Why Isn't the Bailout Working?

Billions have been sent to banks to increase lending, but crisis remains.

Dec. 19, 2008— -- The word "bailout" was one of the most-searched-for terms on the Internet this year. It's been all over the news. It's been discussed everywhere from Congress to American living rooms.

But what happened to that money that was already handed out? What happened to that first chunk of change from the $700 billion bailout that was supposed to increase lending?

The plan didn't exactly work. The Dow has dropped 2,000 points since Congress approve those confidence-restoring funds.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said taxpayers would be kept in the loop about the billions that have already been sent to about 100 banks.

"We need oversight," he said. "We need transparency. I want it. We all want it."

But a month after the money was doled out, the chair of the congressional oversight panel told reporters she didn't yet know where the money was.

"I only got this job 14 days ago," Elizabeth Warren, who chairs the congressional oversight panel, said last week on MSNBC. "We don't have a fax machine. We don't have, you know, a phone yet."

They have phones now, and "we're up to a staff of five," Warren said.

'Dismal Failure'

The panel's job is to see that the bailout money is put to good use, but so far there's no mechanism to track how the banks are spending the money.

"If taxpayer dollars are going to be stuffed into these banks, then there are responsibilities that go with that," Warren said.

Some in Congress are now mad about how the bailout's working -- or not working.

Rep. Carolyn Malone, D-N.Y., called it a "dismal failure." Rep. Virginia Brown-Waite, R-Fla. said that "we are going down a rat hole."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairs the committee that approved the bailout.

"Because we've been dissatisfied with the way in which they've spent the first half of this, we have blocked them from spending the second half," he said.

Protecting the Banks

But there's more. While the media focuses on those billions of dollars, the Federal Reserve Bank is quietly committing trillions of dollars and in return getting collateral from the banks. But they aren't saying what exactly that collateral is.

"We have been asked to engage in oversight for the $700 billion that Treasury may be authorized to spend," Warren said. "But the Federal Reserve Bank is out there now, committing trillions of dollars."

"We don't even know, in the case of the Fed, to which institutions it's going, much less to what use it's being put," she said.

Warren said she is "somewhat" concerned about that, but in most cases they are getting "what we believe to be appropriate collateral."

But if it's appropriate collateral, then wouldn't private investors be rushing to buy that?

"These questions are just baffling," Frank replied, when posed with that question. "You think somebody made up this whole crisis? No, there were no private investors that were willing to do what the Fed did. Because they were worried."

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has said that transparency is a major issue, but he can't make the loan information public out of fear it might create a stigma and cause others to worry that the banks might not be credit-worthy.

"We don't know what banks are going to the Fed, we don't know what collateral they're offering, and the politicians and bureaucrats are telling us it's for our own good, because if we actually know the truth, we won't be able to handle it, or we'll have a run on the bank," said Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute, a libertarian public policy research foundation.

"And this is what you find with corrupt third-world governments," Mitchell continued, "and yet we're going down that same path of the rule of law being set aside and political discretion being the way that resources are allocated."

Not long ago several members of Congress spoke out against earmarks. Both presidential candidates ran ads denouncing them.

But now, it seems, Congress is spending hundreds of billions of dollars with little debate. And eventually, all this money will have to be paid back.

"That will be debts," Warren said. "Not just for us, not just for our children. But, the legacy we leave our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren."