Troubled TARP: Where Are Tax Dollars Going?

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WASHINGTON -- The federal government responded quickly and drastically when the economic crisis erupted last fall.

And it's been hard to keep up with the billions of tax dollars used to bail out banks and other struggling industries.

As adjustable-rate, sub- prime loans began to reset and borrowers had trouble making payments, the credit market froze and the economy screeched to a halt.
    
"They really saw the Great Depression number two on the horizon," said Dr. Tara Sinclair, an economist at George Washington University.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program or "TARP" is a $700 billion fund designed to free banks of their toxic assets to get credit flowing again.

But it's been wrought with controversy from the start.

A program designed to help banks grew much more complex and now includes 12 different programs.

Already spent -- $600- OF THE $700- billion -- but one of the biggest complaints about TARP is lack of oversight.

A special TARP inspector general is still waiting for most of the banks that received money to report how they're spending it.

Three hundred complaints have been filed regarding suspected TARP fraud and as a result, nearly 10 criminal investigations have been launched.
     
Across the country, 532 banks have received a total of $218 billion.

And economists say, while the financial sector is still healing, credit is flowing again to americans and businesses with good credit scores.

"What we saw in the past were people getting loans who shouldn't have gotten loans the terms were wrong and now we're getting back to sort of old style lending which is where we ought to be," said Dr. J.D. Foster, an economist with the Heritage Foundation. "We've swung too far. We went from too loose to too tight. Now we need to find middle ground."

As the economy worsened, TARP was used to drive other industries out of the red.

Two of the big three automakers, Chrysler and GM, received $25 billion.

Auto suppliers received $5 billion.

And perhaps the most controversial use of TARP was the $70 billion given to insurance giant AIG.

Public outrage swelled when taxpayers learned company executives received some $454 million on performance bonuses last year.

"That switch from business as usual to working for the taxpayer is a huge change and so they may not be able to do it overnight, but I think we have to be crystal clear about what they do and don't get when they get taxpayer money," Sinclair said.
             
One of the selling points for TARP was that taxpayers would see a return on their multi-billion dollar investment. But now, that seems unlikely.

The Treasury Department expects at least $25- of the $700- billion will be returned soon. But the money will be recycled and applied to smaller banks that are still struggling.

But Sinclair says taxpayers have benefited immeasurably by avoiding an economic collapse much larger than what was experienced. However, without better transparency, some fear the banking industry will continue to engage in risky behavior.
    
"As long as the integrity of our financial institutions remain in question, economic recovery continues to elude us," Alabama Senator Richard Shelby said.

Firms working to pay the money back may be symbols of a strengthening economy.

But some worry banks are just trying to get the government off their back, and are not learning a key lesson from this crisis about taking too much risk.

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Jennifer Wishon

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Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at Facebook.com/JennWishon.