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Wisconsin Bank Refuses TARP Funds
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Wisconsin Bank Refuses TARP Funds

Economy

Wisconsin Bank Refuses TARP Funds

Wisconsin Bank Refuses TARP Funds
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The federal government has shoveled hundreds of billions of dollars at the nation's banks in an effort to prop up the financial sector. But the money comes with strings attached, and some major banks are balking at the terms. One Wisconsin bank has already decided to turn down the government's help, but even that decision comes with a price.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

For people on the outside, the trouble with the bank bailout money seems to be that banks have too much freedom to spend it. Bankers took bailout money and didn't lend it. They paid bonuses or put money in companies other than banks. That is the perspective from the outside.

Yet many bankers contend the federal money is coming with too many conditions attached. Some big firms, like Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, plan to give back the money as soon as they can. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI: The Johnson Financial Group in Racine, Wisconsin isn't one of those banks that anyone would consider too big to fail, but it is the third-largest bank in the state. So when the government began offering financial assistance from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the Johnson Bank was eligible to participate.

Mr. RICHARD HANSEN (Chief Executive Officer, Johnson Financial Group): For a company like ours, we could've had a range of funding anywhere from 50 to about $150 million. When we applied, we asked for $100 million.

ZARROLI: But Chief Executive Richard Hansen says once officials started looking into the program, they said no thanks.

Mr. HANSEN: We're honored that they offered this to us. We're not making a statement here. We're just saying we didn't need it.

ZARROLI: But rejecting the money, Johnson became part of a mini-rebellion against the bank bailout. Under the program, the government buys preferred shares of the banks' stock, giving them a quick capital infusion to improve their balance sheets. But banks say the money comes with too many restrictions, and Congress keeps adding more.

For instance, there are limits on the pay that banks can give executives. That may not sound like such a bad idea, given how badly some banks have stumbled, but JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon argues that it puts U.S. banks at a disadvantage against foreign banks, which don't face that restriction.

Mr. JAMIE DIMON (CEO, JPMorgan Chase): It's possible someone's going to walk in my office and say, Jamie, I have a family. I can't afford to live that way. I have to take a job somewhere else. And, you know, I'll be very sorry it happens. JPMorgan will be okay. Over time, it could be more damaging.

ZARROLI: Participating in the program also opens banks up to criticism about how they spend money. Northern Trust was excoriated for sponsoring a golf tournament for clients after taking $1.6 billion in federal money. For Johnson Bank, the problems with TARP were more fundamental. Richard Hansen says taking the money didn't make sense financially.

Mr. HANSEN: Our existing business model worked really well, so it was - it really came down to our own business case was we don't need this to be successful. We'll do it the way we've always done it.

ZARROLI: Hansen says his bank, like most, has been hurt by the recession, but it still made money last year. Had the bank taken TARP funds, the costs would've been considerable. For one thing, it would've had to pay the government a 5 percent dividend in pretax income.

Mr. HANSEN: I can tell you from our side of the ledger, this is far from a bailout, because it's stock, it comes with a cost, it comes with a repayment expectations and many other expectations.

ZARROLI: Hansen says publicly traded banks can eventually pay back the government by selling more stock, but Johnson Bank is privately held, so it's not so easy.

Many member of Congress, like House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, have little sympathy about the bankers' complaints about the program.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts; Chairman, Financial Services Committee): It is setting some rules about what is and isn't appropriate. I don't regard the denial of a bonus for someone who's making millions of dollars and whose institution is benefiting from taxpayer funding as a punishment. If they don't like it, they can give the money back.

ZARROLI: But bank analyst Nancy Bush says giving the money back is harder than it sounds. First, the government practically forced big banks to take TARP money, even those that didn't need it, to get more capital flowing into the banking system. Bush says banks that try to get out of the program worry they'll get on regulators' bad side.

Ms. NANCY BUSH (Bank Analyst): It would be sort of like a black mark. Should you wish to do something in the future, say, a deal that your regulator might not look upon it kindly if you have not, you know, played well with the other children.

ZARROLI: Then, too, the economy is so uncertain that bankers deep down may be unsure whether they can really afford to give the money back. Bush notes that the government is imposing stress tests to make sure banks have adequate capital to stay in business.

Until the banks know how much capital regulators will require them to hold, it may too soon to think about returning the money, as much as they may want to.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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