WASHINGTON — Though several bankers — including James Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co. — have said they want to repay government money quickly, actually doing so will be tricky.
Lawmakers removed one obstacle last week by eliminating a requirement that firms raise a corresponding amount of private capital before repaying Troubled Asset Relief Program funds. But other issues remain.
Under the law, bankers must first consult with their federal regulators before repaying money, and observers say winning approval is likely to be tough in the current environment. Regulators want banks to have more capital right now — not less.
"They have to prove to their regulators they are financially sound without Tarp, and given how conservative regulators are these days, that's not going to be the easiest thing," said Kip Weissman, a partner at Luse Gorman Pomerenk & Schick PC.
The Obama administration opposed the provision in the economic stimulus, arguing that it would undermine the law's goals. Also, the law does say the Treasury Department must first write regulations outlining how bankers may repay Tarp — and it would not be the first time an administration delayed writing rules it did not support.
"Some banks have already said they want to repay the government ASAP," an administration official said on the condition of anonymity. "This could have the unintended consequence of firms choosing not to participate in ways that would be helpful to getting credit flowing, including homeowners, auto loans, and small businesses."
Allowing some institutions to repay Tarp funds early could create problems for the companies that do not.
For example, if JPMorgan Chase paid back its money early, but Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. did not, that could create more problems for those two firms.
"For those that can afford to buy back, does that mean you are healthy?" asked Lisa Andrews, a special counsel at Kelley Drye & Warren LLP.
"What does that mean for those that can't?"
The Treasury may also make bankers wait until regulators complete their stress tests of the largest institutions.
The banks "are all going to be on the sidelines getting ready for the Treasury's stress tests," said Brian Klock, senior vice president of equity research in the San Francisco office of KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.
"I don't expect to see a rush of banks that are going to do this until then."
Mr. Weissman agreed with that prediction. "The worst concern from a regulatory standpoint is a large bank gave back the money but failed the stress test," he said.
Banking companies, especially large ones, may also want to wait and see what the government does to help remove toxic assets from their books. The Obama administration has said it wants to start a public-private fund to purchase illiquid assets.
"It will be difficult to figure out how many assets the banks can afford to put off their balance sheet," said Tom Parliament, the president of Parliament Consulting Services Inc.
"Until it becomes clear how much capital they need, they will hold on to it."
There are also practical considerations in repaying Tarp money. Though the government forced bankers to pay a 5% dividend for the first five years (and 9% after that), the rate is still cheap when compared with private funding, observers said.
"Any capital they replace this with is going to be expensive, because the rate the government gave them was pretty cheap," said Josh Rosner, managing director of Graham Fisher & Co. Inc.
Some bankers have also used their capital to make more loans — and they do not necessarily have the cash on hand to repay the government.
"Of the capital borrowed, some has been invested," Mr. Klock said. "If leverage has been put on it, how easily would it be to unwind that leverage?"
Industry representatives agreed with that assessment.
"The reality of bank capital requirements and regulatory oversight, and the fact that Tarp money has been lent and is now in a 30-year mortgage or car loan, makes it difficult for many institutions to repay the money in 2009," said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable.
But Mr. Weissman said economics is not the only factor driving decisions to get out of Tarp.
"You may still decide you want to do it, but it will not be a good economic deal," he said. "The institutions that clearly want to pay it back are not focusing on a cost benefit analysis; they are saying, 'We wish we never took the money, so let's get it off our books.' "
The drive to at least try to repay Tarp money appears to be growing. During a House Financial Services Committee hearing two weeks ago, the top executives of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase expressed interest in repaying the money as soon as possible.
Mr. Dimon has said the company would like to begin repaying the Tarp money as soon as possible, in consultation with regulators.
Executives at U.S. Bancorp and BB&T Corp. have also said they want to pay the government back soon, and the trade groups say small banking companies are climbing on board.
"We've been hearing from a number of smaller banks that they are seriously considering exploring it," said Wayne Abernathy, executive director of financial institutions policy and regulatory affairs at the American Bankers Association.
Bankers cite fear from the executive compensation restrictions included in the stimulus bill, as well as future strings Congress could attach.
"The community banks we've heard from were concerned about changing rules and changing restrictions, and that makes them nervous," said Karen Thomas, director of regulatory affairs for the Independent Community Bankers of America.
But most observers agree that community banks and others may have no choice but to keep the money — for now.
"You may go through a lot of pain and suffering to get out of Tarp," said V. Gerald Comizio, a partner in the corporate department at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP.