Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Will the White House and Treasury Let the Big Banks Repay TARP Money?

Do Pres. Obama and Treasury man Geithner want to control the banks, just as they have taken over GM? Will the government assert political direction of the financial system in place of market forces, or in place of the rule of law as enforced by bankruptcy judges?

These hot topics have been discussed in a recent Politico story, a Wall Street Journal op-ed by my friend Stuart Varney, and an IBD editorial called “Federal Takeover.” Much of the discussion centers on bank paybacks of TARP money. In particular, banks in Louisiana, New York, Indiana, and California (four in all) have offered to pay back $340 million to Uncle Sam. IBD speculates that the Treasury declined to accept these payments.

Melissa Francis and I discussed this today on CNBC, and almost immediately the Treasury Department called one of my producers and e-mailed a quarterly update of all TARP payments made by the Treasury that include capital-repayment details. It turns out that the Treasury has in fact accepted TARP repayment: The Bank of Marin Bancorp in California paid down $28 million, Old National Bancorp in Evansville, Ind., paid back all $100 million, Signature Bank in New York repaid $120 million, and Iberiabank Corp. in Lafayette, La., paid back $90 million.

So we know the Treasury is accepting payment from these smaller regional banks. However, we do not know if the White House or the Treasury will accept repayment of TARP money by the nation’s biggest banks.

In a speech today, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein once again indicated his desire to quickly pay back TARP. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan has indicated a similar desire, as has BofA CEO Ken Lewis. But the Politico story implies that Obama does not want the big banks to pay down TARP, and that he is in effect telling the banks, “You haven’t taken your antibiotic over the full period to heal your illness.”

But most of the big bankers are saying they’re regaining profitability. This is especially the case since they can borrow short at near-zero interest rates and lend long at five or six years.

There is a suspicion that the Treasury will use its new bank stress tests to judge whether the big banks should pay back the government capital purchases. But no one knows whether these stress tests are truly standardized; why they are any different from the normal FDIC tests, or for that matter testing by the banks themselves; whether this is going to be a Treasury judgment call; or whether that Treasury judgment call in effect puts a gun to the collective head of the banks in order to force the banks to sell toxic assets through the Public-Private Investment Program.

Many in the government believe that if some banks pay the funds back and others do not, a scarlet-letter stigma will be attached to those who do not. And they believe that might cause a deposit flight, or even capital flight. But it can’t be healthy for the government to determine whether the banks themselves are healthy. And the public is so opposed to the TARP program, you would think paying back TARP in order to retire our over-the-top debt would be a good thing.

Meanwhile, at yesterday’s National Review Institute luncheon here in New York, Sen. Bob Corker told us that he suspected — merely a suspicion — that one or two big-bank CEOs would be removed by the Treasury within 60 days of the conclusion of the stress tests. This is what Treasury secretary Geithner hinted at on the recent Sunday talk shows. And that raises the question of whether a bank CEO-removal would be playing politics: Would it be to even things out after the removal of Rick Wagoner of GM — to placate the unions and their allies like Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan who are charging that the auto industry is getting much tougher treatment than the bank industry?

How to end the political direction of our banks? Let them get out from under TARP as soon as possible. Let them make their own decisions. Let’s end this sordid chapter of unprecedented government intervention in the market economy.