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Costs of Government Interventions in Response to the Financial Crisis: A Retrospective, updated September 12, 2018 – Costs of Government Interventions in Response to the Financial Crisis: A Retrospective, updated September 12, 2018.

“In August 2007, asset-backed securities (ABS), particularly those backed by subprime mortgages, suddenly became illiquid and fell sharply in value as an unprecedented housing boom turned into a housing bust. Losses on the many ABS held by financial firms depleted their capital. Uncertainty about future losses on illiquid and complex assets led to firms having reduced access to private liquidity, sometimes catastrophically. In September 2008, the financial crisis reached panic proportions, with some large financial firms failing or needing government assistance to prevent their failure. Initially, the government approach was largely ad hoc, addressing the problems at individual institutions on a case-by-case basis. The panic in September 2008 convinced policy makers that a system-wide approach was needed, and Congress created the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in October 2008. In addition to TARP, the Treasury, Federal Reserve (Fed) and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) implemented broad lending and guarantee programs. Because the crisis had many causes and symptoms, the response tackled a number of disparate problems and can be broadly categorized into programs that (1) increased financial institutions’ liquidity; (2) provided capital directly to financial institutions for them to recover from asset write-offs; (3) purchased illiquid assets from financial institutions to restore confidence in their balance sheets and thereby their continued solvency; (4) intervened in specific financial markets that had ceased to function smoothly; and (5) used public funds to prevent the failure of troubled institutions that were deemed systemically important, popularly referred to as “too big to fail.” The primary goal of the various interventions was to end the financial panic and restore normalcy to financial markets, rather than to make a profit for taxpayers. In this sense, the programs were arguably a success. Nevertheless, an important part of evaluating the government’s performance is whether financial normalcy was restored at a minimum cost to taxpayers. By this measure, the financial performance of these interventions was far better than initial expectations that direct losses to taxpayers would run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Initial government outlays are a poor indicator of taxpayer exposure, because outlays were used to acquire or guarantee income-earning debt or equity instruments that could eventually be repaid or sold, potentially at a profit…”

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