté throughout the book has to be a bit of a pose, given that he’s a badass prosecutor who went after Colombian drug lords and white color financial criminals, experience which I imagine prepared him for interacting with the less savory aspects of human behavior.

[2] Barofsky argues that the original tax evasion problem that came up at Geithner’s confirmation hearing in 2009 illustrates Geithner’s basic disrespect for law and truthfulness.  Let’s just say that based on Bailout we should be glad to see the back of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in a second Obama administration.  I’m still going to be so pissed when Geithner announces he’s joining Goldman Sachs as senior partner upon leaving office next month.

[3] Barofsky grudgingly calls TARP architect Kashkari a reasonably straight-shooter.  I love this typical Barofsky backhanded compliment: “Sure, he was combative, not always forthcoming, and excessively deferential to Wall Street, but Kashkari had generally been straightforward with me.  I don’t think he ever flat-out lied to me, which in Washington put him into rarefied air.”

[4] The book’s forward alone, in which Barofsky relays Herb Allison giving him a classic drug-lord choice of “Gold or Lead” is worth the price of the book.  Barofsky sums up – with that one anecdote – everything you need to know about Washington DC in the 21st Century, and why people so rarely act for the public good when that conflicts with their private interest.  Allison opens his Gold-or-Lead proposals with “[Y]ou’re a young man, just starting out with a family, and obviously this job isn’t going to last forever.  Have you thought at all about what you’ll be doing next?”  When Barofsky professes only an interest in doing this job well, not focusing on the next job, Allison gets nastier, saying his tone is losing him credibility, people are talking badly about him.  Barofsky calls his bluff, after which Allison reverts to bribery again, asking him what kind of job he’d like?  An appointment?  A judgeship?  Basically anything to get Barofsky to play ball.

Powerful people worry too much about their potential next job to do the right thing in their current job.  In fact, the better-selling but largely uninteresting Andrew Ross Sorkin book Too Big To Fail suffers from precisely this problem.  Sorkin was too worried about enhancing his future journalistic career by protecting future sources such as the CEOs of Wall Street to criticize any of them in any interesting way.  Which is why the book should have been called Too Connected to Criticize.

[5] You have to love the story he tells on himself on the night of his own wedding rehearsal, unable to tear himself away from engaging over Blackberry in political fights with Treasury colleagues.  “Even when Karen tried to walk me through the drill for the ceremony, I couldn’t stop.  As she explained, ‘So we’ll come down this elevator and then walk down these stairs to this area, where we’ll have the ceremony,’ I responded, annoyingly, ‘Treasury is going to fight this.  Kevin’s right, they’re going to flip.  It’s going to shine a light in an area they want to keep dark.’  ‘And this is where the band will set up,’ Karen said, ignoring me and pointing out where the party would occur. ‘Treasury could just go out and tell the banks to respond with the ‘all money is green’ argument, and the banks will just say that they can’t respond to the request.  We’re going to have to get real specific in the subpoena,’ I blurted out, more to myself than her.  ‘This is where the buffet will be; we can taste some of the food tonight at dinner if you’d like,’ Karen placidly continued.  She very smartly refused to engage with my obsession, and she finally got some degree of peace after I walked into the pool with my Blackberry still clipped to my bathing suit, frying it.”

[6] For example, the post in which I named him the Norse God of Financial Accountability.

[7] Puvalowski is Barofsky’s buddy from the US Attorney’s office in New York who became his deputy at SIGTARP.

[8] Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility.  A Federal Reserve program to lend public money to restart private investment in asset-backed securities after that portion of the market froze in the second half of 2008.  TALF proposed to provide loans of 95 cents on every private dollar invested, with non-recourse to the borrower.  For an introduction to some other non-recourse lending handouts from Washington to Wall Street, please read footnote #3 to this posting.

[9] Public-Private Investment Fund.  A Wall Street-friendly program providing 92 cents of federal funds for every dollar invested via PPIP to encourage private fund managers to purchase distressed assets off the balance sheets of big banks.  Also non-recourse to the borrower.  Again, see footnote #3 on this post for why that’s so awesome for Wall Street.

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SIGTARP, Part IV – What Small Banks Are Going Under Next?

Ok, so it’s no secret I’m pretty sweet on SIGTARP, the Norse God of Financial Accountability.

There’s the pleasure of calling a fellow US Treasury colleague a liar.

There’s the feistiness of a government official pointing out that through our failure to rein in TBTF banks, we’ve laid the groundwork for the next crisis

There’s the carefully balanced review of the Citigroup Bailout.

Frankly there’s the plain old fun of SIGTARP himself, Neil Barofsky, responding during his book tour[1] to my tweet about Geithner, unconcerned that Geithner would jump to Goldman, Sachs, because at least at GS he’d do less harm than as Treasury Secretary!

Barofsky’s response to my question about Geithner going to Goldman. “He could do less harm there.”

But I digress.  There’s a good deal of valuable information in SIGTARP reports, and in this installment I thought I’d highlight a few things we can learn about small and medium size banks.  I’m sad to say that four years after the Credit Crunch, many small and medium size banks are doing terribly.

US government regulators NEVER tell you which banks are in distress.[2]  But SIGTARP consistently goes where other regulators dare not tread.[3]  Read the full report to find out which small banks will go under next, probably by 2013, or simply go to the list of banks which have missed dividend payments.

On missing Dividend payments owed to Treasury for TARP money

The stated reason for TARP was to ensure that TBTF banks did not bring the entire financial system to a grinding halt when taken over by the FDIC or placed in receivership.  For less clear-cut reasons[4] however, Treasury also offered small and medium size banks a chance to take advantage of the fast-track route to recapitalization via government investment.

As it turns out, and despite explicitly forbidding this[5], the TARP money extended a lifeline to small and medium size banks that have failed to thrive following the Great Credit Crunch.  A few hundred of these banks have either succumbed to failure or have missed so many dividend payments to the Treasury that survival seems doubtful.

SIGTARP reports list not only those banks which have outright failed or those where the government has lost money, but also those banks that have missed dividend payments to the Treasury and the number of those payments as well.  The missed dividend signals the banks that are probably too far gone to survive.

Wondering if your local TARP-bailout bank is in good shape?  You can check for it in the SIGTARP report HERE.

To save you some time scrolling through the SIGTARP report, you can look on the following pages for:

Pp 98-102: 162 Banks that have missed one dividend or many dividends.

Pp 102-103: 41 Banks where the US Treasury has realized a loss through its TARP investment.

Pp 110-117: 99 Banks that have failed, gone bankrupt, or had their US Treasury investment forcibly restructured.


On troubled Community Banks that still owe TARP money

One measure of recovery from the Great Credit Crunch would be the strength and stability of banks in the United States.  And, unfortunately, a great number of small community banks, we learn from SIGTARP, are really still sucking wind.

While 90% of the original TARP money[6] from late 2008 has been repaid from all of the TBTF banks (except Regions Bank), small and medium size banks have been much slower to repay.

As of the latest Congressional report, approximately 400 small and medium size banks have yet to pay back TARP funds.  Even that group of 400 TARP banks overstates smaller banks’ ability to repay, since an additional 137 banks swapped TARP funds for a program custom-designed to let them off the TARP hook, through a financing called SBLF.

What are the implications for the future of small banks unable to repay TARP?

400 banks account for approximately 5% of banking institutions in the country, not a huge portion of the total.  In a strictly macroeconomic sense, it is systemically irrelevant whether these banks live or die in the years to come.  A case can even be made that fewer banks in the United States would be just fine.

From a taxpayer perspective the $20 Billion value in small bank preferred shares and warrants represents less than the US Treasury risked with individual banks such as Citigroup and Bank of America in the early days of the crisis.

On the other hand, comparing small bank failure to household financial failure shows the locally devastating effect if they implode financially.  That is to say, it matters to those banks and their communities if they fail.  Not only that, we can assume, not unreasonably, that failing banks will be concentrated in depressed regions of the country, exacerbating access to credit for small businesses and real estate developers in precisely those areas which can least sustain losses.[7]

The SIGTARP report provides evidence, if you read between the lines, that a great number of these smaller 400 TARP recipients are on life-support, and many will not make it out of the intensive care unit.

Congress passed the Small Business Lending Fund (SBLF)[8] nominally to provide more credit for small business, but in reality to allow medium and small banks to exit TARP and roll into a less restrictive government program.[9]  One hundred thirty-seven banks qualified for Treasury funding under SBLF by proving their likelihood of increasing their loan portfolio to small businesses – and exited TARP shortly thereafter.  Those who could exit TARP at that time, did – the rest could not.

Furthermore, executive compensation restrictions make it unlikely that any bank still owing TARP money has a profitable and sustainable banking franchise.  If they could have paid it back, they would have by now.

The 162 Banks Most Likely to Fail

As of the July 2012 report, one hundred sixty two, or almost half of the remaining 400 TARP banks, have missed dividends (currently with a 5% coupon rate) on the preferred shares owed to Treasury.  By law, the dividend rates jump to 9% on these bank preferred securities beginning in 2013.  Payments of 9% on their capital is an exorbitant rate for banks to pay when the costs of funds in the money markets for healthy banks remain below 2%.

In sum, the picture is grim for remaining small and medium TARP banks, but the financial system and ordinary taxpayers will not suffer extraordinary losses.  To badly hit communities, however, more pain awaits, probably in the second half of 2013 when 9% dividends deal the fatal blow to weak banks.



Also see:

In Praise of SIGTARP Part I, “Truth in Government”

In Praise of SIGTARP Part II, “We blew it on the repayment of TARP by the largest financial institutions”

SIGTARP Part III – “The Citigroup Bailout”

and SIGTARP V – The AIG Bailout

[2] There’s a good public policy reason for this.  Exposing a weak bank publically may create a self-fulfilling prophesy of weakness, as depositors and customers leave the zombie bank for its stronger competitors.

[3] Which is why it’s kind of an illicit thrill to see struggling banks publicly outed this way.  I know, I’m weird.

[4] One strongly implied reason at the beginning of TARP was the ‘safety in numbers’ idea.  That is, if many banks took TARP funds at the same time it would remove the stink of government intervention from the actual targets, the TBTF banks on the financial precipice.  Another reason is probably the sway of small and medium banks with their Congressional representatives.  One reason that makes less sense is the systemic value of small and medium banks.

[5] TARP funds were supposed to be only available to Qualifying Financial Institutions (QFIs.)  But the definition of a QFI included the mandate that they be “healthy, viable institutions.”  We know with hindsight that at least both Citigroup and Bank of America would have failed to qualify for this designation had “healthy, viable” been a truly disqualifying condition.  But we now also know hundreds of small banks failed that test as well.

[6] In this posting, by “TARP funds” I really mean to refer to the Capital Purchase Program (CPP) by which Treasury bought preferred shares and warrants in 707 banks, including the largest 17 TBTF banks.  Technically “TARP funds” could include a wide variety of other investment programs authorized under TARP, but I’d rather use the acronym TARP than CPP, since it is better known.

[7] See this interesting site with stats and maps of bank failures.

[8] In September 2010

[9] The initial dividend rate of 5% matches the TARP dividend rate of 5%, but crucially SBLF funding does not carry restrictions on executive compensation.  Much better, Smithers.

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The Citigroup Bailout – SIGTARP Part III

We love to criticize the wastefulness of bureaucracy, the agency ass-covering, and the naiveté of government officials.  But it’s a surprising pleasure to read[1] The SIGTARP [2]  review of the government’s response to Citigroup’s near-death experience and its bailout in the Fall of 2008.

Here we have a US Treasury position created for the purpose of reviewing the government’s own actions in the heat of the crisis, and we might be excused for bringing low expectations to the table.  I have to admit, however, that my jaundiced eye opens wide with the quality of the analysis and indeed the downright feistiness of the SIGTARP report.

The report reviews the timeline of the crisis, the systemic need to bail out Citigroup, and the particulars of negotiating – actually, Treasury mandated – a $20 Billion preferred-equity capital infusion and a loss-absorbing backstop for a $300 Billion ring-fence around Citigroup’s riskier assets.

We do not know what would have happened without government intervention on behalf of Citigroup, but the SIGTARP nicely summarizes the case for Citigroup’s status as a Too Big To Fail (TBTF) Bank for those of us with short memories.  Citigroup was at the time the largest currency exchange bank, the largest consumer finance lender, the world’s largest credit card lender, the 2nd largest banking organization, the third largest mortgage servicer, and the fourth largest student lender, with over $175 Billion in uninsured domestic deposits.

SIGTARP shares numerous interesting details from the negotiations in October and November 2008.

First, the government needed to lie to itself and the public in the Fall of 2008 when it declared Citigroup a ‘healthy and viable’ banking institution[3], as a necessary condition for providing an initial $25 Billion capital infusion through the Capital Purchase Program (CPP) in October 2008.[4]  Treasury Secretary Paulson and New York Federal Reserve Board (FRB) President Geithner clearly felt at the time that they could only get Congressional support for the CPP if it came with a large dose of self-deception about ‘healthy and viable’ banking institutions.  Why would a ‘healthy and viable’ banking institution need an emergency $25 Billion capital infusion from the government anyway?  It’s a Potemkin Village type absurdity, and SIGTARP lets us enjoy the irony.

Next, Treasury, FDIC, and the FRB cut a pretty good deal for taxpayers in negotiating with Citigroup.  Most importantly, they announced to the public (and Wall Street) the ‘ring-fencing’ of over $300 Billion in Citigroup assets – government insurance against losses.  By ring-fencing, they separated presumably toxic assets on Citigroup’s balance sheet, and declared these assets would be treated in a special way to limit Citigroup’s total losses.

Here’s the clever part about the ring-fence; Citigroup remaining on the hook for the first $39 Billion in losses, with a combination of Treasury and FDIC absorbing the majority of the next $15 Billion in losses, and the Federal Reserve Board absorbing the rest of the loss risk via non-recourse financing.  While the announcement emphasized the government insurance for Citigroup’s riskiest CDOs, RMBS, CMBS, and auto loan ABS, loss-scenarios suggested only Citigroup would bear the losses on the portfolio.[5]

If you can’t figure, as neither Citigroup nor the market could out at the time, what the bank’s biggest loss could be on its portfolio, then the market would assume the worst and treat Citigroup as a soon-to-fail entity going the way of Bear Stearns, Lehman, and AIG.  But if you can precisely define, as the ring-fence did, the upper limit of the bank’s losses, then the market understands the known limit and the self-fulfilling prophesy of expected losses leading to financial wipeout can stop.   So, that’s clever.

Following this announcement, as intended, markets credibly believed Citigroup to be TBTF, with a perceived government guarantee on a huge portion of its riskiest assets.  The stock-shorting activity reversed, CDS spreads tightened, and we saw no world-wide run on Citigroup’s bank deposits.

SIGTARP’s feistiness surfaces most particularly in reviewing not only the actions of government leaders, but their disagreements with each other and with its review.  Numerous times throughout the report, we learn of requests by FDIC’s Sheila Bair to change or redact statements in the report.  We also learn that Citigroup successfully withheld a listing of its ring-fenced assets from publication by SIGTARP, citing propriety information[6], but SIGTARP is not afraid to respectfully disagree.

SIGTARP’s summary of the story emphasizes the ad hoc, but ultimately correct, decision of government leaders to massively intervene on behalf of Citigroup.  SIGTARP calls out our own government for what they failed to make Citigroup do; this distinguishes the report and makes for good reading.

SIGTARP gets to the heart of unsolved problems with the government interventions of 2008.  Citigroup, along with more than a dozen financial institutions, today remains TBTF.  Which means we could repeat the same crisis we all just survived. 

Not only that, but SIGTARP rightly states that the last bailout may increase the likelihood and severity of the next crisis, because the moral hazard problem also remains with us today.  High-risk takers, namely Citigroup creditors and counterparts, were not punished in the bailout, so they may reasonably expect to under-price similar credit and counterpart risk in the future, believing that the government provides an invisible safety net underneath high-wire risk taking.

Even short of a repeat crisis, we know that the implied government guarantee for TBTF institutions constitutes a massive subsidy to Citigroup and its brethren via lowered borrowing costs and collateral costs.  This subsidy provides huge advantages over smaller financial firms, but, more troublingly sets the taxpayer up for unlimited liability for private institutions, with little discernible public benefit.  Citigroup, the big red umbrella, is still not paying us citizens for the giant insurance policy we offer them.

I don’t criticize the government, and neither does the SIGTARP, for preventing a Citigroup collapse in the Fall of 2008.  I do blame the US government, and thankfully SIGTARP does too, for allowing TBTF banks to continue their invisible but nevertheless powerful draw on free taxpayer support.

Ultimately, as SIGTARP rightly (and depressingly) points out, we cannot know the cost of this Citigroup bailout until we know the cost of the next bailout, partly born out of this one.

Two concluding thoughts make me optimistic, however.

First, although SIGTARP is part of the government, it plays the ombudsman role fairly, critically analyzing what other parts of the government have, and have not, done since the acute crisis subsided.  There’s hope in a system which can criticize itself and thus correct its future course.  Course change is hard, but a report like SIGTARP’s makes it possible.  I made this thematic point in an earlier post, but it’s worth emphasizing.  I’m not sure we’re improving, but I am sure that critical thinkers within the system, like SIGTARP, give us a chance at improvement.

Second, throughout the narrative of Citigroup’s near collapse and rescue, we see instances of massive government intervention but not a massive government power grab.  This too bears remembering.  The United States has a tradition of public official respect for private enterprise, which is both understood and credible  – but not always recognized by politicians wanting to score points. [7]

A market collapse and an overwhelming government bailout naturally give rise to conspiracy theories on the political fringes.  Many, if not most, societies in the rest of the world would fit the Citigroup events into a conspiratorial, but ultimately unhelpful narrative.  The specific history of Citigroup as told to us by the SIGTARP, however, reminds us that even if the government did not get everything right, they actually did pretty well, considering.


Please also see SIGTARP Part I – Truth in Government

SIGTARP Part II – Biggest Banks Still Too Big To Fail

SIGTARP Part IV – Which Small Banks are Going Under Next?

and SIGTARP Part V – The AIG Bailout

[1] Assuming you like wonkish reviews of the government’s response to the 2008 Credit Crunch as much as I do.

[2] Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, aka SIGTARP, aka Norse God of Financial Accountability.

[3] Both Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and FDIC Chair Sheila Bair used this description in written and spoken statements.

[4]A banking institution had to be “healthy and viable” to be considered a “Qualifying Financial Institution,” as only “Qualifying Financial Institutions” could receive this capital infusion.

[5] As, in the end, it turned out.  When the $300B guarantee program unwound in the Fall of 2009, only Citigroup had suffered losses.  So we’ve got that going for us.  Which is nice.

[6] In pointing this out we get to share SIGTARP’s undoubted chuckle about the ‘special sauce’ of proprietary information Citigroup keeps from its competitors, which contributed to one of the most catastrophic losses in human financial history.  Seriously, guys?  No one wants your special recipe of assets that contribute to financial Armageddon for your bank.

[7] Anti-market and anti-government cranks both see vast conspiracies and vindication of their own warped views in the events of 2008, but thankfully they mostly troll the Internet commentary pages and do not reflect, you know, reality.

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In Praise of SIGTARP Part II – We blew it on the repayment of TARP funds by the largest financial institutions

See related post In Praise of SIGTARP Part I here

We are now at the four year mark on the deepest part of the Great Credit Crunch and Great Recession, so I’m moved to ask:

When it comes to avoiding the next financial blowup and bailout we need to ask “Are our bank protections better off now than they were four years ago?”

A Congressionally-mandated investigative entity, SIGTARP[1], AKA the Norse God of Financial Accountability, does not think so.

We know the United States government leaped into bailout frenzy throughout 2008, attempting virtually every permutation of intervention to keep the country’s largest financial institutions – and by extension – the world economy – from complete collapse.  The US government used mergers, direct investments, shotgun marriages, bankruptcy, receivership, loan guarantees, voluntary asset sales, forced asset sales – the whole toolkit.

While the bailout process could best be described as ad-hoc, we hope that the delicate unwinding of the government safety net for Too Big to Fail institutions will be more thoughtful, and less chaotic.

We hope, however, in vain.

According to the SIGTARP report the bank’s exit from government protection has been quite ad-hoc as well.  Worse, we[2] let weak TBTF banks pay back public funds before they were really steady on their feet with enough capital.  The same banks – Citibank, Bank of America, Wells Fargo – remain weakly capitalized.  This matters a whole lot because taxpayers continue to silently subsidize the safety net for TBTF banks.

SIGTARP’s report on repayments by the TBTF banks raises and answers key questions, such as

  1. Why did banks want to repay TARP money so quickly, before they were fully ‘ready’ to access private markets for their funding?
  2. How do we know the process was ad-hoc and rushed?

The answer to question number one is simple.  Bank executives said it was to remove the shame and stigma of continuing to receive public bailout funds from TARP.  I think anyone who has spent time around finance executives, however, knows that shame could not possibly weigh as heavily on them as did the TARP restrictions on executive compensation. [3]

The answer to question number two forms the bulk of SIGTARPs report from September 29, 2011, and the details are fascinating.[4]

To get the full gist of the issue, we need some background first, which SIGTARP nicely provides.

The authority to directly invest in TBTF banks[5] via preferred shares came with a sensible proviso that banks could not repay TARP money for 3 years, but Congress reversed course a few months later in early 2009 with a new law[6]  that allowed banks to repay the borrowed capital more quickly.  Although TARP money came from Treasury, the Federal Reserve Board headed up the regulatory team[7] charged with setting criteria for repayment.

Nine reasonably well-capitalized banks[8] repaid TARP funds in June 2009, while another eight – including 3 of the 4 largest banks in the country(Citigroup, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo) – failed a bank stress test.  Among the criteria developed then for the weaker banks was a requirement that they raise a significant amount of TARP repayment funds – specifically 50% of the cash required for repayment — through common stock issuance.[9]

When push came to shove, however, we learn from SIGTARP’s report that regulators stretched, pulled, waived, and disagreed with one another about whether to make banks comply with the rules they had just put in place.  Treasury’s rush to encourage repayment, it turns out, trumped the regulatory need for strong banks.  And if you suspect large banks get better treatment than small banks, here’s your evidence.

Bank of America, for example, raised capital partly through preferred shares issuance, a less regulated type of capital.  Citigroup, as well, fell short of its required 50% issuance of common stock.  Wells Fargo attempted multiple times to wriggle out of the need for a fully dilutive equity issuance but ultimately raised the required amount at the end of 2009.  Regulators, nevertheless, signed off on all three banks’ 2009 repayment plans, waiving their own requirements mere months after setting them.

FDIC’s then Chairman Sheila Bair, however, stands out as a vocal critic of the regulatory cave-in to the combined Treasury and bank-executive pressure.

Treasury, FRB and OCC officials apparently claimed that private markets were too weak to support the admittedly massive equity issuance needed for the banks.  Paradoxically, at the same time Treasury, FRB and OCC implied the direct opposite, that banks were strong enough to pay back public funds.

As FDIC Chief Sheila Bair points out,

“The argument [FRB and OCC] used against us – which frustrated me to no end – is that [Bank of America] can’t use the 2-for-1[10] because they’re not strong enough to raise 2-for-1.  That just mystified me.  The point was if they’re not strong enough, they shouldn’t have been exiting TARP.”

Sheila Bair called out the impossible double-speak coming from Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

It makes sense to me that you can’t be both too weak for private capital markets but plenty strong enough to leave public protection.  Regulators blew it by letting the banks out of TARP too early.

As a result of the rush to re-privatize we missed the chance to control, from a regulatory standpoint, the destiny of TBTF institutions and our public exposure to the next big crisis.

SIGTARP’s September 2011 report has a ‘remains to be seen’ conclusion on whether banks are now strong enough to absorb future financial shocks.  That’s a pretty interesting negative-report from within the government, significantly doubting whether regulators have properly done their job.

Also, there’s this, from SIGTARP:

“Unless and until such institutions, either on their own accord or through regulatory pressure or

requirements, are restructured, simplified, and maintain adequate capital to absorb

their own losses, they will pose a grave threat to the entire financial system.”

That’s a compelling and scary argument right now, with Bank of America stock down 50% and Citigroup down 30% from when they repaid TARP in November 2009.


Also, please see In Praise of SIGTARP Part I here

SIGTARP Part III- The Citigroup Bailout

SIGTARP Part IV – Which Small Banks are Going Under Next?

and SIGTARP Part V – The AIG Bailout

[1] AKA Special Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Fund.

[2] And by “we” I really mean primarily the US Treasury Department.

[3] When explaining bank executive behavior, always assume personal compensation comes first, until proven otherwise.  It’s just a rule I follow and it’s never steered me wrong.  Bankers feeling shame at receiving public funding to save their bacon?  Please don’t insult me.

[4] All of this is assuming you find financial regulatory reviews fun reading, as I do.

[5] Through the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 of October 2008

[6] Through the American Recovery and Investment Act of February 2009

[7] Generally the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC)

[8] GS, MS, JPM, US Bancorp, Capital One, Amex, BB&T, BONY/Mellon, State Street

[9] Regulators like common stock issuance because it improves a bank’s ability to absorb future losses, ie. it’s ‘capital ratios.”  Bank executives dislike stock issuance because it dilutes value for shareholders, including themselves.

[10] “2-for1” is the regulatory short-hand language to indicate that 50% of TARP repayment money must be raised as new common equity

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In Praise of SIGTARP, Part I –Truth in Government

As a recovering banker, a main obsessive question of mine remains “How did we get into this mess?”

By “mess,” I mean both the Credit Crunch itself and our collective response to it, at the government and personal levels.

My obsession drives me to read reports by the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP).  As a first draft of financial history, the SIGTARP reports have become essential to understanding the bailouts of Citigroup, AIG, other TBTF[1] Banks, and smaller banks as well.

Perhaps it’s a function of my low expectations for a government-produced document on finance.  Perhaps it’s my contrarian nature.  I’m not sure.  But I do know there’s something refreshing and downright exciting about the reports coming from the office of the SIGTARP.

I love SIGTARP so much I want to highlight the key things everyone should know from the reports, on the off chance you aren’t as obsessed with reading government documents as I am.

Two great things, just for starters, to know about SIGTARP’s reports.  First, they’ve got the ring of honesty.  Second, they remind me why I do have faith in our system of government and finance, despite all the reasons to lose faith, and despite all the crazy fringe talk we get bombarded with on a regular basis.

In the April 2012 report, just to cite one happy example, you will find such pleasing curiosities as a Treasury official who tells you her colleagues in another part of Treasury are lying to you, to wit:

“It is a widely held misconception that TARP will make a profit.[2]  The most recent cost estimate for TARP is a loss of $60 Billion.  Taxpayers are still owed $118.5 billion”

Now that’s what I’m talking about!  Some straight talk from the federal government.[3]

Another example of facts cutting through the haze of political speak:

“TARP’s explicit goals of preserving homeownership and promoting jobs were evidence that Congress wanted to help homeowners during the crisis, not just banks.  However…Only 9% of the TARP funds set aside for mortgage modifications have been spent to help a fraction of eligible homeowners after more than three years…after two years, only 3% of the funds obligated [for the Hardest Hit Fund] have been spent to help only approximately 30,000 homeowners.”

In other words, the government’s largest federal programs for mortgage modification and homeowner relief are poorly designed or poorly implemented, or both.

I’m not happy about this.  But I don’t particularly care to blame Congress, or the President, or a bunch of nameless bureaucrats we’ve never heard of.

I am happy, however, to read a technocratic document like SIGTARP’s quarterly report that gives me the hstraight dope about what is working and what is not working in the financial bailout.  The honesty of the reporting gives me hope that people are willing to work on practical data, practical solutions, and do not seek to score points against the other side only for ideological reasons or political gamesmanship.

Too often we fall down the rabbit hole of financial discourse online, where the avatars of pitchfork wielding right-wing trolls do imaginary battle with the avatars of left-wing demagogues who make the Scarecrow’s Occupy Gotham scene seem like a plausible near-future alternative.  I’m pretty sure Dark Knight villains Two-Face, Bain, Joker, and the Scarecrow actually exist, because I feel like I read their stuff in the comments section of respectable online financial outlets.

It’s enough to induce despair, which is always the goal of the Dark Knight’s foes.  That forum has plenty of Gotham-City shouting and fear-mongering but precious little listening, and even less understanding or analysis.

Who can fight against the financial darkness?  SIGTARP can.

I love SIGTARP so much I created my first fictional comic book hero[4] in his honor.  I love SIGTARP so much because he makes me believe in my country’s government again, which is no small feat.

Would you like to feel better about our country and the government’s ability to self-criticize and therefore, possibly, learn from its mistakes?  I suggest you brew some tea and curl up with a nice SIGTARP report sometime.  You’ll feel a lot better.


[1] Too Big To Fail, but you knew that.

[2] Meaning: Please pay no attention to my Treasury colleagues quoted in the Wall Street Journal who wrote the following “Overall, the government is now expected to at least break even on its financial stability programs and may realize a positive return”

[3] Usually it’s the journalists who tell us the government is lying, so it’s nice to see the rare government official willing to make the same claim.

[4] You have to admit SIGTARP does sound like Norse God, no?



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