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.

A trillion dollars here and there, and soon the US government's financial rescue programs start adding up to big money.

But how high is the cost, really?

One tally, which puts the Great Bailout somewhere north of $8 trillion, has been making the rounds in news reports, on websites, and on Capitol Hill. At that rate, some people ask if we could just use the money to cut every American a $26,000 check and kiss the recession goodbye.

The reality, however, is that the government really isn't committing that large a sum to rescuing the economy. The vast bulk of the rescue efforts are loans or investments – and will end up as a mix of gains and losses to government.

That doesn't mean the cost will be small. Just the rescue of mortgage linchpins Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could run into hundreds of billions of dollars.

What's clear is that the Treasury and Federal Reserve have raised their own exposure to the performance of the US economy – in the hopes of reviving it.

"That's a calculated bet," says Brian Bethune, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. "In terms of the cost of the whole thing ... it gets down to how many of the assets have permanent reductions in value. It's hard to say at this point."

Even with all the intervention so far, the prices of assets such as houses and stocks have been falling in 2008, and the confidence of consumers and businesses has been shaken. The results are tighter credit conditions and cutbacks in consumer spending, which in turn have contributed to a rising tide of job losses.

The high-stakes strategy of policymakers for both President Bush and President-elect Obama is to spend big to stop that tailspin. The more successful they are, the lower the final cost of the bailout will be. But either way, they reckon this course is the least damaging one for the US economy.

"In this crisis, doing too little poses a greater threat than doing too much," Lawrence Summers, who will head Mr. Obama's National Economic Council, wrote in the Washington Post Sunday.

A deep erosion of the job base would affect Americans for years to come and would have its own negative impact on US tax revenues.

Even if the final bailout tab is above $2 trillion, that in itself is not a threat to the value of the US dollar or to the US Treasury's credit rating, economists say. The great fiscal burden hanging over America is still the long-term cost of entitlement programs such as Medicare, not the cost of a single recession.

By some estimates, the unfunded promises for those social-insurance programs now exceed $56 trillion – far beyond any tally for financial rescues.

As for that $8 trillion bailout figure, very little of that represents actual spending so far, although it has become a popular talking point.

"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."

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.

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