It's inevitable that today's financial crisis gets compared to the nation's savings and loan bailout, which cost taxpayers about $250 billion in today's dollars. Painful as that earlier episode was, those who lived through it say the government's approach was much more grounded than the shifting sands of the troubled asset relief program (TARP), which has moved from buying troubled assets, to injecting equity, to now some combination of both.

The erratic moves of the Treasury Department are part of the problem. The head of the Congressional panel set up to monitor the bailout - a term many CEOs object to - says the feds still do not seem to have a coherent strategy. Reflecting on the rapid sequence of events, Diana Henriques told The New York Times, "There wasn't time even to develop a coherent list of questions to ask Treasury about what it's doing and what it plans to do - and whether either of those are likely to address what's going wrong."

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