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Bailout may cost trillions ... or not

Even if it adds up to $8 trillion, the final cost will be lower as US sells the assets it's now buying.

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"About $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money has been sent to the major financial industries and the biggest banks, with little or no oversight, accountability, or transparency," Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota said in a Dec. 11 statement. "I think it is scandalous."

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Filmmaker Michael Moore, in a TV interview, cited an $8.3 trillion cost.

Newspapers and websites have posted charts suggesting that 2008 rescue efforts outstrip the costs of World War II, several other wars, sending man to the moon, and the New Deal, combined.

Here's a summary of the key spending, or nonspending, involved:

•Those who put the figure above $8 trillion attribute two-thirds of the cost to the Federal Reserve. The Fed's various programs mainly involve lending or buying the debts of banks and nonfinancial companies.

"They might actually make some money," Mr. Bethune says. Still, the Fed is exposed to losses if loans go bad and are backed by weak collateral.

•The Fed put up $29 billion in March to facilitate the purchase of Bear Stearns by JPMorgan Chase. The collateral on that loan is now worth about $27 billion, according to Fed reports. The final cost will depend on what price those assets ultimately sell for.

•The more recent rescue of Citigroup and AIG could be significantly higher than the $29 billion at stake in the Bear Stearns rescue.

•The Treasury's $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program has committed about half its allotment so far – mainly in the form of capital investments into banks. The cost, or capital gain, will depend on whether those banks rise or fall in value from here.

"Some of the deals might have been fairly favorable for the taxpayer," says Pete Kyle, a finance expert at the University of Maryland. But banks wouldn't have jumped for the funds "if it was too good a deal" for taxpayers.

•The $17.4 billion in emergency funds to General Motors and Chrysler may be just the start of a more costly federal effort to help a US-based auto industry survive. It's called a loan, but Mr. Kyle expects the auto industry will end up as a drain on the Treasury.

•Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could be not just a drain but a vortex. Now in government conservatorship, these firms own or guarantee about half of US mortgage debts. They face big losses, but the Treasury is propping them up to ensure that home loans remain available. A failure to rescue these giants also would also hurt their bondholders – from US banks to foreign governments.

"I don't think Fannie and Freddie know how far under the water they are, but it's probably hundreds of billions of dollars," Kyle says.

Some tallies also include other efforts with large or unknown costs. Some examples: mortgage-relief efforts and a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. program to provide guarantees on bank debts. There's also economic stimulus spending – such as tax cuts or infrastructure spending – which totaled $168 billion under Bush and is expected to be much larger under Obama.