Small Victories for Taxpayers

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After the $700 billion bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, was announced last fall, Warren Buffett remarked: "If the government makes anything over its cost of borrowing, this deal will come out with a profit. And I would bet it will come out with a profit, actually."

Since then, TARP has been morphed, changed, re-engineered, and refigured countless times. What was first meant to be a plan to buy assets directly from banks turned into a bailout orgy for the auto industry, homeowners, insurance companies, credit card companies, companies that wanted to become banks, and anyone whose name rhymed with "bank."

So you can be fairly sure the final tally will still leave taxpayers in the red.

Still, a few taxpayer investments are paying off quite handsomely. Granted, that's happening in part because shares of low-quality financial stocks have gone berserk in recent weeks -- a feat that some would say is unlikely to sustain itself -- but some gains are actually sealed deals. Done. Profits logged. Moving on.

Taxpayers' stake in Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) has resulted in an $11 billion paper profit, according to the Financial Times. Earlier this year, a deal was struck to convert preferred shares into common equity, and the government was left stuck with a slug of common stock converted at $3.25 per share. Now that shares have been bid up well past that level, the paper profits are stacking up. Whether the government will start selling shares anytime soon is anyone's guess.

Other big banks that floated preferred stock, including Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) , have over the past few months seen huge surges that have boosted the warrants taxpayers hold in the companies. In the meantime, as the Financial Times writes, "In spite of criticism of the bail-outs of lenders ... the Treasury has reaped gains from the coupons payable under the [TARP] bail-out funding."

The more legitimate profits come from the likes of Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) , Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  ) , and American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) . All three have repaid taxpayers in full, plus interest, and they have repurchased warrants designed to provide taxpayers with a little upside. Goldman's warrants were redeemed for $1.1 billion, Morgan Stanley's for $950 million, AmEx's for $340 million.

The three companies' press releases make a point to note that the repayments resulted in an annualized return to taxpayers of 23%, 20%, and 26%, respectively.

These aren't huge reasons to celebrate. Profit or no profit, many simply abhor the plan altogether. There's nothing wrong with that. But it's hard to argue that we haven't come a long way since the days of last fall, when saying the plan would cost taxpayers $700 billion drew so much attention. It wasn't true then, and it's undeniably false now.

For related Foolishness:

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On August 26, 2009, at 1:12 PM, DrRoberts1 wrote:

    "These aren't huge reasons to celebrate" claims Morgan House absurdly. Perhaps never in the history of the Republic has a Government Program been so misunderstood and misrepresented by the press. Now that it is clear to even the biggest fool that TARP was not the bank boondoggle 99.99% of the rubes thought is was, House states no big deal. Tell that to the shareholders of the banks that have cut dividends because Paulson forced them to take a TARP injection. As usual, the fourth estate has its head securely up their collective ass!

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