Obama’s Real Waterloo?

Much anger has been directed toward TARP—colloquially known as the bank bailout—and some of it is totally justified. 

In yesterday’s New York Times, Neil Barofsky, on his last day as special inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, wrote that the program,

failed to meet some of its most important goals.

Those goals, he argues, involved “protecting home values and preserving homeownership.”  He wrote:

These Main Street-oriented goals were not, as the Treasury Department is now suggesting, mere window dressing that needed only to be taken “into account.” Rather, they were a central part of the compromise with reluctant members of Congress to cast a vote that in many cases proved to be political suicide.

The act’s emphasis on preserving homeownership was particularly vital to passage. Congress was told that TARP would be used to purchase up to $700 billion of mortgages, and, to obtain the necessary votes, Treasury promised that it would modify those mortgages to assist struggling homeowners. Indeed, the act expressly directs the department to do just that.

Obviously, judging by the condition of the economy—significantly hamstrung by the home mortgage nightmare—not much was done in terms of purchasing mortgages and helping homeowners.  Instead,

Treasury’s plan for TARP shifted from the purchase of mortgages to the infusion of hundreds of billions of dollars into the nation’s largest financial institutions, a shift that came with the express promise that it would restore lending.

Naturally, the promise to restore lending wasn’t backed up with an “effective policy or effort to compel the extension of credit“:

There were no strings attached: no requirement or even incentive to increase lending to home buyers, and against our strong recommendation, not even a request that banks report how they used TARP funds.

Despite a feeble and mostly failed attempt in 2009 to help distressed homeowners, “foreclosures continue to mount, with 8 million to 13 million filings forecast over the program’s lifetime.”  And according to Barofsky, Tim Geithner and Treasury have no plans to change things.

On top of all that, Barofsky makes the sad claim that it appears the too-big-to-fail banks—who “no matter how reckless” “reasonably assume” taxpayers will bail them out again—are still too big to fail, the Treasury Department failing to “support real efforts at reform,” including efforts “to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.”

As Barofsky notes,

The biggest banks are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis and control a larger part of our economy than ever.

That statement is supported by the Wall Street Journal, which reported that all of the gains leading to record-setting fourth-quarter corporate profits were “in the financial sector“:

After rising like the Phoenix, the financial industry now accounts for about 30% of all operating profits. That’s an amazing share given that the sector accounts for less than 10% of the value added in the economy.

Here’s the dramatic swing, from the Journal article:

Look at that chart and remember the Journal‘s point:

That’s an amazing share given that the sector accounts for less than 10% of the value added in the economy.”  Less than 10%.

TARP was necessary to avoid a complete collapse of the financial system, Barofsky says, but its most lasting legacy may be that,

Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals — whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in — may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.

If so, this may be Obama’s Waterloo.

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  1. My very liberal brother in law, upon first hearing that Obama had appointed Geitner and Summers said “well, that’s it. This guy isn’t serious and he may just have lost himself the next election.”


    • Moe,

      I don’t know if Obama chose Geithner because he agreed with Geithner or whether Geithner convinced Obama that the eventual chosen course was the best one. I do know that if I were a Republican candidate, I would hammer not on the issue of TARP as an economy-saving measure–which is incontrovertible, in my opinion–but as a measure to save only the big banks and leave a massive number of American homeowners to fend for themselves. Much along the lines of what Barofsky, a Democrat, is saying.

      Of course, lucky for Obama, there isn’t a GOP candidate I know of who can credibly make that case. And to be fair, there is a case to be made for the other side, although a weak one in my opinion.



  2. “My very liberal brother in law, upon first hearing that Obama had appointed Geitner and Summers said “well, that’s it. This guy isn’t serious and he may just have lost himself the next election.”

    I can’t say whether or not Geithner’s appointment will cost Obama the election in 2012, but he’s losing the Progressives and they were a sizable voting block for in 2008. I can say however that Obama’s Appointment of GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt could be the final nail in his coffin. Last year G.E made a purported $14.2 billion in profit and yet didn’t pay a single dime in taxes, and to make matters worse American’s taxpayers may have actually ended up owing another G.E $3.2 billion in tax credits.

    If Obama’s looking for the votes of conservative independents he had better make certain that there will be enough of them to offset the potential loss of progressive votes.



    • A conservative commenter who ‘haunts’ my blog is making gleeful hay of that Immelt appointment. (Duane – that owuld be our friend Alan Scott)


    • The Immelt appointment was dumb, dumb, dumb. If you are wanting to focus on jobs, it certainly sends the wrong message to anyone, not just unions, to appoint a guy who has not been ashamed of sending jobs overseas. Makes no sense. Just shows how much this White House takes for granted the union vote, and given what is happening around the various state houses, they can certainly count on unions not to raise too big a stink about his appointment.

      The only thing I can figure is that Immelt could openly repent (at least mildly) of his past mistakes and advocate a more sensible view of outsourcing, etc., since he has the credentials. Besides that, he is just one among many on the council.



  3. This is really depressing, and all the more-so because of other news lately, i.e.,

    1. The 60 Minutes expose’ of fraud relative to bundled mortgages.
    2. Headlines about CEO pay soaring while workers’ pay stagnates.
    3. Tea-party power behind the drive to lower the top tax-bracket to 25% at the expense of Medicaid.

    I feel like I’m living in a dystopian novel.


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