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The Phantoms of Economic Stabilization

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Last September, in arguing against passage of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act that created TARP, I hedged:

Government action is absolutely necessary to ensure that middle-class Americans' standard of living does not suffer gravely from the credit crisis.

I cited the many examples where ordinary consumers interact with finance and stressed that some kind of action was necessary to stem the financial crisis. This remains true. Yet even with November's positive job numbers, it is unclear that the financial stability efforts impacted middle-class Americans in the way we were told to expect. Student loans are tight, credit card interest rates have been hiked dramatically, foreclosures (not to mention underwater mortgages) remain at elevated levels, lending to small businesses has not recovered.

Still, we are instructed to be pleased because the investment of $700 billion of taxpayer funds in TARP will only lose $150 billion or so. Although some of these lost funds went to relief for homeowners (the relief remains "potential"), being happy with the return of anything less than $700 billion is like being happy when your 401(k) hasn't lost much money when you cash it out.

Meanwhile, financial firms are back to their old tricks. The Financial Times reported this week that three "controversial financing practices" have returned. Their inanity is hinted at by their names: cov lite loans, Pik toggle notes, dividend recap exercises. I'll spare you the details but essentially each involves lending funds that a firm can't pay back or lending money which a firm doesn't have or, more accurately, which doesn't exist.

Banks are only able to pay back TARP funds now because they've returned to their game of monkey-in-the-middle. Firms pass money back and forth to each other creating little value in the real economy but conjuring profit from the transactions. Consumers are a diminutive monkey who can do nothing but watch the transactions happen.

Government intervention is exactly what is creating - even now - the conditions for profits in the financial services industry that do not benefit ordinary Americans. Low interest rates are the very reason that Pik toggle notes and their brethren have returned. The real problem, though, is not that interest rates are low- they really must be low until the economy recovers. It is that the Bush administration and the 111th Congress and President Obama after it, moved first to rescue banks, only belatedly, and insufficiently, turning its attention to homeowners who even now continue to suffer.

The damage has been done. Ruminating on what Obamacare tells us about the state of the Democratic and Republican parties in the country today, Luke Mitchell writes in Harper's that "It is difficult to imagine anything good coming from a system that moderates the will of corporations with the fantasies of hysterics."

Far from being merely a "black mark on our economic history" as the ubiquitous Mark Zandi calls TARP, Americans should harbor their resentment of this misuse of taxpayer funds and wonder why, exactly, it makes them so upset. The real question, it seems to me, is one that no one is asking: if the government can so easily return the financial sector to health, who holds the key to reviving the real economy?