Paulson: Troubled Bank Assets Won't Be Bought

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Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has reversed course, saying the government will not buy up banks' troubled assets. Instead, he has said, the administration will use part of the bailout money to buy stock in banks in an attempt to encourage them to lend.


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Remember those toxic assets, the ones the Treasury Department said it would buy with the $700 billion rescue package? Well, to paraphrase Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson: Never mind. Today Paulson issued a progress report on the use of that money, and he said the focus of the bailout has changed. And as for the latest supplicants, the auto companies, Paulson said they should look to Congress, not Treasury, for a bailout. The stock markets did not appreciate Paulson's announcement. The Dow tanked more than 400 points. NPR's John Ydstie has our story.

JOHN YDSTIE: It was called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. The idea sold to Congress was that the Treasury would use most of the $700 billion in the program to buy up mortgage-backed securities infected with nasty subprime loans, the very securities at the heart of the financial crisis. But it hasn't happened. Secretary Paulson said today that's because by the time the bill was passed and signed, the crisis had changed. He argued he had not misled Congress and had no reason to be apologetic.

Secretary HENRY PAULSON (Treasury Department): I will never apologize for changing an approach or a strategy when the facts change. I think the apology should come the other way if someone doesn't change when the facts change. So I think we moved quickly, we moved powerfully, to address the situation as it exists.

YDSTIE: Of course, instead of buying toxic assets, Treasury decided to try to unfreeze credit markets by injecting capital into banks, specifically by having the government buy bank stocks. Two hundred and fifty billion dollars of the rescue plan's 700 billion is now designated for that purpose. Paulson said the Treasury had set a speed record by getting $115 billion out the door to eight large banks before the end of October.

Critics say the banks haven't turned the money around and lent quickly enough to consumers and businesses. Paulson again today urged banks to do that, pointing to a statement from bank regulators urging banks to fulfill their responsibility to make loans. As for aid to the struggling U.S. auto companies, Secretary Paulson said the industry is critical to the U.S. economy, but he suggested they look to Congress and not the Treasury. Paulson pointed out that Congress has already passed a bill giving $25 billion to the auto companies, but only to build fuel-efficient cars.

Secretary PAULSON: One option would be to amend that - amend that bill to make it available.

YDSTIE: Democrats in Congress said today they would prepare legislation to aid the auto industry. Paulson also deflected questions about using money from the $700 billion program to aid homeowners facing foreclosure. He said it is a priority and acknowledged it was part of the initial plans for the TARP.

Secretary PAULSON: I just can't tell you how many proposals I've looked at to modify mortgages and keep people in their homes. This is a very complicated area. There are no easy answers.

YDSTIE: And so far no TARP money has been used to limit foreclosures. Paulson pointed to plans announced yesterday to have Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac work with homeowners to modify mortgages. He said it would help hundreds of thousands of people. Critics point out that the number of homeowners facing foreclosure numbers in the millions. Going forward, Paulson said it is time to pause and allow the markets to absorb the programs the government has already put in place. He said the next focus for the TARP would be consumer credit.

Secretary PAULSON: Today, the illiquidity in this sector is raising the cost and reducing the availability of car loans, student loans, and credit cards. This is creating a heavy burden on the American people and reducing the number of jobs in our economy.

YDSTIE: Paulson said the Treasury, along with the Federal Reserve, is looking for ways to use TARP funds to get private investors back into these loans, which are bundled together much like the mortgage-backed securities that were originally the focus of the rescue plan. Paulson said developing a plan to revitalize the market for securitized consumer debt will take weeks. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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Paulson Says Focus Of Bailout Will Shift

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Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson on Wednesday backed away from the government's plan to use $700 billion in bailout funds to buy troubled mortgage assets and instead called for a fresh injection of cash to financial institutions.

Paulson, seeking to defend the unprecedented and controversial Troubled Asset Relief Program from critics, said the government's new goal would be to support financial markets, which supply consumer credit in such areas as credit card debt, auto loans and student loans.

To date, no toxic assets have been purchased with the bailout funds. At Wednesday's news conference in Washington, Paulson said, "Our assessment at this time is that this is not the most effective way to use TARP funds. But we will continue to examine whether targeted forms of asset purchase can play a useful role, relative to other potential uses of TARP resources."

He said the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve had "taken the necessary steps to avoid a broad, systemic failure" of troubled banks and financial institutions.

Credit markets became dangerously logjammed in September as interbank lending and loans to businesses ground to a halt, threatening to bring down the global economy.

The Bush administration responded with a rescue plan passed by Congress in October that had originally been aimed at buying up bad debt from banks so they could continue lending.

But Paulson said the financial industry's situation has worsened since the bill was passed, prompting him to spent nearly $250 billion to buy equity stakes in banks.

"Although the financial system has stabilized, both banks and nonbanks may well need more capital — given their troubled asset holdings, projections for continued high rates of foreclosures and stagnant U.S. and world economic conditions," Paulson said.

The Treasury secretary warned that the nation's financial system "remains fragile" and that "significant illiquid assets" continued to present difficulties.

But "overall, we are in a better position than we were" two months ago, he said.

Paulson's remarks came on the same day that the Federal Reserve and three other federal banking regulators issued new guidelines to institutions to work with mortgage borrowers to avoid defaults. In addition, the guidance encourages banks to set dividend payments for shareholders and compensation for executives with the current crisis in mind.

Referring to the move, Paulson said that "'ordering' is too strong, but 'encouraging'" best described the guidelines.

He said the Treasury Department was evaluating a second program that would provide government investments that would match private investments in efforts to raise capital.

"In developing a potential matching program, we will also consider capital needs of nonbank financial institutions not eligible for the current capital program," Paulson said.

Earlier, the White House appeared to rule out a rescue for the nation's ailing auto industry, and Paulson on Wednesday reiterated that the financial industry is "where the focus is right now."

He did not rule out expanding the program to car manufacturers, but he warned of the danger of bailing out industries without government oversight.

"I know the automakers are important to the U.S.," he said. "They are a key part of our manufacturing industry. I have said and the administration has said, very clearly, we need a solution, but we need a solution that leads to viability."

As Paulson spoke, U.S. stocks extended early-morning losses that followed on Asian and European markets.

From NPR and wire reports



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