Bailouts, A Tradition Unlike Any Other

The newest U.S. incarnation is not a $2 trillion bill, as some are saying, but closer to $6 trillion, and $4.3 trillion of it comes in the form of a bazooka aimed at CEOs and shareholders, with almost no conditions attached.

By David Dayen and cross-posted from Prospect magazine.

Twelve years agobanks asked for a bailout after years of irresponsible, highly leveraged lending. The Treasury Department put out a three-page term sheet seeking money from Congress with no strings attached, even eliminating judicial review. Democrats balked, called it a slush fund and worse, then agreed after a few mostly meaningless bits of oversight and some promises to help ordinary people. That $700 billion bailout was window dressing for trillions that came from the Federal Reserve, but it kept Congress quiet, hooking them into the rescue of the system.

Twelve years later, virtually the same course of events is taking place. After just a couple weeks of extreme social distancing measures, the Treasury Department asked for a large bailout, this time of the entire corporate sector. The bill as written initially would have made all bailout activities secret for six months. Democrats balked, called it a slush fund and worse, and then agreed to a few mostly meaningless bits of oversight and some promises to help ordinary people. In fact they’re the same bits of oversight from the 2008 TARP bailout: a five-member oversight panel and an inspector general for the program.

The enormity of this bailout is being under-reported. The number you’re hearing is $500 billion. Of that, $75 billion goes to the airline industry and the mysteriously named “businesses critical to national security.” The other $425 helps capitalize a $4.25 trillion, with a T, leveraged lending facility at the Federal Reserve. The taxpayer dollars would soak up any losses from that lending program. The loans won’t be secret anymore, but the oversight is largely after the fact, without subpoena power, and mainly reduced to writing reports. How exactly do you expect a small, underfunded panel to find fraud in a $4.25 trillion lending facility! Especially when the current administration explicitly believes they are not required to turn over anything to Congress.

So it’s not a $2 trillion bill, it’s closer to $6 trillion, and $4.3 trillion of it comes in the form of a bazooka aimed at CEOs and shareholders, with almost no conditions attached. At the moment nobody’s seen language, but there’s apparently only a buyback ban for the term of the loan. The money cannon can therefore go to executive compensation or mergers or wholesale purchases of distressed businesses or whatever other financial engineering the accounting department can muster. And once the company returns to health, it can leak out cash to investors (and during the loan too, in dividends). There’s no requirement to keep workers hired; in fact, the (necessary) provision to boost unemployment insurance for four months to 100 percent of median salary (including furloughed workers, gig workers and freelancers) means that these companies can fire with relative impunity. Members of Trump’s family can’t get bailout funds, so, yay… 

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