You've probably heard it about a gazillion times: "The bailout will cost taxpayers at least $700 billion."
What irks me about that statement is its complete ignorance of two important aspects:
- The Treasury will recover some, if not all, of the money in years to come.
- The funds will be doled out in stages, not all at once.
We're getting some confirmation of the second part. On Monday, the Bush administration said it would not seek the second $350 billion allotted in the bailout package. In fact, only $290 billion of the original $350 billion have been used so far, and Hank Paulson has said he's unlikely to use the remaining $410 billion, at least for the time being.
Of course, an Obama administration might ask for the remaining funds come late January. Leaving a political debate aside, I'd say that's actually a pretty good likelihood, especially as General Motors
But something else may be taking place. The original idea of the bailout program, called TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), was obviously to buy troubled assets like mortgage-backed securities. That idea has since been at least temporarily scrapped, in favor of taking direct stakes in banks like Bank of America
Trying to find an appropriate price at which to buy distressed assets probably became far too complicated and error-prone. It looks like the Treasury is now only interested in taking direct stakes in banks. Now that the majority of big banks are (or should be) generously capitalized, there's little need to keep shoveling out money until things get worse. Of course, things could -- and likely will -- get worse, but the thought that round one of this battle could be over should be encouraging for those infuriated at the bailout to begin with.
You can heckle Hank Paulson all you want for changing the use of the funds, and cite it as an example that he doesn't know what he's doing. But come on -- no one knows exactly what do right now. There are no textbooks and few prior examples for how to fix these problems. There's no owner's manual telling us how to get out of this mess. If Bernanke and Paulson change their minds and come up with a better, safer, more responsible plan as time goes on, more power to 'em.
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Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.