Rejecting the evasion and obfuscation that has characterized most official pronouncements about the federal bailout of the financial and auto industries, Neil Barofsky has a talent for cutting through the crap. The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (or SIGTARP) speaks plainly and makes no compromises in his pursuit of accountability.
Barofsky's aggressive watchdog style is in full display in a document he just submitted to Congress and released to the public. Despite having the unassuming title of Quarterly Report, it is actually the most lucid and comprehensive analysis of the bailout program published to date.
The part of the report that has received most press attention is the warning that the Public-Private Investment Program promoted by Treasury Secretary Geithner to deal with toxic bank assets is quite vulnerable to fraud. This is just one of a slew of ways that Barofsky argues that the TARP program lacks adequate safeguards. To help make up for these limitations, the SIGTARP office is proceeding with half a dozen audits and is coordinating its efforts with various federal law enforcement agencies.
Barofsky's 250-page report also contains what amounts to a textbook and statistical abstract about the bailout. He reminds us that TARP is not one but a dozen different programs with various objectives. (Citigroup, for instance, has gotten three different forms of assistance.) He carefully explains each one and provides a wealth of quantitative as well as qualitative detail. There's even a tutorial on securitization. Among the data that I believe are being made public for the first time are a table showing the dividends paid by banks receiving capital infusions and an eleven-page appendix providing the status of every one of the common stock warrants the Treasury Department received from TARP recipients.
Also included are details of the administrative and operational costs incurred by the Treasury Department in connection with TARP, including $6.9 million to PricewaterhouseCoopers, $5.7 million to Bank of New York Mellon and $2 million to Ernst & Young as well as about $10 million to various law firms.
This single SIGTARP document, produced by an entity with a staff of only 35, does more to clarify the bailout than the combined efforts of the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and other banking regulators over the past seven months. This is not a case, however, in which clarification creates greater confidence. One comes away from Barofsky's report with the sense that the bailout is a vast Rube Goldberg contraption that requires careful monitoring. Fortunately, Neil Barofsky is on the case.
Note: Another useful new resource on TARP is the website just launched by Bailout Watch, an initiative led by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Economic Policy Institute, OMB Watch, OpenThegovernment.org, Project On Government Oversight, and Taxpayers for Common Sense.