The Bailout Fund — Running Out of Cash

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Evan Vucci / AP

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson at Camp David in Maryland on Oct. 18

The Treasury Department is quickly running out of money to invest in troubled banks. A analysis of public records shows that nearly one-third, or $216 billion, of the $700 billion that Congress approved to be spent just six weeks ago has already been spent or will soon be sent to just 67 banks. That's a small fraction of the up to 1,800 financial firms that are expected to apply for government assistance.

On Monday, Randal Quarles, a managing director at the Carlyle Group and a former Treasury official, told an audience at a conference on the Treasury's bailout fund — which is called the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) — that he thought the fund could need to double in size. "The amount of assistance provided so far is not enough," Quarles said. "The losses out there are materially larger than TARP and will likely require more support than the current $700 billion."

While the Treasury still has about $480 billion to spend, it's not clear how much of what is left will be used for direct investments into banks. Shortly after the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act was passed by Congress, the Treasury said $250 billion was going to be used to buy shares in banks. That would leave $450 billion to buy up troubled mortgage bonds. (Read "18 Tough Questions [and Answers] About the Bailout.")

But on Wednesday Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told Congress that he believes buying mortgage bonds is no longer the best use for the remaining TARP funds. Instead, he said, Treasury is looking at injecting more money into struggling "banks and nonbanks." He said he plans to use some of the remaining bailout fund to support the market for troubled car loans and credit-card debt, as well as to reduce home foreclosures.

"The purchase of mortgage assets is going to be the exception," says Thomas Brown, whose hedge fund, Second Curve Capital, specializes in financial firms. "If it does happen, it will be select purchases." Neel Kashkari, who is heading up TARP, has said that $250 billion will cover the demand for direct investments from banks. And Treasury officials say $40 billion of the money that has been spent was a onetime emergency investment into insurer AIG and should not be counted as part of the $250 billion they plan to invest in banks. Still, the AIG investment depletes the amount of money left for buying troubled bank assets. (See activists protest the bailout.)

The initial deadline for applying for TARP funds for most companies is Nov. 14. Companies that qualify will be allowed to sell preferred shares to the Treasury. The government's investment is capped at 3% of the bank's highly regarded assets. (Risky investments are excluded.) The banks that receive the shares will have to pay the government a 5% dividend for five years, but that is far less than what they typically pay to borrow.

Many of the hundreds of banks left to get funding are small and will qualify for far less than the $25 billion investment that was received by Citigroup, JPMorgan and others. Still, every day new companies are announcing that they will receive TARP funds. Last week, brokerage firm E*Trade said it expects to receive $800 million. And there are still a number of large banks that have yet to receive TARP funds, including Synovus Financial (of Columbus, Ga.) and Colonial Bancgroup (of Montgomery, Ala.), which could collectively swallow an additional $1.5 billion in TARP funds.

Then there are the firms that are not traditional banks that are starting to line up for bailout funds. Earlier this week, American Express filed to change its status to a bank-holding company, which would allow the credit-card giant to apply for TARP funds. Analysts estimate that AmEx could receive as much as $3.5 billion in federal aid. GE Capital is also reportedly looking into applying for a Treasury investment. The troubled finance unit of industrial giant General Electric could receive as much as an $18 billion investment. What's more, a number of members of Congress are pushing for TARP funds to be used to aid troubled automakers. President-elect Barack Obama has said that he favors lending federal financial assistance to Chrysler, Ford and GM. And, like AIG, a number of large insurance companies may soon ask for a piece of the remaining bailout fund as well.

"We're getting a number of calls from financial firms who want to know if they should convert to bank-holding companies," says Randall Guynn, a partner at law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. "But if you start to add all of these companies to the list, then I am not sure there is enough money to go around."

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