Journalism

Good Billions After Bad

October 2009

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Predator to the Rescue

The credit-card behemoth Capital One, an institution that many Americans probably don’t even realize is a bank, maintains its headquarters in McLean, in northern Virginia. Over the years, Capital One’s phenomenally successful marketing strategy has made the company the fifth-largest credit-card issuer in the U.S., and it has used its profits to expand into retail banking, home-equity loans, and other kinds of lending.

Capital One never revealed what it planned to do with the $3.5 billion tarp check it received from the U.S. Treasury on November 14, 2008, but three weeks later, the company bought one of Washington’s premier financial institutions, Chevy Chase Bank. To Washingtonians, Chevy Chase was a model corporate citizen. But outside Washington, it had a different reputation. The company’s mortgage subsidiary had engaged in practices that were at the core of the nation’s mortgage meltdown—risky loans with teaser interest rates that later went bad. The bank’s portfolio of mortgages from around the country was stuffed with a high percentage of so-called option arm—adjustable-rate mortgages with many different payment options. One of the most common kept a homeowner’s monthly payment the same for years, but the interest rate rose almost immediately. When the interest exceeded the amount of the monthly payment, the excess was tacked onto the principal, pushing homeowners ever deeper into debt. Having been lured by what a federal judge would call the “siren call” of this kind of mortgage, many Chevy Chase mortgage holders were on the brink of foreclosure, or had already fallen over the edge. By mid-2008, Chevy Chase’s “nonperforming” assets had tripled to $490 million since the previous September.

With Chevy Chase rapidly deteriorating, along came Capital One. Flush with tarp money, Capital One became a bailout czar of its own. It bought Chevy Chase for $520 million and assumed $1.75 billion of its bad loans. The purchase price was a fraction of what Chevy Chase would have brought before it wandered off into the wilderness of exotic mortgages and risky lending.

Meanwhile, even as it was bailing out Chevy Chase, Capital One was putting the squeeze on many thousands of its own credit-card holders, sharply raising their interest rates and imposing other conditions that made credit far more expensive and difficult to obtain. For many cardholders, rates jumped overnight from 7.9 percent to as much as 22.9 percent. Rather than using its multi-billion-dollar government infusion to prime the credit pump, Capital One in fact began turning off the spigot.

Capital One’s actions enraged its customers, many of whom had been cardholders for decades. The bank was engulfed with complaints. “The last I checked you were given money from the government for the specific purpose of freeing up credit to stimulate spending and help move the economy out of recession,” wrote a woman in Holland, Michigan. This was “just the opposite of what you did.” But other credit-card companies that received federal bailout money, such as Bank of America, J. P. Morgan Chase, and Citibank, would take the same route as Capital One, sharply raising interest rates, cutting off credit to millions of people, and frustrating the stated rationale for Treasury’s bailout.

After the Earthquake

Because all dollar bills are alike, and because follow-up tracking by the government has been so minimal, it’s often impossible to determine if any bank or other financial institution used tarp money for any particular, discernible purpose. Only A.I.G., Bank of America, and Citigroup were subject to any reporting requirements at all, and the reporting has been spotty. But what is possible to say is that tarp allowed many recipients to spend money in ways they would have been unable to do otherwise. It’s also the case that recipients of tarp money continued to behave as if a financial earthquake hadn’t just shaken the world economy.

The Riviera Country Club is about a mile from the Pacific Ocean, in a scenic canyon north of Los Angeles. Riviera is home to one of the most storied tournaments on the P.G.A. Tour. This year the tournament was sponsored by a tarp recipient, the Northern Trust Company of Chicago. Northern was founded more than a century ago to cater to wealthy Chicagoans, and not much about its clientele has changed since then, except that now the company caters to the wealthy not just in Chicago but everywhere. According to the bank, its wealth-management group caters to those “with assets typically exceeding $200 million.” The company manages $559 billion in assets—a sum nearly as great as what has so far been spent on the tarp program itself.

When Northern Trust received $1.6 billion in tarp funds, a spokesman for the bank said that it was “too soon to say specifically” how the money would be used. But the company’s president and C.E.O., Frederick Waddell, noted that “the program will provide us with additional capital to maximize growth opportunities.” Three months later, the bank sponsored the Northern Trust Open, flying in wealthy clients from around the country. To entertain them, the bank brought in Sheryl Crow, Chicago, and Earth, Wind & Fire. A Northern Trust spokesman declined to say how much all this cost, but explained that it was really just a business decision “to show appreciation for clients.”

Northern Trust was acting no differently from many other tarp recipients. One of the most blatant examples was Citigroup’s plan to buy a $50 million private jet to fly executives around the country. A public outcry forced Citigroup to abandon that scheme, but the bank quietly went ahead with a $10 million renovation of its executive offices on Park Avenue, in New York. Given that Citigroup had already gone to the government three times for tarp assistance totaling $45 billion, and was not a paragon of public trust, retrofitting the windows with “Safety Shield 800” blastproof window film may have just been common sense.

The excesses weren’t confined to big-city banks. A subsidiary of North Carolina-based B.B.&T.;, after accepting $3.1 billion in tarp money, sent dozens of employees to a training session at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Sarasota, Florida. TCF Financial Corp., based in Wayzata, Minnesota, sent 40 “high-performing” managers, lenders, and other employees on a junket in February to Cancún, soon after receiving more than $360 million in tarp funds.

But let’s face it: episodes like these, infuriating as they may be, aren’t the real issue. The real issue is tarp itself, one of the most questionable ventures the U.S. government has ever pursued. Adopted as a plan to buy up toxic assets—one that was quickly deemed impractical even by those who first proposed it—it evolved into something more closely resembling an all-purpose slush fund flowing out to hundreds of institutions with their own interests and goals, and no incentive to deploy the money toward any clearly defined public purpose.

By and large, the cash that went to the Big 9 simply became part of their capital base, and most of the big banks declined to indicate where the money actually went. Because of the sheer size of these institutions, it’s simply impossible to trace. Bank of America no doubt used a portion of its $25 billion in tarp funds to help it absorb Merrill Lynch. Citigroup revealed in its first quarterly report after receiving $45 billion in tarp funds that it had used $36.5 billion to buy up mortgages and to make new loans, including home loans.

A.I.G., the largest single tarp beneficiary, wasn’t even a bank. The insurance company used its $70 billion in tarp funds to pay off a previous government infusion from the Federal Reserve. The original bailout money had flowed through A.I.G. to Wall Street firms and foreign banks that had incurred big losses on credit-default swaps and other exotic obligations. These were basically the casino-style wagers made by A.I.G. and the counterparties—wagers they lost. The government justified the help by saying it was necessary to prevent disruption to the economy that would be caused by a “disorderly wind-down” of A.I.G. The collapse of Lehman Brothers had occurred just days before the Fed took action, and the shock waves on Wall Street from yet another implosion might have been catastrophic. Bankruptcy court, where troubled corporations routinely wind down their disorderly affairs, would have been another option, though that prospect might not have quickly enough addressed the gathering sense of urgency and doom. We’ll never know. Certainly bankruptcy court would not have allowed A.I.G.’s clients to get full value for their bad investments.

Instead, A.I.G. was able to pay off its counterparties 100 cents on the dollar. The largest payout—$12.9 billion—went to Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment house presided over by Paulson before he moved into his Treasury job. Merrill Lynch, the world’s largest brokerage—then in the process of being taken over by Bank of America—received $6.8 billion. Bank of America itself received $5.2 billion. Citigroup, the nation’s largest bank, received $2.3 billion. But it wasn’t just Wall Street that benefitted. A.I.G. also funneled tens of billions of tarp dollars to banks on the other side of the Atlantic.

Some banks receiving tarp funds bristle at the notion that the taxpayer-funded program is a bailout. They say it is an investment in banks by the federal government, one that requires them to pay interest and ultimately pay back the money or face a financial penalty. In fact, many banks are making their scheduled payments to Treasury, and others have paid off billions of dollars in tarp funds (as well as interest). To tarp supporters, this is evidence of a sound investment. But at this stage it isn’t clear that every institution will be able to make the interest payments and buy back the government’s holdings. As of this writing, some banks, including Pacific Capital Bancorp, the parent of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, have not been able to make their scheduled payments. No one can predict how many banks will ultimately come up short. But in the meantime tarp has been a very good deal for banks, because it gave them, courtesy of the taxpayers, access to capital that would have cost them substantially more in the private market, while exacting nothing from the beneficiaries in the form of a quid pro quo.

Based on the reluctance of many banks to take the money in the first place, and the swiftness with which other banks have repaid tarp funds, the main conclusion to be drawn is that relatively few were actually endangered. Rather than targeting the weak for relief—or allowing them to fail, as the government allowed millions of ordinary Americans to fail—Paulson and Treasury pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial system without prior design and without prospective accountability. What was this all about? A case of panic by Treasury and the Federal Reserve? A financial over-reaction of cosmic proportions? A smoke screen to take care of a small number of Wall Street institutions that received 100 cents on the dollar for some of the worst investments they ever made?

More than five months after the bulk of the bailout money had been distributed into bank coffers, Elizabeth Warren plaintively raised the central and as yet unanswered question: “What is the strategy that Treasury is pursuing?” And she basically threw up her hands. As far as she could see, Warren went on, Treasury’s strategy was essentially “Take the money and do what you want with it.”

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