Not a bad outcome, until you consider the government’s original investment: $75 million.
It was not the first time the government walked away with a loss. In 10 similar auctions conducted to date, Treasury has sold off its investments in 84 financial firms, accepting losses of about $241 million.
As memory of the financial crisis fades, the Treasury has been working to rid itself of the albatross of the government bailout, officially called the Troubled Assets Relief Program. Thanks to repayments by the biggest banks in the country, which have largely returned their rescue funds with interest and dividends to spare, the program has been hailed in some quarters for saving the financial system.
But as the agency works to push much smaller banks out from under the government’s thumb, the Treasury has been far more tolerant of losses, critics said. Given the improving economy, the agency could make hundreds of millions of dollars by holding onto the shares in these banks a little longer, they said.
That is small change in Washington, home to the trillion-dollar budget, but not insignificant as politicians wrangle over belt-tightening measures. After all, some critics note, doesn’t the Internal Revenue Service, an arm of the Treasury, doggedly pursue individuals for far less?
“Treasury has shifted its emphasis and is no longer focused on promoting financial stability,” said Christy Romero, special inspector general for the TARP. “Instead, Treasury wants to declare success and move on.”
Treasury officials said the bids the department has received reflect what the market is willing to bear at this point. Besides, they said, the ultimate goal is to wind down TARP in an efficient way.
Moreover, the government may have sold shares in these community banks at a loss, but these firms also paid $307 million in dividends to Treasury coffers, aside from the money recouped from the auctions. Overall, Treasury has turned a profit from its small-bank investment.
“We want a competitive, transparent process, and that’s exactly what we’ve had with the auctions,” Treasury Assistant Secretary Timothy G. Massad said.
‘Not a natural investment’
Some small banks have taken advantage of the auctions and bought their own shares at a discount.
Premier Financial Bancorp, based in Huntington, W.Va., spent $9.2 million in July to buy back about half of its 22,000 shares at a discount of almost 10 percent. A month earlier, First Capital Bank of Glen Allen, Va., put up nearly $5 million to snap up half of its 11,000 shares at an 8 percent discount.
In its most recent quarterly report to Congress, the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) raised concerns that the continued sell-off could discourage the remaining banks from settling with the government at the full value of their shares.