GAO: Treasury Too Mum About TARP Losses

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office criticizes the U.S. Treasury’s assertions that its rescue of Wall Street earned a profit for taxpayers.

In the report, the GAO says the Treasury makes selective statements to the media about the success of its $700 billion “Troubled Asset Relief Program,” or TARP, bailout program, statements it says tends to depict the program as earning profits for taxpayers while not adequately showing how its investments in other market failures cost taxpayers money, such as the Treasury’s bailout of the failed insurer American International Group.

Overall, the GAO says that, according to its audit of the U.S. Treasury’s fiscal year 2011 financial statement, the lifetime estimated taxpayer cost of TARP now sits at about $70 billion, with the TARP bank investment program “expected to generate the most lifetime income, or net income in excess of costs.”

The U.S. government has exited from large investments in banks such as Bank of America Corp. (NYSE:BAC), Citigroup (NYSE:C) and Chrysler Group LLC, reaping profits on the sale of its stakes in the two banks but not Chrysler, where it lost $1.3 billion on its $12.5 billion investment. Treasury did issue a press release in June of last year on the loss in Chrysler.

Altogether, AIG was offered up to $182 billion in government help from the Treasury and the Federal Reserve. The Treasury made a $68 billion TARP investment in AIG. To date, Treasury has gotten back $16 billion of this $68 billion investment in AIG’s common and preferred shares, a government official says.

In its report, the GAO states that its “analysis of Treasury press releases about specific programs indicate that information about estimated lifetime costs and income are included only when programs are expected to result in lifetime income.”

The GAO cites as an example the fact that Treasury “issued a press release for its bank investment programs,” such as the Capital Purchase Program, where the Treasury invested an estimated $204.9 billion in 707 banks nationwide.

The GAO notes that Treasury has let the media know that these “programs would result in lifetime income, or profit.”

GAO adds: “However, press releases for investments in AIG, a program that is anticipated to result in a lifetime cost to Treasury, did not include program-specific cost information.”

It added: “Although press releases for programs expected to result in a cost to Treasury provide useful transaction information, they exclude lifetime, program-specific cost estimates.”

However, Timothy G. Massad, an assistant Treasury secretary, disputed the GAO’s conclusions in a letter to the government watchdog group.

Massad says the Treasury has in fact “comprehensive accountability and transparency measures regarding TARP,” that it “publishes hundreds of reports and other information about TARP so that the public is made aware of how the money was spent, who received funds, and on what terms.”

For example, Treasury posts to its website a daily TARP update showing the program’s costs, called the “TARP Tracker.” Treasury consistently includes the projected costs of AIG in its public reports, a government official says.

And Treasury also issues monthly TARP reports to Congress.

A government official also notes the difficulty of ascertaining the lifetime taxpayer losses on AIG because the Treasury has not yet exited that investment.

“GAO’s recommendation is a way to further enhance our communications efforts,” a Treasury official said in an emailed statement. “But it’s important to note that we’ve provided significant amounts of information on TARP budget estimates and transactions to the public, including through hundreds of reports and pages on our website.”

The GAO’s report comes more than a year after Treasury had issued an optimistic report predicting that the taxpayers would ultimately lose only $5 billion on AIG.

The Treasury said at that time it had based its assumption on AIG’s stock price prevailing at that time, which was about $39. Later that month, in October 2010, Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, blasted Treasury’s positive spin, charging it had hidden $40 billion in anticipated taxpayer losses on AIG’s bailout because the government failed to account for the volatility of AIG’s common stock, among other things.

AIG’s shares traded today at $24.93, well off the 52-week high of $60.64, and about 40% of its book value.

It’s been estimated that the government needs to sell shares above its breakeven point of $28.73, the effective cost per common share that the government paid, in order to reap profits for U.S. taxpayers.

Last fall, news reports indicated the Treasury would delay paring back its 77% common stock ownership in AIG, due to market volatility over things like Europe’s debt crisis and the U.S. government’s fighting over deficit spending, among other things. In another criticism, the GAO takes the government to task for the “moral hazard” of rescuing some companies and not others.
It says: “While Treasury can measure and report direct costs, indirect costs associated with the moral hazard created by the government’s intervention in the private sector are more difficult to measure and assess.”

The GAO in its latest report also notes any such exit from rescues of companies such as AIG would be tricky. For instance, the Treasury’s massive dumping of AIG sales could make AIG’s stock price fall further. The GAO says the “timing of Treasury’s exit from TARP remains uncertain.”

Stock-market volatility has complicated Treasury’s plans to exit from some of its most criticized rescues. That includes its rescue of General Motors (NYSE:GM), where it still owns a 33% stake, and a 74% stake in Ally Financial Inc., formerly GM’s lending arm.

The government invested about $49.5 billion in GM, and has gotten back $24 billion to date. It invested $17 billion in Ally, and to date has retrieved just $5 billion.

The bailouts left the Treasury as the biggest shareholder in AIG, GM and Ally Financial.