Not a bad return on a costly investment, cont’d

NOT A BAD RETURN ON A COSTLY INVESTMENT, CONT’D…. I continue to think the debate over the utility, merit, and structure of the TARP program is entirely fair and worth having. But wherever one falls on the substance, I also continue to think we should all feel some relief over its price tag.

The New York Times recently noted that the final cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program “could end up costing far less” than expected, “or even nothing.” Bloomberg takes a closer look today at just the financial industry aspect of the 2008 rescue bill, and finds American taxpayers making a profit on their investment.

The U.S. government’s bailout of financial firms through the Troubled Asset Relief Program provided taxpayers with higher returns than yields paid on 30-year Treasury bonds — enough money to fund the Securities and Exchange Commission for the next two decades.

The government has earned $25.2 billion on its investment of $309 billion in banks and insurance companies, an 8.2 percent return over two years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That beat U.S. Treasuries, high-yield savings accounts, money-market funds and certificates of deposit. Investing in the stock market or gold would have paid off better.

When the government first announced its intention to plow funds into the nation’s banks in October 2008 to resuscitate the financial system, many expected it to lose hundreds of billions of dollars. Two years later TARP’s bank and insurance investments have made money, and about two-thirds of the funds have been paid back.

I realize there’s a political toxicity involved with the bailout that doesn’t exist on almost any other issue, but part of me wonders whether there’s a partisan line the Obama White House and congressional Democrats could have tried but didn’t: Bush and Republicans agreed to give a whole lot of your money to Wall Street, while Obama and Democrats made sure Wall Street paid that money back. When Bush sent the money out the door, we thought we’d never see it again; when Obama collected on Wall Street’s debts, the American taxpayers made a profit.

Since everyone involved would just as soon forget TARP ever happened, I don’t really expect to anyone to actually make this argument. But I often wonder whether an effort to spin the rescue as a positive could have changed public attitudes, at least a little.