According to the Obama administration, the biggest lift to the balance sheet comes from the Federal Reserve’s intervention during the financial crisis, which the White House now expects to turn a record profit of $179 billion by fiscal 2015. During the crisis, the Fed took extraordinary measures through quantitative easing, buying up Treasury bills, mortgage-backed securities and other debt to inject money into the economy. It’s made a profit through the interest earned on such purchases.
Weil argues that the returns on the Fed’s bailout shouldn’t be counted as profit. The central bank simply printed money to buy up the debt during QE1 and QE2, and then the government just paid the interest payment back to itself. “The payments from the Fed eliminate an expense for the Treasury. But to call them a gain for the Treasury is circular. The Treasury hasn’t made a profit. The transactions are a wash, economically,” he argues.
But if the Fed hadn’t bought up those Treasurys and securities, someone else would have done so — and the government would have to pay them instead. “If the Fed does not buy Treasury bonds, then Treasury has to sell them to someone else and that person will not automatically return the interest to Treasury. So the Fed profits from all of its investments are genuine revenues for Treasury,” explains Joe Gagnon, a former Fed official. Certainly there’s been no shortage of demand for U.S. Treasurys as of late. As Fed chair Ben Bernanke said last year, half-jokingly: “It’s interest that the Treasury didn’t have to pay to the Chinese.”
Michael Feroli, JP Morgan’s chief economist, concurs with Gagnon that the Fed’s intervention does “represent real interest savings.” However, he disagrees with the White House’s decision “to lump this in with TARP” when looking at the cost of its bailouts. “Most of QE was not a response to the financial crisis, but rather a means to stimulate a slow economy,” Feroli says, noting that support for Fannie and Freddie was also separate from the bank bailout under TARP. (The administration, for its part, bills all these interventions as part of its “financial stability programs.”)
Weil brings up a more salient point when it comes to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: Both housing giants have required bigger bailouts and have been slower to recoup their losses than most had expected. What’s more, the White House is still pushing for measures such as mortgage principal reductions, which could help underwater homeowners but also add to Fannie and Freddie’s costs.
“It is crazy to try to project to 2022. It seems as if this estimate assumes that Fannie and Freddie continue in something like their current form. That would be a catastrophe for taxpayers, homeowners and would-be homeowners,” says Christopher Mayer, a real-estate finance professor at Columbia University.
Treasury officials acknowledged that its balance sheet was far from the last word last week, cautioning that the price tag of the bailout is necessarily in flux — partly because market conditions change the value of the government’s holdings, but also because the housing crisis has demanded ongoing support. After all, as I argued last week, it’s not necessarily a good thing for ordinary Americans if the bailout ends up turning a profit — even if it’s a winning message, politically speaking.