Treasury Is Working To Widen the Rescue

By David Cho, Peter Whoriskey and Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 7, 2008

The federal government is preparing to take tens of billions of dollars in ownership stakes in an array of companies outside the banking sector, dramatically widening the scope of the Treasury Department's rescue effort beyond the $250 billion set aside for traditional financial firms, government and industry officials said.

Treasury officials are finalizing the new program, which could ultimately involve hundreds of billions of the $700 billion rescue package, though the initiative is unlikely to be announced until the end of next week at the earliest.

Two industry sources familiar with the planning said the Treasury is holding off because it wants to make sure President-elect Barack Obama is on board and will not reverse the course once he takes office in January. But an administration official contested that explanation, saying the Treasury simply wants to give its initial bank plan a chance before injecting more money into the financial system.

Since the announcement of the program to inject capital into banks, a number of industries, including automakers, insurers and specialty lenders for small businesses have approached the Treasury with hat in hand. Some have been turned away because they are not banks and thus not eligible for capital.

The new initiative would make it easier for the Treasury to aid a wider variety of firms if their troubles put the wider financial system at risk, government and industry officials said. These companies would still have to be financial firms that fall under federal regulators.

Several companies, including GMAC, an auto financing company, and CapitalSource, a commercial lender in Bethesda, are seeking ways to restructure themselves as banks or thrifts, which entails submitting to much tighter federal regulation. If other firms follow suit, the trend would vastly expand government oversight into a variety of industries.

The Treasury is also making progress on an initiative that would provide relief to homeowners at risk of foreclosure. Several proposals are on the table, including one crafted by Sheila C. Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., who wants to spend about $40 billion to modify the mortgages for as many as 3 million homeowners. But several government and industry sources close to the matter said Treasury officials view Bair's plan as flawed and are seeking ways to revise it.

Designing these new programs is difficult because the Treasury will have to hand off the $700 billion rescue package, approved by Congress last month, to the new administration before officials have finished mapping out how to use the money.

Treasury officials said they have reserved space within its imposing building directly east of the White House for the Obama economic team to coordinate efforts but have not yet heard from his camp on who will staff the office. Obama has planned an emergency meeting of his senior economic team in Chicago today to discuss the global financial crisis.

Industry sources and a former senior Treasury official said the department deliberately slowed the decision-making process on new rescue programs two weeks ago to accommodate the interests of the incoming administration. The complexity of the issues and a tremendous volume of input and requests for money from all kinds of industries also have complicated matters.

"The last thing you want to do is start something and have the new guys unravel it in 60 days. It sends mixed messages to the markets," the former Treasury official said. "So I think the thinking was, 'Let's kick the can down the road to make sure we are on the right track.' "

A Treasury official said the department has been briefing Obama on the crisis since late July and explaining the administration's approach to the crisis. But his position on the crisis is only one factor among many being considered by the Treasury, the official said.

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