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It is Washington’s new hobby: keeping track of acronyms denoting US government programmes and totting up the associated cashflows. Treasury secretary Tim Geithner posed an arithmetical challenge at the weekend, announcing that $135bn remained of the $700bn from the troubled asset relief programme. The Government Accountability Office believed there was $110bn left.

The original bank capital injection programme accounts for $218bn. It is surprising, perhaps, that beleaguered banks did not sign up for the full $250bn allocated them before the November deadline. Emergency top-ups for Citigroup and Bank of America came to $53bn. The ultimate basketcase, AIG, got $70bn. Schemes to stimulate consumer and business lending total $95bn. Part of that, $25bn, is earmarked for Mr Geithner’s latest initiative to buy banks’ bad assets. This plan also receives a further $75bn. Then there is $50bn in funds for mortgage relief. Finally, there is $30bn for the auto sector.

Phew. That $590bn is higher than the Treasury’s estimate because it believes $25bn will be repaid by banks this year. That looks reasonable. Four banks on Tuesday repurchased $338m of preferred Tarp stock – the first to do so. Bigger fish, such as Goldman Sachs with $10bn, are keen to hand back their Treasury readies.

Still, the assumptions involved, some in programmes yet to launch, make Tarp maths an art as much as a science. So-called Tarp cop Neil Barofsky puts total commitments at $3,000bn including outlays from other branches of government. That reflects Treasury efforts to eke out Tarp funds and put off returning cap-in-hand to Congress, even though an ever weakening economy will probably mean some banks will need more taxpayer funds. Good money management is laudable. Delaying the inevitable, however, merely means greater problems in store.

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