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Form an orderly queue. After waiting in line to receive funds from the Treasury, US banks are now offering to pay it back. Northern Trust, TCF Financial and Iberiabank have all declared their wish to return taxpayer funds. Others have made quiet inquiries. Political sabre-rattling and presumed right of public veto over spending decisions means being in hock to the government is more trouble than it is worth.
Under the original Tarp, banks had to raise private equity capital to replace official funds. A provision in this year’s stimulus act changed that. Shaking off the government yoke entirely is impossible: all banks rely on certain federal support, including deposit insurance, in good times and bad. But banks argue that generally available assistance sold as helping healthy banks to boost lending is now branded as “bail-out” – putting them at a disadvantage in the public’s eyes.
Hysteria surrounding, say, the cost of sports sponsorships, adds to their discomfort. Bank of America – which would also like to reduce its government bill – has pre-emptively cancelled jollies in sunny locations. (Not that colder climes are safer. TCF was lambasted over a ski trip.)
The return of taxpayer money is welcome, all things being equal. It is quite right that banks’ conduct be properly monitored while they are reliant on the public purse. But it will be counterproductive if crude or populist oversight and fear of micro-management by Washington prompt banks to repay prematurely. Leaching capital from the banking system helps no one.
Meanwhile, banks that raise private capital to redeem Treasury stock are likely to incur higher overall funding costs. That, at the margin, runs counter to the incessant demands that the banks lend more freely. Politicians playing to the crowd should tread carefully. Travel agents, hoteliers, entertainers and conference organisers would doubtless also prefer that they give it a rest.
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