The methodology that the Treasury Department is using when claiming that we made money on the TARP would imply that the government could make money by issuing a 30-year mortgage at 1.0 percent interest to every homeowners in the country. The vast majority of these mortgages would of course be paid off with interest, therefore the taxpayers would come out ahead.
This is ridiculous accounting, as Gretchen Morgenson points out in her column today. There is an opportunity cost to this money and if that is not taken into account, there is no way to say whether this lending is profitable. In the case of the TARP and related Fed lending programs, financial institutions were able to borrow trillions of dollars at far below market interest rates.
These programs may have been justified given the situation in financial markets at the time, however it is ridiculous to say that we made a profit on the lending based on the fact that most of the money was repaid with interest just as it would be ridiculous to claim a profit on 1.0 percent 30-year fixed rate mortgages issued by the government.
In the FWIW category, anyone saying that we would have had a second Great Depression absent this lending should be immediately ignored. The first Great Depression was caused by 10 years of inadequate policy response, not just the mistakes made at the onset. There was nothing that we did or did not do in 2008-2009 that would have necessitated a decade of incompetent policy.
Argentina was able to recover from a full-fledged financial collapse in less than 18 months. There is no reason to believe that Ben Bernanke and other leading policy makers are very much less competent than the people determining economic policy in Argentina.