The Treasury Department has asked Congress for permission to spend $700 billion buying up unloved mortgage securities. Add that to $200 billion pledged to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that $85 billion loan to AIG, and $29 billion in Bear Stearns junk still stuck on the Federal Reserve’s books, and you get a price tag of $1.014 trillion. Throw in up to $300
mbillion in mortgage guarantees contained in the housing bill passed over the summer, and you’re up to $1.314 trillion.
It’s a staggering number–almost half what the U.S. government spent in total last year. And it certainly makes all those who’ve been predicting a trillion-dollar bailout for a while, like Nouriel Roubini and Charles Morris, look pretty smart. (Somewhat alarmingly, Morris is planning to update the title of his book The Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown for the paperback next year.)
But does it mean we taxpayers are really out $1.3 trillion? No. First of all, they’re not necessarily going to spend all that money–the $300
trbillion in mortgage guarantees in particular vastly exaggerates the likely outlay. And a lot of the money they spend will eventually be recouped–what they’re buying has some value, after all. What this does mean is that taxpayers are taking on a huge amount of risk, mainly because nobody else is willing to take on any right now. What I still can’t figure out is how Treasury hopes to structure the bailout so there’s at least a chance of getting a fair return on that risk-taking.
Update: So I have problems with my millions and billions and trillions. Who doesn’t? Actually, I kind of hope Paulson doesn’t get them confused.