A recent op-ed by Frank Rich of the New York Times made me do a little digging this morning into just where our taxpayer money being used to bailout institutions like Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs (to name a few) is going. Unfortunately the picture is not looking too good at the moment.

It seems that along with throwing $700 billion of taxpayer money (Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson asked for the other half of the $700 billion to be released back on Friday, December 19th after originally indicating that he would leave it available for the incoming administration) at these institutions the government (that would be both the current administration and Congress) has failed to conduct the appropriate oversight necessary to ensure that this money was not being used to pay for bonuses and other compensation. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report, GAO-09-161 detailing a lack of specific, enforceable methods of ensuring that the money given to banks is used according to the original intent of the Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP). Specificially, the GAO report notes

We spoke with representatives of the eight large institutions that initially received funds under CPP [Capital Purchase Program — clarification added, ID], and they told us that their institutions intended to use the funds in a manner consistent with the goals of CPP. Generally, the institutions stated that CPP capital would not be viewed any differently from their other capital—that is, the additional capital would be used to strengthen their capital bases, make business investments and acquisitions, and lend to individuals and businesses. With the exception of two institutions, institution officials noted that money is fungible and that they did not intend to track or report CPP capital separately.

(Government Accountablility Office, TROUBLED ASSET RELIEF PROGRAM Additional Actions Needed to Better Ensure Integrity, Accountability, and Transparency, December 2008, p. 25)

By the way, the definition of the word “fungible” is interchangeable (see dictionary.com). As amazing as it may seem the indications are that the money which the U.S. taxpayer has given these institutions to help right themselves after nearly collapsing last September/October can well be used to pay bonuses to managers and executives. How is this possible? Weren’t we assured that this would not happen?

As originally written the bailout bill would have provided for limitations to the compensation given to Wall Street executives who took money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and provided a framework for reviewing and penalizing those institutions that broke the rules in the program. It seems, however, that as the bailout bill was winding its way through the White House a small, one-sentence change was made to the wording in the bill by the Bush administration. According to the Washington Post

The change stipulated that the penalty would apply only to firms that received bailout funds by selling troubled assets to the government in an auction, which was the way the Treasury Department had said it planned to use the money.

(Paley, Amit R., “Executive Pay Limits May Prove Toothless,” The Washington Post, December 15, 2008 )

Now it appears that this little change has provided a huge loophole. Barely a month after the TARP was put in place Treasury Secretary Paulson indicated that the Treasure would not be using the TARP money to buy the toxic assets off the balance sheets of the banks but rather would invest the money in the banks directly. This about face has left the issue of oversight as to how the money is used in a bit of a limbo. As the GAO report notes

it is unclear whether Treasury plans to leverage bank regulators, which in the case of the largest institutions have bank examiners on site, to conduct any oversight or monitoring related to CPP requirements. However, unless Treasury does additional monitoring and regular reporting, Treasury’s ability to help ensure an appropriate level of accountability and transparency will be limited.(emphasis added)

(Government Accountablility Office, TROUBLED ASSET RELIEF PROGRAM Additional Actions Needed to Better Ensure Integrity, Accountability, and Transparency, December 2008, pp. 25-26)

Without transparency there will be no way to know how these banks are using this money and whether it is being used appropriately or not. As the GAO report notes the initial eight institutions that took the CPP money intended to use the funds in “a manner consistent with the goals of CPP” (Government Accountablility Office, TROUBLED ASSET RELIEF PROGRAM Additional Actions Needed to Better Ensure Integrity, Accountability, and Transparency, December 2008, pp. 25). In other words, at this point we are taking them at their word that they’re doing the right thing. However, when asked many of these institutions remain quiet about the specifics of where the money is going (Herman, Charles, Dan Arnall, Lauren Pearle, Zunaira Zaki, “Morgan Stanley Is One Bank That Cites a Loan From TARP Money,” ABC News, December 17 2008 ). It appears that the American taxpayer could well be taken to the cleaners once again. Paul Krugman of the New York Times had it write…it is truly a “Madoff Economy.”