Dude, where’s my $700 billion?

Congress handed Wall Street a huge wad of cash to jump-start the economy. It didn't work -- so where did all that money go?

Topics: U.S. Economy, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., Auto Industry,

Dude, where's my $700 billion?

Giving $700 billion to a bunch of Wall Street bankers was never overwhelmingly popular. Back in October, the weekend after Congress passed what was supposed to be an emergency plan to save the economy, only 40 percent of voters said they liked the idea. But the stock market was tanking, and banks looked pretty woozy and, the theory went, the bailout would help stabilize things.

Oh, for those flush days of October. This won’t be news to anyone with a 401K or without a winning lottery ticket, but even though Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has burned through almost all of the first $350 billion Congress authorized, it didn’t quite turn things around. The infusion of money may have kept credit from tightening up further, but it certainly didn’t jump-start the economy — banks didn’t resume lending to businesses and consumers. Stock prices never really recovered from their early autumn plunges, and more than half a million jobs vanished just last month. With the benefit of hindsight, lawmakers now express regret about the way the bailout was handled — with few provisions for oversight of the banks or the Bush administration — and the public hates it more than ever. The feeling that money and political capital were squandered even helped endanger the far cheaper and more popular bailout of the auto industry. So what went wrong — and where did all that money go?

A lot of it is, apparently, just sitting in the bank. A Government Accounting Office audit released earlier this month showed the Treasury Department doling out buckets of cash: $15 billion for Bank of America, $45 billion for Citigroup, $3.5 billion to Capital One, nearly $6.6 billion to U.S. Bancorp. The feds were essentially taking out the trash — buying shares in various banks that had gotten themselves into trouble by issuing crappy mortgages using complicated formulas, assuming the cost of many of the mortgage-backed securities that were weighing down the balance sheets of every financial institution in the country. The feds were pumping money into these banks so they would feel free to make more loans — better, simpler, sounder loans. The epidemic of exploding mortgages and failing institutions would ease. But the banks did not start making new loans. They seemed to sit on their federal windfalls. And the Bush administration kept handing out more.



By the time Treasury had gotten around to giving $1.4 billion to Zions Bancorporation in Salt Lake City (which was originally founded by Brigham Young), before finding even a few hundred million bucks for actual homeowners struggling to make their mortgage payments, it was pretty clear that things weren’t working out exactly the way everyone in charge said they would. And as of a couple of weeks ago, Treasury had spent all but $15 billion of the first installment of the bailout money, and the administration may soon ask permission to tap into the second chunk, which they were supposed to leave for Barack Obama’s administration to disburse.

“It’s amazing how quickly you can get through $350 billion,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group based in Washington. The problem with the way the money flowed out, from Ellis’ perspective, is that there’s no way to say what it’s done to stabilize the economy. “There is a black box where that checkbook is, and we can’t see into it,” Ellis said. “Once the money leaves Treasury’s hands, we have very little knowledge as to what the heck we’re getting for the billions of dollars.”

Now, even the people who designed the bailout say they’re not happy about it. In the rush to action they didn’t place enough controls on how the administration doled out the money, or what the institutions did with it once they got it. They also acquiesced to a one-sentence change requested by the Bush team that effectively protected the massive pay of Wall Street execs. “I don’t think there’s any way, under these circumstances, the administration would be able to get the resources,” Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, told reporters Friday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reduced to scolding Bush and Paulson after the fact for their failure to use the money to help homeowners. “It was very clearly spelled out in the initial legislation that funds would be used for mortgage foreclosure forbearance,” she said Monday. “It wasn’t until … we intensified the provisions that related to keeping people in their homes that this legislation even passed the House of Representatives. But it’s been totally ignored by the administration. Absolutely nothing has been done to respect that part of the legislation, which is the only part of the legislation that had support in the Congress and enabled it to pass and become law.”

But the banks are used to getting their way, and there probably wasn’t much reason to think they wouldn’t this time around, too. The financial sector has always been a generous donor to political campaigns, and it gives heavily to both Republicans and Democrats. By the 2008 election, with Democrats firmly ensconced in control of Congress (and heading for control of the White House), commercial banks had split their $34 million in campaign contributions almost evenly to both political parties. Investment firms, many of which are converting themselves into commercial banks to grab some Treasury funds, gave far more — $141 million this year — and have been spreading the wealth around to anyone with power in Washington for years.

Chances are they’ll keep getting their way, too, even after Obama takes power. His pick for Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, was one of the prime architects of the government bailouts of Bear Stearns and, later, AIG, and may have been one of the main reasons why Lehman Brothers didn’t get the help they did.  One reason Wall Street reacted so positively to Geithner’s nomination was because it had already been dealing with him for months on exactly the same stuff he’ll be in charge of in office. (He seems to like doing it, too. “We live for this,” he told a college friend in the midst of the financial collapse. “We live for these kinds of crises.”)

Besides, no matter how much Pelosi, Dodd and others grumble about what the Bush administration has done with the cash they controlled, they’re probably going to have to give them more. Once the Senate refused to loan money to Detroit (led by an anti-union, pro-foreign automaker clutch of Southern conservatives), the administration said it would step in if necessary. That would just about use up the $15 billion left in the Treasury’s hands. And with the economy on life support, what are the odds no other big company needs (or wants) some federal cash before Jan. 20? It may be late December. But on Wall Street, at least, Santa Claus has nothing on good old Uncle Sam.

 

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>