By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 9:07 AM
The Troubled Assets Relief Program, which was widely reviled as a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street titans, is now expected to cost the federal government a mere $25 billion - the equivalent of less than six months of emergency jobless benefits.
A new report released Monday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the cost of TARP has plummeted since its passage in October 2008, when policymakers thought that the world stood on the brink of an economic meltdown.
"Clearly, it was not apparent when the TARP was created two years ago that the cost would turn out to be this low," the CBO report says. "The transactions envisioned and ultimately undertaken through the TARP engendered substantial financial risk for the federal government."
However, it says, "because the financial system stabilized and then improved, the amount of funds used by the TARP was well below the $700 billion initially authorized, and the outcomes of most transactions made through TARP were favorable for the federal government."
The TARP was conceived in the final days of the Bush administration and pushed through a reluctant Congress in less than three weeks. It is widely thought to have helped stabilize a financial sector on the verge of collapse, though it remains hugely unpopular with the public. In the recent midterm elections, numerous lawmakers lost their jobs or failed in bids for new ones in part because of their support for the program.
All told, $389 billion has been distributed through TARP, which expired in October. The CBO estimates that an additional $44 billion is still waiting to go out the door, primarily to troubled insurance giant American International Group and federal mortgage programs. That would bring total TARP outlays to $433 billion, of which about half - $216 billion - has been repaid.
The rest of the TARP investments, meanwhile, have become markedly less risky, according to the CBO, and in many cases even profitable. The largest share of TARP funds, for example, was distributed as support for financial institutions, including AIG.
The AIG bailout was restructured in September, and is projected to cost taxpayers about $14 billion, the CBO said - far less than the $70 billion originally authorized. But those losses will be more than offset by $22 billion in profits from TARP investments in other financial institutions, including Citigroup and Bank of America, the CBO said.
TARP funds also provided assistance to the domestic auto industry, which has restructured its operations and revived its fortunes. The Treasury reaped $12 billion from GM's hugely successful initial public offering earlier this month. The CBO estimates that the TARP bailout of GM, Chrysler, their financing arms and parts manufacturers will wind up costing taxpayers about $19 billion - significantly less than anticipated.
Much of the rest of the projected cost of the TARP stems from federal efforts to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Those efforts are also proving to be less costly than expected because of lower participation, the CBO said.
While the cost of the TARP is coming in far below expectations, it is just one of several massive government programs aimed at propping up the financial industry. The Federal Reserve and the FDIC have together guaranteed billions of dollars in bank debt.