Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tracking the TARP: How Practical?

Since everybody in the media and in Washington wants to know where the TARP money went, I've been thinking about the mechanics. (Please note: I'm not an accountant or an auditor and, although I am an IT person, I don't know how bank systems are designed.)

As I believe the CEO of BofA told one committee, the government's money doesn't get a color-code. And some in Congress do recognize that money is fungible. This, however, only makes them angrier (as if being angry would make money less fungible or more trackable).

So, anyways, in this thought experiment, let's start on the input side. I assume it is easy to set up a new account called "TARP" and, for all I know, that is what the banks have done. It's the output side that is the problem.

I suppose one could tag the TARP money, but that would mean changing who knows how many computer systems in these banks. It would probably take years and cost a bundle. Not a realistic idea. And this is why, I assume, it is so hard for Treasury or anybody to answer the question of "where did the TARP money go?"

But let's take a very simple, and unrealistic, system. One input account labeled "TARP". All the hundreds or thousands of loan officers in all the branches of these banks are given access to this account. (Practically speaking, programmers would have to add all the controls needed to assure only authorized access and limits and to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. Naturally, the implementation of even this simplified system would take at least months - but for this thought experiment we will ignore this little problem.)

So, what do the loan officers do next? Well, given the mood in Washington and the country, they will be told to make all their loans from this one pot until they have reached their limit. Wonderful. Now we know where the TARP money went. Problem solved.

No, it isn't. Why? Because TARP was supposed to make it possible for banks to lend more than they would have lent without it. But in this very simple case, all we know is that the TARP money was spent. Had it not existed, the banks might have made all of those loans from their own non-TARP money. We would have no way of knowing if that was true or not.

What we need to know and why it's not easy to find out
Basically, we really want to know two things. First, who got the loans. Second, did the bank's lending increase over what it would have been otherwise.

We could answer the first question in my simple system. But I suspect that answering it in the real world is imposssible because of the complexity of the systems involved. (See Input and Output above.)

What about the second question? Well, one could compare loans this year to loans last year and if more are made now than before, we could assume that TARP was the cause.

Not so fast. We're in a major recession. For 4 months in a row, over 600,000 jobs have been lost. (There have been only 10 such months since records began.) An enormous amount of wealth has disappeared (predominantly in homes and 401Ks). People are saving, not spending. And they are not borrowing either. So, total loans could still be down this year - because people are not borrowing or because the borrowers are no longer credit-worthy - even though the TARP money is letting banks make more loans than they would have made otherwise. That is to say, one can't reach any conclusion about whether or not more loans have been made simply by comparing loan rates or amounts because the recession muddies the waters.

No doubt there are ways to track the TARP money (to some degree) that do not require a massive redesign of computer systems and that can take into account reduced borrowing, but I suspect they are not easy to implement and will, therefore, take time to develop and put in place.

Unfortunately, complexity is not something the media or Washington understands.

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