WASHINGTON — There was a time, about a month ago, when $700 billion seemed like a gigantic sum for the Treasury Department to spend in its effort to stabilize the financial system.
The department has already allocated $250 billion to banks, and it is opening the door to investing additional funds in insurance companies and, many speculate, automakers and other troubled firms.
What's left of the $450 billion balance is dedicated to a program to buy troubled assets — the Treasury's original goal when it began its rescue operation. Also coming out of that total: an insurance program for mortgage-backed securities and a congressionally mandated program to improve loan modifications.
Some say the Treasury could be back to Congress soon to ask for more money.
"We've been jumping from program to program, and if there is an infinite number of things we can do with money, there is a need for an infinite amount of money," said Ellen Seidman, director of the New America Foundation's Financial Services and Education Project and a former director of the Office of Thrift Supervision. "If you keep expanding the scope of what it is you are going to do with the money, you keep expanding your need for money."
Exactly how high the price tag may reach remains anyone's guess. Few are willing to take a guess, but nearly all observers agree $700 billion is just the tip of the iceberg.
"It seems to me they are going to be using a lot more than $700 billion," said Bob Serino, a partner at Buckley Kolar LLP.
Since Congress enacted the massive rescue bill Oct. 3, the Treasury has been rapidly expanding the goals of the Troubled Assets Relief Program. On Oct. 14 it announced that it had pledged $125 billion to the top nine financial institutions and would give $125 billion more to the rest of the industry.
By Monday, it was well on its way to allocating that money. Sixteen banks announced they would receive about $34.6 billion of capital, leaving $90.4 billion left for Treasury to hand out to other institutions by Nov. 14, the deadline for applications.
But banks appear to be just the beginning. David Nason, the assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions, hinted Monday that the department may take equity stakes in insurance companies, as well.
"It's something we have to consider," he said in an interview on CNBC. "What I'm saying is we started with the banks because that's targeted to providing credit to the economy, but there are a lot of industries that are coming in saying they need federal assistance, so we're willing to listen."
Other companies likely to be considered include automakers, who have asked for more assistance from the government. It is unclear how much money the Treasury would allocate to insurance and other industries — and how much money it is willing to spend on capital programs.
"They could always stop at putting capital into the Washington Nationals," joked Laurence Platt, a partner at K&L Gates LLP. "The problem is there is so much need, there is a brutal need for capital, and there is insufficient capital to meet those needs."
Some observers have begun wondering if the Treasury will ever use its money for its original intent: buying up troubled assets.
When Congress debated the bill, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson argued it needed $700 billion to help recreate a market for troubled assets. It would already be operating with much less than that, given the money committed elsewhere.
"People were skeptical about the first $700 billion being enough, so I don't know how $450 can be enough" for the asset purchase program, said Scott Valentin, managing director of equity research for Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. Inc. "The $700 billion starts running thin if you start helping all the industries they are talking about."
Bert Ely, an independent analyst based in Alexandria, Va., said: "There's a possibility most of the $700 billion goes mostly into capital. There's skepticism about how active the asset program is going to be."
Though that program was the initial Tarp selling point, the Treasury has yet to implement it or announce many details on it. "It looks like that the senior preferred [stock] is clearly going to be the desired program for institutions, and it may well cause Treasury to allocate more for that plan, and it's also easier to do and faster than the asset plan," said Ernie Patrikis, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
Mr. Nason said Monday that the Treasury remains committed to the asset program, though he offered no new details on it.
The Treasury may also have more leeway to spend extra money on its asset purchase program. Under the rescue law, it is limited to holding $700 billion of assets at any one time. It could begin buying and then selling off troubled assets to get around that limit. Observers said that would be more difficult to do by buying stock in banks and other companies under its recapitalization plan.
"It may be harder to replenish the fund if you are purchasing stock rather than assets," said one bank lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Treasury is also expected to use some of its $700 billion to fund additional programs. By law, it must create a foreclosure prevention plan. Though it does not necessarily require more funds, Treasury is considering a provision that allows it to add loan guarantees and credit enhancements in return for lenders agreeing to a modification program. Such a program could require billions to give the program enough impact.
Also on tap is a program to insure mortgage-backed securities. The Treasury has released few details about the plan, which was required at the behest of House Republicans, but observers said it, too, would likely need significant cash to prove effective.
Even more programs could be in the works. When Congress first debated the rescue bill, Mr. Paulson ruled out investing money directly into banks. Once he reversed himself and announced such a plan, observers said nearly anything could be on the table.
"It seems to me that right now it's an open playbook," Mr. Valentin said. "It seems like every time a new problem crops up, they are wiling to devise a new solution, but every new solution requires new money."
Whether Congress is willing to give the Treasury more money once it runs through its $700 billion is also uncertain. That may turn on how well the program is seen to be working. "If they spend the first slug of cash and are successful in rebuilding confidence so that the engine begins to chug again, they can spend a lot less money in the future," said Tom Vartanian, a lawyer at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson.
But several observers said lawmakers may feel as if they have no choice. "Most of the members are talking about a stimulus check so that shows they are willing to spend more money," said James Barth, the Lowder eminent scholar in finance at Auburn University.
Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with Stanford Group Co., agreed.
"When you are confronted on a crisis on the magnitude of the current situation, it's hard for Congress to say no," Mr. Seiberg said. "If the Tarp needs more money, I think Congress reluctantly goes along."