Bailouts could cost U.S. $23 trillion

Politico | July 20, 2009
By Eamon Javers

A series of bailouts, bank rescues and other economic lifelines could end up costing the federal government as much as $23 trillion, the U.S. government’s watchdog over the effort says – a staggering amount that is nearly double the nation’s entire economic output for a year.

If the feds end up spending that amount, it could be more than the federal government has spent on any single effort in American history.

For the government to be on the hook for the total amount, worst-case scenarios would have to come to pass in a variety of federal programs, which is unlikely, says Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the government’s financial bailout programs, in testimony prepared for delivery to the House oversight committee Tuesday.

The Treasury Department says less than $2 trillion has been spent so far.

Still, the enormity of the IG’s projection underscores the size of the economic disaster that hit the nation over the past year and the unprecedented sums mobilized by the federal government under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to confront it.

In fact, $23 trillion is more than the total cost of all the wars the United States has ever fought, put together. World War II, for example, cost $4.1 trillion in 2008 dollars, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Even the Moon landings and the New Deal didn’t come close to $23 trillion: the Moon shot in 1969 cost an estimated $237 billion in current dollars, and the entire Depression-era Roosevelt relief program came in at $500 billion, according to Jim Bianco of Bianco Research.

The annual gross domestic product of the United States is just over $14 trillion.

Treasury spokesman Andrew Williams downplayed the total amount could ever reach Barofsky’s number.

“The $23.7 trillion estimate generally includes programs at the hypothetical maximum size envisioned when they were established,” Williams said. “It was never likely that all these programs would be ‘maxed out’ at the same time.”

Still, the eye-popping price tag provoked an immediate reaction on Capitol Hill. “The potential financial commitment the American taxpayers could be responsible for is of a size and scope that isn’t even imaginable,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee. “If you spent a million dollars a day going back to the birth of Christ, that wouldn’t even come close to just one trillion dollars – $23.7 trillion is a staggering figure.”

Congressional Democrats say they will call for Treasury to meet transparency requirements suggested by the inspector general, said a spokeswoman for the Oversight committee. “The American people need to know what’s going on with their money,” said committee spokeswoman Jenny Rosenberg.

In his prepared remarks, Barofsky writes: “Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2007, the Federal Government, through many agencies, has implemented dozens of programs that are broadly designed to support the economy and financial system. The total potential Federal Government support could reach up to $23.7 trillion.”

The comment comes in the context of a quarterly report to Congress by the special inspector general. Barofsky will testify Tuesday before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The office of the special inspector general was created to serve as an auditor of the federal bailout by the same legislation that launched the TARP program itself.

Originally, TARP was intended, Barofsky writes, to facilitate “the purchase, management, and sale of up to $700 billion of “toxic” assets, primarily troubled mortgages and mortgage-backed securities.”

But that plan was soon rejected, and the TARP instead became a grab bag of bailout initiatives, including bailouts for GM, Chrysler and auto parts suppliers as the federal government struggled in real time to contain a spiraling economic disaster.

Barofsky reports that TARP has come to include 12 separate programs that include a total of as much as $3 trillion, “including TARP funds, loans and guarantees from other agencies, and private money.” Of the initial $700 billion allocated by Congress, Barofsky found that the Treasury has so far announced how $643.1 billion will be spent, and it has actually spent $441 billion as of June 30.

Barofsky’s calculation of a $23 trillion figure took into account a wide-ranging group of federal programs set up by disparate agencies within the federal bureaucracy.

The special inspector general counted approximately 50 initiatives or programs launched since 2007 to fight the economic collapse.

The Federal Reserve, he found, has increased its balance sheet from $900 billion to more than $2 trillion, and Barofsky estimated that the total amount of support to the economy by the fed is at least $6.8 trillion, because it is exposed to significant losses if many of the assets guaranteed by the Fed deteriorate in value.

The FDIC, Barofsky writes, has contributed $2 trillion in “new gross potential support.”

The Federal Housing Finance Agency – “under whose auspices fall the Government Sponsored Enterprises such as Fannie Mae [and] Freddie Mac,” – has effectively provided more than $6 trillion in gross potential support.

Treasury itself, Barofsky concludes, has contributed nearly $4 trillion of potential support to the economy beyond the TARP program itself.

And Barofsky points out the at the non-TARP programs, which are far larger than the TARP itself, do not come with the strings that the high-profile TARP money itself comes with, including executive compensation, and they don’t necessarily require congressional approval. And beyond the ability to tally their costs, Barofsky has no authority as an auditor over the non-TARP programs.

The hearing before the House Oversight Committee will be held at 10:00 a.m. Tuesday in room 2154 Rayburn House Office Building.

Abby Phillip contributed to this story.