A Billion Here, a Trillion There: Calculating the Cost of Wall Street's Rescue
Consider the numbers: $29 billion for the Bear Stearns mess; $700
billion to buy spoiled assets; $200 billion to buy stock in Fannie Mae
and Freddie Mac; an $85 billion loan to AIG insurance; another
$37.8 billion for AIG; and $250 billion for bank stocks. Hundreds of
billions in guarantees to back up money market funds and to guarantee
bank deposits. And who knows what expenses are still to come.
All this financial rescue spending recalls the quote attributed to
the late Sen. Everett Dirksen: "A billion here, a billion there, and
pretty soon you're talking real money."
Today, substitute trillion.
How will the U.S. pay for it all? Answer: by borrowing -- raising
worries about how the country's ballooning annual budget deficits and
aggregating debt will affect the economy and financial markets. Some
guidelines, such as interest rates and the ratio of debt and deficits
to gross domestic product, suggest the new debt will be digested
easily. But some experts think those guidelines are misleading, warning
that obligations are piling up like tinder on a forest floor.
"This kind of accounting that the government does -- if they did it in the private sector they would go to jail," says Kent Smetters, a professor of insurance and risk management at Wharton.
Like many experts, Smetters is not as concerned about the current
deficit and debt as about the long-term obligations that include
monumental sums for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as baby
boomers age. "The problems that we face right now are trivial -- they
are just an appetizer for the big show," he predicts.
What will the financial rescues cost? A tally can't be figured by
simply adding the sums for each response. Many of the figures, such as
the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program to buy illiquid
mortgage-backed securities from financial firms, are upper limits set
by lawmakers or regulators who hope that less will be spent. Some
figures overlap. The $250 billion bank investment is to come out of the
TARP fund, for example.
And much of the spending is to purchase assets that could eventually
be sold, offsetting all or part of the cost and perhaps even turning a
profit. That includes mortgage-backed securities and derivatives for
TARP as well as ownership stakes in banks and Fannie and Freddie. Some
funds, like the money for AIG, are for loans the government expects to
be repaid, with interest -- unless the borrower defaults. Others are
guarantees that will be tapped only in an emergency -- the $29 billion
for Bear Stearns and hundreds of billions to raise confidence in the
safety of money markets and bank savings.