Officials: tracking bailout money is difficult

December 31, 2008 10:51:42 AM PST
Government officials overseeing a $700 billion bailout have acknowledged difficulties tracking the money and assessing the program's effectiveness. The information was contained in a document, released Wednesday, of a Dec. 10 meeting of the Financial Stability Oversight Board. The panel, headed by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, includes Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Securities and Exchange Commission chief Christopher Cox.

While offering no details, the document also mentioned that officials at that meeting discussed "potential methods" of using the bailout program to help curb home foreclosures and ease problems in the housing market.

More broadly, the officials discussed "the difficulty of isolating the effects" of the bailout program "given the variety of policy actions taken by the U.S. government to support financial stability and promote economic growth."

The officials also noted the "difficulties associated with monitoring the use of specific funds" provided to individual financial institutions, according to the document.

The bailout program, created Oct. 3, is designed to break through a debilitating credit clog and spur financial markets to operate more normally again. Credit and financial woes - along with a severe housing crisis - have plunged the economy into a painful recession.

In a separate report responding to questions from the top congressional watchdog overseeing the bailout, the Treasury Department defended its management of the program amid criticisms about confusing shifts in strategy.

Paulson's decision to focus the program on providing banks and other companies with capital injections - rather than the original strategy of buying rotten assets from banks- was necessary to respond to quickly changing financial market conditions, according to the new Treasury report.

Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, the chairwoman of a congressional oversight panel, has said she didn't understand why it's taken so long for the Bush administration to explain its plan. The five-member panel - made up of three Democratic appointees, including Warren, and two Republicans - has criticized Treasury for not saying exactly what problems they're trying to fix or how the investments will fix them.

The department insists the program is helping to stabilize the financial system, but acknowledges it will take time for conditions to return to normal.

"We have made significant progress, but there is no single action the federal government can take to end the financial market turmoil and the economic downturn," the report said. "We are confident we are pursuing the right strategy."

Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have complained that Paulson has sent confusing signals to taxpayers and Wall Street investors by shifting strategy and not communicating clearly about objectives.

The oversight panel is one of several entities monitoring the bailout, in addition to a special inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, a congressional auditor.

Earlier this month, the GAO said the government must toughen its monitoring of the bailout program to better keep track of how the money is used.

The government has pledged to provide $250 billion to banks in return for partial ownership. The goal is for banks to use the money to boost lending. However, a recent review by The Associated Press found that after receiving billions in aid from U.S.

taxpayers, the nation's largest banks can't say exactly how they're spending the money. Some wouldn't even talk about it.

The idea behind the capital injection program is for banks to use the money to rebuild reserves and lend more freely to customers. However, banks do have leeway to use the money for other things, such as buying other banks, paying dividends to investors or bonuses to executives. That's touched a nerve with some lawmakers and other critics.

Money from the bailout pot also has been used for other things, including throwing a financial lifeline to ailing auto companies Chrysler and General Motors Corp., and teetering insurance giant American International Group. Money also was used to back a rescue for Citigroup Inc.


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