When complex projects are done quickly, rarely are they done well.
The industry is re-learning this lesson the hard way as government oversight panels finally get up and running and take a closer look at the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) - and aren't happy with what they see. Elizabeth Warren, the chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP), bluntly stated the challenge in December when she said that events had unfolded so quickly that there hadn't even been time to develop coherent questions to ask Treasury.
Created with TARP's passage on Oct. 3 to oversee the gargantuan program, COP's first panel members weren't appointed until Nov. 14 and didn't issue its first report until December. Normally, that timeline wouldn't be too shabby in D.C. But in this case events were moving so fast that COP ran woefully behind as TARP morphed from a program to buy troubled assets to a program injecting equity directly into banks. It had also spent most of the first $350 billion allotted.
The issues raised by COP in its first report are pretty basic, and seem to indicate unease with Treasury's approach - such as how TARP is preserving homeownership. Questions posed to Treasury in the report concerned foreclosure reduction, how it chooses TARP recipients, and how Treasury views its scope of statutory authority.
Besides COP, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also took a first hard look at TARP and issued a fairly scathing assessment in December, saying that Treasury had spent billions of dollars without a plan for tracking how the money is used or ensuring that banks comply with government-mandated restrictions. (Warren explained the different focus of COP and GAO by drawing a distinction between policy oversight (COP) and procedural oversight (GAO).)
The title of the GAO report didn't mince words: "Additional Actions Needed to Better Ensure Integrity, Accountability, and Transparency." In testimony before the House Committee on Financial Services, Gene L. Dodaro, Acting Comptroller General of the U.S., criticized Treasury for not addressing top issues. "These include determining how it will insure that [the Capital Purchase Program] is achieving its intended goals and monitoring compliance with limitations on executive compensation, dividend payments and stock repurchases," Dodaro noted. He also pointed out the lack of a TARP management structure, internal controls or a formal transition to the new administration.
If Treasury doesn't follow the GAO's advice, warned Dodaro in his testimony, "there is a heightened risk that the interest of the government and taxpayers may not be adequately protected and that [the Office of Financial Stability] may not achieve its mission in an effective and efficient manner."
In Treasury's 13-page response to COP's 10 questions released on Dec. 30, Treasury admitted that it could not yet ensure compliance with executive compensation rules, although it is "continuing to develop a comprehensive compliance program to ensure that institutions adhere to executive compensation provisions."
That lack of control is unlikely to sit well with members of COP, GAO, or Congress. Neither are the responses from Treasury to questions about preventing foreclosure and helping homeowners. Time and again, Treasury's response to COP's questions was to focus on shoring up the financial system in general as a way to aid homeowners.
This trickle-down approach to fixing what ails the financial industry is somewhat at odds with Warren's philosophy, which focuses on the consumer more directly. The well-known Harvard Law School professor has written extensively and testified before Congress on consumer credit laws and personal bankruptcy reform, and recently told The New York Times that "[h]ousehold financial health is profoundly tied to the economic health of the nation. You cannot repair this economy if you can't repair those families, and I'm not sure the people directing the bailout see that as their job."
With a new Administration, however, that job description might change.