2009 in review: TARP, mistakes and Washington's financial takeover

By Allan Sloan
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

We all have our year-end rituals. Mine is to examine what I've written during the year, follow up on yesterday's hot stories that have become today's overlooked stories, and own up to my mistakes of omission and commission.

1. First, an apology to a spokeswoman for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont). In a column earlier this month, I wrote that she "declined to discuss specifics" about his proposal to impose an excise tax on "Cadillac" health-care plans. That wasn't accurate: We'd talked and e-mailed at length. I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote those four words. I stand behind the column's main point, that the tax is arbitrary and unfair. I was arbitrary and unfair, too. Sorry.

2. I spent a disproportionate amount of time and space writing about Washington. It's becoming the country's financial center as well as its political center.

I was wrong to predict that the government would lose money on its Troubled Assets Relief Program loans to Citigroup and Bank of America. B of A has repaid its loans, Citi has repaid $20 billion, and the government is a bit ahead on the other $25 billion, which it converted to Citi common stock at $3.25 a share. My mistake was not realizing how much the government would continue to subsidize Wall Street, whose overreaching got us into this mess.

It never occurred to me that Treasury would let Citi and B of A repay their bailout loans (and escape most government control) even though they're not exactly financially robust. It also never occurred to me that Treasury would want to recycle the TARP loan repayments into other programs. Foolish me.

3. It's nice to have company. I've been saying almost since the bailout started two years ago that the prudent people among us have been penalized by the way the government is bailing out imprudent borrowers and institutions. Now, competitors of mine are making the same point.

It's important to revive the economy, and low short-term rates have traditionally been the primary tool for doing that. But the Federal Reserve has gone way beyond cutting short rates. It's been trying to prop up house prices by keeping mortgage rates artificially low and has been supporting the prices of longer-term securities by buying vast amounts of them.

This has clobbered retired people who are trying to live off interest income to supplement Social Security. So these retirees either have to reduce their standard of living, eat into principal or take more risk to keep their income up. Not a way to reward lifetime savers.

4. I was right to be skeptical about the "populism" in Washington. The Obama administration and Congress have beaten up on the worker-bee types at places like American International Group and Wall Street investment houses and are shrieking about bonuses that in many cases are really part of base pay. But the government got the "pay czar" to give the designee of its choice a $10.5 million annual contract to run AIG and will doubtless cut deals for high-level hires at places such as Chrysler.

Meanwhile, there's no serious move afoot to break up the "too big to fail" institutions so they won't be too big to fail in the future. So these institutions, some bailed out directly by the government, others bailed out when the government bailed out the world financial system, will go merrily on their way. Until the next crisis, when taxpayers will rescue them again.

The proposal to make private-equity and hedge-fund managers pay a full tax on their piece of their investors' income has gone nowhere. So these fees are still considered lightly taxable capital gains rather than fully taxable fee income.

It's the same old same old: the really big players, the ones who contribute so much to campaigns and wield real power, are barely touched while upper-middle-income and small rich types get whacked.

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