WASHINGTON — Banks that want to return Troubled Asset Relief Program funds will have to demonstrate their ability to wean themselves off another major federal program, according to senior government officials, a move that could make it less attractive for banks to return the money. The program, a guarantee of debt issuance offered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., allows firms to borrow money relatively inexpensively. Banks have issued more than $332.5 billion under the program since it began last fall.
Firms will have to show they don't need the FDIC guarantee to issue debt, such as by raising it without the guarantee. The move signals a potential turning point in the financial crisis, with some banks beginning to unwind their dependence on the federal government.
Regulators could detail the complete set of guidelines dictating how banks can repay TARP as early as Wednesday.
Several banks have been chomping at the bit to return their TARP funds, in part to prove their financial health but also to escape from tough rules governing executive compensation, dividend payments and stock repurchases, among other restrictions.
Earlier this year, Congress mandated that banks be allowed to repay TARP in consultation with their primary regulator. But government officials want to ensure that banks are truly healthy enough to forego government assistance.
Officials believe most big banks are well-capitalized today, but are concerned about their ability to continue making loans if economic conditions continue to deteriorate. On Thursday, the U.S. is expected to direct about 10 of the 19 banks undergoing government "stress tests" to boost their capital so they can withstand future losses. Banks received the final results Tuesday afternoon.
Banks that are judged to need a bigger capital cushion will get six months to raise that money either from private investors or the government.
Those deemed strong enough to weather the storm might still not get a green light to repay their TARP funds. Government officials don't want banks to repay the money only to find they are not healthy enough to continue lending.
Several major banks have already taken steps to show they don't need the assistance. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. recently sold $3 billion and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. sold $2 billion, while BB&T Corp. issued $800 million and Northern Trust issued $500 million. All of that has been either 5-year or 10-year debt.
By contrast, various units of Citigroup Inc. issued a total of $7 billion in FDIC-backed debt last week.
The program, created in October, allowed banks and holding companies to issue certain senior unsecured debt with a government guarantee, for a fee. The purpose was to facilitate lending between banks and make it easier for lenders to issue debt, because investors knew there was a government guarantee on the offering.
The requirement to forego the FDIC guarantee would make it most difficult for firms like Citigroup and Bank of America Corp. to get out of TARP, since they are likely to be more reliant on the government's aid. But those banks are also seen as the least likely to pay back TARP anytime soon.
There are other questions still to be resolved over how to pay back TARP funds. They include the process by which Treasury will value and dispose of its warrants to buy stock in banks.