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Banks and the TARP payback

How easy should it be for big banks to pay back federal bailout funds?

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is “sensibly laying out pretty strict criteria” for when banks can pay back their TARP bailout money, said Felix Salmon in Reuters. That’s good: It isn’t enough that an individual bank is healthy, when the broader financial system and credit flow are not. But the TARP legislation is “pretty unambiguous” that Geithner can’t stop banks from paying the Treasury back, so this will be a test of Geithner’s power.

You’d think Geithner would welcome some money flowing back into the TARP coffers, said Dwight Cass in BreakingViews.com (via Fortune), and the markets would certainly cheer banks able to survive on private capital. Besides, who can blame “relatively strong” banks such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan for wanting to “shuck off” the TARP “scarlet letter”?

The problem is that those banks are mostly strong on paper, said Andrew Ross Sorkin in The New York Times. In reality, each bank is busy pulling an accounting “bunny out of the hat” to wow investors with better-than-expected—and better-than-merited—earnings. So far, investors aren’t buying the “amateur hour” magic.

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