WASHINGTON — It's becoming something of a pattern: The government announces a program designed to stabilize financial markets or kickstart lending, but after weeks or months of delay, the goal is shifted or the program simply doesn't work as expected.
The latest example is the Federal Reserve Board's Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or Talf, which was hailed as a way to revive consumer lending when it was unveiled in November but generated anemic interest when it was launched last month and attracted even less interest from investors this week.
Its weak start is fueling a perception — fair or not — that the government's strategy for fixing the financial system is not working and that this may have a spillover effect on other initiatives, including the fledgling plan to sell banks' toxic assets.
"The overselling of programs has made it increasingly difficult to get things done, and it's happening more and more," said Chris Low, the chief economist for First Horizon National Corp.'s FTN Financial. "This is a crisis. It is so severe that policymakers are willing to oversell solely because they feel it's so important."
The list of programs continues to grow, and many hailed as potential saviors have not panned out as expected. The most obvious example is the Troubled Asset Relief Program. After abandoning its original mission of direct government purchases of troubled assets, the Treasury shifted gears and used the program to inject $250 billion into banks.
Treasury officials argued that the extra capital would be used to support lending, but when an increase in consumer lending did not materialize, lawmakers derided the program as a bust.
Early indications are that Talf is destined to follow in Tarp's wake. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York lent just $1.7 billion in Talf's second run — dramatically less than the $4.7 billion loaned in its first round. The Fed has said the program could lend up to $1 trillion by yearend — an estimate that seems extraordinarily high given the initial numbers.
Other programs are also under fire. Treasury's much-vaunted stress tests for the 19 largest banks have sparked a regulatory debate about what the results actually mean, and the agencies are still trying to decide what information should be made public, according to sources.
Though regulators are expected to wait until the end of April — after earnings season — to release results, there is growing fear that whatever information comes to light could further destabilize the system. A persistent rumor says that the stress tests were never meant to be a focal point of government efforts but rather a throwaway part of the Treasury's Feb. 10 press release outlining its response to the financial crisis.
In the absence of other details, media reports focused on the tests — and regulators were left scrambling to come up with an actual program. True or not, when regulators met on Tuesday to discuss results of the tests, several grumbled that they held little or no value, according to sources.
Treasury's next big plan may fare no better. Even before it has begun, the planned auctions of banks' troubled assets through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is prompting growing questions. Investors are afraid to participate, citing concern that Congress could impose restrictions on them, and bankers are worried that assets will have to be sold at rock-bottom prices.
At least part of the problem is that programs are poorly designed or overly complex. For example, the Treasury did not mandate what banks could do with Tarp money until after it had been distributed, and even then the expectations were vague and shifting.
The Talf program is narrowly focused and hard to understand, observers said.
"You have the underlying issue of the triple-A requirement, which is a very difficult to satisfy under current market conditions," said Karen Shaw Petrou, the managing director of Federal Financial Analytics. "The more significant piece of it is the complexity. The deal structure remains complicated, and at least so far, people have decided to stay on the sidelines."
Oliver Ireland, a partner in Morrison & Foerster and a former Fed lawyer, said the central bank should talk more with the market to find out what it wants. "Part of the Talf problem is, it has haircuts," he said. "The numbers just aren't attractive."
The political risk also plays a role. Lawmakers have reacted angrily to news reports of bonuses paid to employees of companies that got Tarp funds and threatened to restrict anyone that gets government help. By proxy, this could include participants in Talf or the public-private investment funds set up to purchase toxic assets. "What you're trying to do is reassure" investors, said Kevin Jacques, the chairman in finance at Baldwin-Wallace College and a former economist in the Treasury during the Bush administration. "That's made a whole lot more difficult in this environment because Congress doesn't seem to mind jumping in."
To be sure, not every government program appears to be failing. Several observers said Fed programs to boost liquidity in the system have succeeded. The FDIC's guarantee of banks' senior debt and unlimited deposit coverage for noninterest-bearing deposits have also helped, they said.
But a string of high expectations and low performance has continued for at least a year.
When Congress began debating the creation of the Hope for Homeowners Program last summer, a program designed to help borrowers refinance into cheaper government-guaranteed loans, it was predicted to help 1 million to 2 million homeowners. When it finally was enacted, that estimate had dropped to roughly 400,000.
So how many borrowers has it actually helped since it began operation in October?