In the weeks leading up to last week’s release of “stress test” results, there was quite a bit of talk about more bailout money for troubled banks — how much they would need, and how much Washington would force them to take. (Yes, force.)
How things have changed. Not only did almost half of the examined banks get a clean bill of health coming out of the tests, but most others came within striking distance of officially-determined stability.
Since then, there has been a virtual prison break by TARP-indebted banks as they rush to return bailout money. Every one of the passing banks that had received TARP funds has announced plans to return the money, totalling according to one report some $56.8 billion.
That number doesn’t count the “failing” banks that are also planning to make a run for it. Most only need a few billion to become adequately capitalized, a small amount nowadays, and they are wasting no time in raising it. And they are doing so the old fashioned way — selling stock to private investors. Even Bank of America, which was found to need a whopping $33.9 billion in additional capital, has vowed to raise it and escape from TARP Alcatraz.
The repayment has been helped by clearer guidance from Treasury, which had been only grudingly allowing repayments. Its current stated policy is to OK such returns as long as the institution can show it can raise private capital, the return wouldn’t lower capital reserves below adequate levels, and if prices for government-held warrants can be determined. It remains to be seen how liberally these conditions will be applied in practice, but so far they don’t seem to be holding back the banks.
There is, however, one sour note playing amongst the celebratory music. Under the terms of the TARP legislation, Treasury can use repaid funds to make new investments (read: bailouts). Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has already said he hopes to do just that, writing in the New York Times last week that he hopes to use returned funds to “support community banks, encourage small-business lending and help repair and restart the securities markets.”
Its unclear how many potential recipients are interested, of course. Small community banks, for instance, have been notably skeptical of the whole program. But it looks like the TARP prisons will be kept open in case they change their mind.