They call it TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and its original goal was to pump much-needed funds into the constricted loan market, freeing up capital and breaking through the financial clogs that seem to have our economy by the throat.
Public Law 110-343 was signed into law by President Bush on October 3rd, 2008. The official White House press release reads something like this:
"H.R. 1424, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008, and Tax Extenders and Alternative Minimum Tax Relief Act of 2008, which authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to establish a Troubled Assets Relief Program to purchase troubled assets from financial institutions; provides Alternative Minimum Tax relief; extends expiring tax provisions and establishes energy tax incentives; and temporarily increases Federal Deposit Insurance limits."
While most Americans understood that some $700 billion dollars in spending was approved, few understood exactly how this was supposed to make buying school clothes for their children or scraping up mortgage payments every month a little less painful from a financial standpoint.
When attempting to pass the legislation, Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson appeared before Congress on September 23, 2008 and urged lawmakers to pass the unprecedented bill and do it quickly. They warned of a pressing recession, continued foreclosures, and scarce credit opportunities for consumers and businesses alike. They exhorted lawmakers to ignore doubts and trust that everything would be under control if only this bill made it into law.
Doubts rang out from both sides of both Congressional Houses as Republicans and Democrats alike united with a common sentiment: While most agreed something needed to be done, they also agreed that pumping $700 billion of taxpayer money into a faulty and vague bill was not the way.
Little more than a month after the passage of the bill, the truth has begun to emerge. While fair value accounting has taken most of the blame for the current financial fabric in the United States and, increasingly, the world, the complicated anatomy of our entire financial system has been both rocked and forever altered by this bailout.
Credit card giant American Express was granted an unusually quick go-ahead from the Federal Reserve to transform itself into a bank holding company in the weeks following passage of the bailout bill. Incidentally, only bank holding companies are eligible for bailout funds. The Fed essentially authorized a handout to a credit card company using leverage created by the bill's deliberately deceptive language.
On November 13, 2008, U.S. Senators Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK), Richard Burr (R-NC), David Vitter (R-LA), released this letter to Treasury Sec Paulson pleading for transparency and calling out the orchestrators of the bailout bill for alterations made to the original plan using their new found power (granted, of course, by the skewed language of the bill itself).
It is now nearly a month and a half after the passage of the bill and not much has changed. Sure, JP Morgan used their $25 million dollar handout to purchase failing Washington Mutual, layoffs continued to cripple businesses from the tech sector to Main Street, and the foreclosure frenzy continued from coast-to-coast. A quick response, promised by proponents of the bill, has so far been a phantom on the economic stage, leaving many wondering where exactly all that money went and how it was supposed to help in the first place.
Look at the bright side - at least gas is averaging less than $3 a gallon across the country.
Brace yourself, as most economists agree that not only have we hit a full-fledged recession, we're facing a depression. In simpler terms, things will get worse before they get better.
So instead of analyzing a failed attempt at pumping capital we do not have to spare into the blatantly obvious black hole of toxic banks and crumbling financial institutions, the best we can do is prepare for what lies ahead.
1. Educate yourself. Not only is financial literacy a key, you've got a have a plan. Create a budget, plan expenses, and don't be afraid to give up a latte or two a week if it means you'll have a tighter grip on your own personal finances.
2. Don't panic. These days, it feels like everyone is on the edge of what used to be their comfortable seats wondering if the layoff axe will come swiping down on them. There are some things you cannot control and this is certainly one of them. Try to establish a financial safety net as a "just in case". This is one time when sticking your head in the sand and pretending like it won't happen to you is not appropriate.
3. Brush up on technical skills. Now is the perfect time to revisit career options you considered in college but abandoned somewhere along the way for greener pastures. Now, as those green pastures turn brittle and brown, you've got to make sure you're prepared in case you have to make a leap. Try browsing for "recession-proof industries" - even in these troubled times, some sectors will continue to see growth (albeit small) or at least maintenance of current levels despite a chaotic economy. As the job market tightens, qualified applicants will be harder to come by as applicant volume increases, so HR managers will be more diligent than ever. Certifications will be critical. Maybe you've been happily laboring away in public accounting for years and never even really considered pursuing your CPA license, and management hasn't seemed to mind all that much. As the purse strings tighten, so will opportunities for unlicensed staff.
4. Hold onto your gold. Have you ever seen those obnoxious commercials advertising "Best prices paid for gold!" with promises of great returns and prompt payment, pre-paid shipping envelope and all? Expect to see an increase in these sorts of advertisements as greedy, fly-by-night organizations attempt to hoard gold supplies. Precious metals like silver and gold (which used to be the basis of the US dollar's value before the Federal Reserve entered the picture in 1913) have historically been positioned as a "Plan B" in the face of economic failure. Hopefully it won't come to this, but if elastic currency bottoms out, you're going to be glad you hung on to your gold.
5. Do not fall into the debt trap. Americans have always been sort of bad with money as a group, and no one expects that to change any time soon. But now is not the time to be financing things you cannot afford (or may not be able to afford later on down the road should the economy claim you as its latest victim). While it's tempting to jump on offers and give in to the "buy now, pay later" mentality, it is critical for your own financial safety that you resist the urge and minimize your unnecessary purchases as much as possible.
We're going to get through this, one way or another. Whether it requires a complete revamp of our current system or a total financial bottom, American resiliency will be the key to surviving the slump and prospering as we move forward.
No one wants to admit it, but if this isn't a recession, I don't know what is. While corporations are lining up for a piece of the big bad bailout, 305,685,908 Americans are still left shaking their heads wondering how to survive until next payday.
We have gone terribly wrong, America, but things will look up. We're a nation of irrepressible and resourceful individuals and our tenacity has served us well in our 200+ year history. Expect to see corporate America, business, and industry revolutionized by this crisis. The world as we know is changing before our eyes, and preparation for what lies ahead will be the only way to get by.