WASHINGTON -- The government's bailout of banks, auto makers and insurers helped prevent a more severe economic crisis, but might have sowed the seeds of the next one, a congressional watchdog group said Wednesday in its final report.
The Congressional Oversight Panel said that the government's rescue fund may have prevented an economic depression by sending billions of dollars to companies crippled in the financial crisis that erupted in 2008. But little has been done to aid to homeowners facing foreclosure or others far from Wall Street, it said.
"The good news is that America did not suffer another depression," panel Chairman Ted Kaufman said. However, Treasury's "programs for Main Street have been far less effective" than the cash injections that stabilized Wall Street banks during the worst financial crisis in generations, he said.
It was the panel's last report before it disbands next month. The bailout law gave the panel six months to keep working after Treasury lost the power to create new programs. Treasury's authority expired on Oct. 3.
The report mostly summarizes the panel's earlier findings about the bailouts, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Among them:
-- The program reinforced the belief that large and interconnected companies will enjoy government support in times of crisis. That could encourage them to take unwise risks, eventually leading to another crisis and more bailouts.
-- By failing to be transparent about bailout decisions and goals, the government fueled the public's anger about the bailouts. That could tie politicians' hands as they seek to respond to future crises.
-- TARP cost less than expected, but part of the savings came from failed foreclosure-prevention programs that spent a fraction of what Treasury set aside.
-- Much of the credit for stabilizing the financial system goes to other, less-transparent programs run by the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Treasury's top official on the issue told reporters that the economic recovery is proof that the bailouts worked.
"Where we are today shows that the program, by any reasonable, objective measure, was a success," Acting Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability Timothy Massad said.
Of the $411 billion that Treasury handed out from the bailout fund, $150 billion remains in private hands. Treasury also has reported profits of $37 billion from fees, dividends and other deal-sweeteners it received from bailed-out companies.
However, the government might have faced massive losses if the financial system suffered another shock while the government was guaranteeing as much as $4.4 trillion in financial assets, the report says.
TARP remains under the oversight of a special inspector general with a law-enforcement mandate, and is audited by the Government Accountability Office.
The panel's report concludes by noting that TARP was "one of the most thoroughly scrutinized government programs in U.S. history." It says Treasury's management of the bailouts improved over time because of that scrutiny.
"An enduring lesson of the TARP is that extraordinary government programs can benefit from, and indeed may require, extraordinary oversight," it says.