How The Bailout Money Is Spent: It Was Your Day To Watch Paulson

Print Email

The wonderful and extraordinary thing about big federal spending programs is that the government does not have enough people to keep track of how the money is used. Grifters are everywhere. So are the people who will spend $600 for the toilet seats on Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

The Paulson bailout plan, also known at the TARP, is no exception to the rule. The General Accounting Office reports that there are no real checks-and-balances on how the fund works, whether the money is properly accounted for, and whether there are strong provisions in place for getting the cash back.

What the GAO analysis fails to acknowledge is that it does not matter.

The Treasury does not have enough people to spend the $700 billion, about half of which is committed. That means that finding personnel to follow the capital around is out of the question. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is out of work in two months. Getting him to care about oversight mechanisms is unlikely.

Most analysts believe that since the capital is going to large banks such as Citigroup (C), Goldman Sachs (GS), and Bank of America (BAC), that they will keep track of it. That assumes the same excellent self-regulation which helped start the credit crisis will perhaps this time work better.

By its nature, government spending is inefficient, and especially so when huge sums are being doled out in a matter of weeks. The trade-off is that, if the financial system is going to be saved, the normal accountability for spending has had to be suspended.

Maybe the next administration can hire people to figure out where all of the Paulson money went. It will be too late. By then, the banks will have renegotiated the terms of their capitalization because they will be in more trouble. The rules and regulations for who got what will have shifted significantly and the trail of what happened to all of that cash will have gone cold.

Douglas A. McIntyre