By BERT ELY
Tomorrow, the House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing to "discuss priorities" for the Obama administration's use of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds. Those priorities could include lending and other directives to financial institutions receiving TARP investments. These directives could be disastrous for taxpayers and the economy if they force banks to engage in unwise lending, or keep weak, troubled banks from being absorbed by stronger banks.
TARP has two major shortcomings. The first is a lack of political support. Congress did not explicitly authorize capital investments in financial institutions when it created the $700 billion program three months ago. The Treasury originally was supposed to buy troubled assets of banks and other financial institutions. It quickly realized that this was unworkable due to challenges in determining asset prices. It then decided to invest TARP funds in the institutions, to increase their capital. But the lack of congressional consent for these investments has understandably stoked controversy about their purpose.
Second, there is widespread confusion about the role capital plays in bank balance sheets, which has exacerbated this controversy. That confusion is evident in comments such as "banks should be forced to lend the TARP monies the government has given them."
Treasury invests TARP funds by purchasing preferred stock in a bank, which adds to the bank's capital. Bank capital, which also includes common stock and retained earnings, serves as a cushion to absorb losses from loans and other bank activities; it is not loaned out directly. Most bank lending is funded by customer deposits and borrowings from third parties (such as the Federal Home Loan Banks).
Potentially, a bank could use its increased capital from TARP to absorb losses from loans and investments already on its books, to acquire banks too weak to remain independent, or to increase its lending. The higher capital boosts a bank's lending capacity because it enables the bank to safely increase its deposits -- and thus its loans -- without increasing its risk of insolvency.
Unfortunately, Treasury has poorly explained the legitimacy of those uses. Congressional debate about TARP may further muddy the waters. A review of these uses show why none should be mandated or barred.
First, even well-managed banks are suffering loan losses as collateral values shrink and the recession deepens. In normal times, a bank would raise new capital to offset those losses. However, the capital markets are not functioning normally, with many sound banks now unable to raise fresh capital.
TARP investments, which increase a bank's capital, therefore serve as a bridge to when normality returns to the capital markets. Because of restrictions accompanying TARP investments, and a jump in the TARP dividend rate after five years to 9% from 5%, banks will have an incentive to raise private capital to finance a buyback of their TARP preferred stock. Taxpayers will profit from these TARP investments because of the dividends paid by the banks on the preferred shares the Treasury purchased.
Second, weak banks need to be acquired by well-managed banks rather than being propped up by TARP investments, for weak banks are not good lenders. The continued existence of weak banks will impede the economic recovery.
However, an acquirer needs to realistically account for losses buried in the other bank's balance sheet even though this accounting will reduce its own capital. The TARP investment should therefore ensure that the merged bank is well capitalized. Eventually, that bank would raise capital to retire its TARP stock.
Third, while a TARP investment increases a bank's lending capacity, lending mandates -- such as that a bank must increase its outstanding loans by some multiple of its TARP investment -- could force banks to make new bad loans.
Unfortunately, banks accepting TARP investments must, under the contract governing Treasury's investment in the bank, agree that Treasury can "unilaterally amend" the agreement "to comply with any changes . . . in applicable federal statutes." Through this provision the new Congress can impose on banks with TARP investments lending mandates or other obligations and restrictions, such as barring the use of TARP funds to acquire weak banks. Even worse, Congress may legislate credit allocation, such as directing that a certain percentage of a mandated lending increase must go to a favored class of borrowers.
Banks are in the lending business: They do not need to be forced to lend. And contrary to popular and political opinion, banks have not stopped lending. Despite the recent financial market turmoil, a declining GDP, and an increase in loan-loss reserves, commercial bank lending actually grew $336 billion, or 4.9%, from August to Dec. 24, according to Federal Reserve data. While lending dictates or other restrictions may be tempting, the Obama administration must discourage Congress from imposing them on recipients of TARP investments.
Mr. Ely, the principal in Ely & Co., Inc., is a financial institutions and monetary policy consultant.