Opinion

Checking in on your bailout investment account

Tom Karol Occasional Political Commentator

President Obama is now saying that “we’ve recovered most of your money already, but we want all our money back.” Does anyone really know how much money is out and how much is back? Is there money left on the table?

Let’s face it, this whole bailout thing is so complex and convoluted that it is damn near impossible to comprehend. All we really know is that a whole load of companies got money from the government and some of that money will never be seen again. But supposedly, much of that money will be repaid and perhaps even some money will be made.

Which is it: Is the money lost or will we see some of it back? In an effort to make this issue more manageable, let’s think about the bailout like a giant investment fund in which we as taxpayers each have an account. We can consider what we put in, what we are likely to get back and therefore if we made money, lost money or broke even.

So far, the bailout has paid out billions to banks like Citigroup, auto companies like GM, AIG, toxic real estate assets and to “other,” which totals about $480 billion. Just about $143 billion of that money has been paid back, about $9 billion of that is definitely lost forever and $20.6 billion has been paid in dividends and interest, both mostly from banks and auto companies. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac got more than $100 billion, but since they are now owned by the government, we can pretty much forget about ever seeing that cash.

If that $480 billion pool is divided among 150 million taxpayers, it works out to about $3,200 per taxpayer. So you can think of your $3,200 account being “invested” in banks, auto companies, AIG, toxic assets and “other.” So far, slightly less than $1,000 has been paid back to your account, so you still have about $2,200 invested. You got back dividends and interest of roughly $14 and you lost around $6. That leaves your account $8 in the black, assuming that all outstanding amounts will be repaid—which is by no means assured. This works out to a return of about one quarter of one percent.

But wait. You didn’t actually put in the initial $3,200. You – the U.S. government, really—borrowed that money by selling T-Bills that pay interest, as much as 2 percent or more. You may owe about $64 in annual interest so far on the $3,200 you borrowed in the first place. This pretty much wipes out any gains you may think you have. The “returned TARP” money that the administration is talking about is not excess cash looking for a place to be spent—it is borrowed money, most of which is still out and possibly in danger of never coming back.

There will be more good news going forward, as well as more bad news. On the positive front, Treasury is selling off some of the securities it got from banks in exchange for funding. The year ended with three of the biggest bailout recipients—Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citigroup—together returning more than $90 billion to the Treasury Department. On the negative front, there are questions whether the government is getting fair value for these securities and there certainly will be more losses. The former chief of the administration’s task force on the auto industry said there’s only “a good chance” the United States can recover the $30 billion invested in GM, but the other $20 billion that went to GM is almost definitely gone.

On a monthly basis, we’ll look at the developments—good and bad—and let you know how your account is doing. We’ll try to give you an idea about how your remaining $2,200 may be growing or shrinking. Sure it’s a rough estimate and professional economists may hate it, but at least it is something that you can understand. Before President Obama or anyone else starts finding a home for your account, let’s see if there is really anything there.

Thomas J. Karol is presently the President and Chief Operating officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Sovereign Investment Council, a 501 (c) (6) trade association for sovereign investor, their advisors and U.S. issuers interested in sovereign investment.