Stephanopoulos falsely suggests report says TARP could cost “up to $23 trillion”

On This Week, purporting to ask Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner “about the TARP,” host George Stephanopoulos claimed that TARP inspector general Neil Barofsky “said that the taxpayers could be on the hook for $23 trillion in liabilities.” In fact, as Barofsky has repeatedly stated, that figure does not represent the potential cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program to the taxpayer, but rather the “maximum amount of support” the government “could provide” under several programs initiated to bolster the financial system -- including programs that have been discontinued or have not been utilized.

From the August 2 edition of ABC's This Week:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you about the TARP. The TARP inspector general, Neil Barofsky, has criticized your department for not being transparent. He's also said that the taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $23 trillion in liabilities. I know you dispute that figure, but what can you tell us about where the TARP stands right now, and how much of the $700 billion that has been appropriated taxpayers can expect to get back?

Barofsky's SIGTARP report: Estimate includes numerous programs, not just TARP

In his report, Barofsky wrote that TARP is “only a part” of the “potential Federal Government support” to the financial system, “estimated to be as large as $23.7 trillion.” The source of the figure Stephanopoulos cited -- a report by Barofsky, special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Plan (SIGTARP) -- stated: “Though a huge sum in its own right, the $700 billion in TARP funding represents only a portion of a much larger sum -- estimated to be as large as $23.7 trillion -- of potential Federal Government support to the financial system. This support is spread among numerous Federal agencies, with the Federal Reserve System (” Federal Reserve"), providing one of the largest support packages ($6.8 trillion if each initiative were implemented to its maximum authorized level)."

The SIGTARP report includes the following table which makes clear that TARP represents only a fraction of “Current Balance” and “Total Potential Support Related to Crisis” figures:

tarpchart

Barofsky's SIGTARP report: Estimate not intended to “provide an estimate of likely net costs to the taxpayer”

Report: "[T]he actual potential for losses is likely to be lower." The SIGTARP report states that the $23.7 trillion figure -- which refers to “Total Potential Support Related to Crisis” -- is not an “estimate of likely net costs to the taxpayer,” and that “the actual potential for losses is likely to be lower” because “many of these programs are collateralized or have not been drawn down to their full authorized levels.”

“Total Potential Support” figure is a worst-case scenario. From the report: “Total Potential Support -- quantifies the gross, not net, exposure that an agency would face should all eligible program applicants request assistance at once to the maximum permitted under the program guidelines.”

“Total Potential Support” figure includes discontinued, underutilized programs. In the SIGTARP report, Barofsky wrote that “potential support” includes programs that “have been discontinued or even, in some cases, not utilized. As such, these total potential support figures do not represent a current total, but the sum total of all support programs announced since the onset of the financial crisis in 2007.”

In interviews, Barofosky himself has repeatedly refuted the $23.7 trillion figure

Barofosky on CNN: "[T]he actual amount outstanding is about $3 trillion, not $23.7 trillion." Asked by CNN anchor John Roberts to "[e]xplain for viewers exactly where those numbers come from, and what is the potential reality of that coming to pass," Barofsky responded:

The reality of that is slim. And what we did in the report, and what we set out in the report, was we attempted to take a look not just at the TARP, which is our primary responsibility, but the whole vast terrain of all the different financial support programs from the government, and put them in one place.

So the American people, members of the media, members of Congress could see it in one place. So what we did is we did a brief description about the 50 other non-TARP programs and described how much is outstanding right now on those programs, what the high water mark is and what the total is.

Basically, what the total exposure, what the total potential support if you add up each and every one of those programs. Now we explain in there that, look, some of these programs have already been terminated. Some of them the money has been paid back. And, you know, full subscription to all of them at the same time is not necessarily likely. But we thought it was very important from a transparency perspective to put them all in one place so that the American people could see what was going on. So the actual amount outstanding is about $3 trillion, not $23.7 trillion. [CNN's American Morning, 7/22/09]

New York Times: “Barofsky conceded the number was vastly overblown.” New York Times reporter Floyd Norris wrote that the $23 trillion figure is a “sheer unreality” and that “in the report accompanying his testimony, Mr. Barofsky conceded the number was vastly overblown.” Norris continued:

It includes estimates of the maximum cost of programs that have already been canceled or that never got under way.

It also assumes that every home mortgage backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac goes into default, and all the homes turn out to be worthless. It assumes that every bank in America fails, with not a single asset worth even a penny. And it assumes that all of the assets held by money market mutual funds, including Treasury bills, turn out to be worthless.

It would also require the Treasury itself to default on securities purchased by the Federal Reserve system.

Norris also reported that in an interview, Barofsky said:

“We're not suggesting that we're are looking at a potential loss to the government of $23 trillion,” he said. “Our goal is to bring transparency, to put things in context.”

Asked what he thought the maximum total cost could be, he replied that it was not his job to estimate that, and declined to give a figure. [New York Times, 7/20/09]<

Other media figures have also cited the misleading figure

USA Today and hosts on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and CBS previously cited the same misleading figure, distorting the risk to viewers. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asserted that he “read yesterday somewhere that the bailouts are now coming in at a price tag of around $23 trillion.” [MSNBC's Morning Joe, 7/22/09] Fox News' Sean Hannity claimed that a “watchdog group” estimated “Obama spending” at "$23 trillion with a T" [Fox News' Hannity, 7/21/09]. CBS' Katie Couric claimed, “The government's chief watchdog of the bailout will tell Congress tomorrow that, worst-case scenario, the price tag could total $23.7 trillion.” [CBS Evening News, 7/20/09] Fox News' Glenn Beck asserted, “It looks like now it's only going to be $23.7 trillion to bail out the financial companies for TARP.” [Fox News' Glenn Beck, 7/20/09]. CNN's Lou Dobbs said, "Politico today reported all the government bailouts, loans, and rescues could ultimately cost taxpayers a staggering $23 trillion. That number comes from Neil Barofsky" [CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, 7/20/09]. Likewise, USA Today reported, “American taxpayers could end up spending as much as $23.7 trillion in bailing out the financial system” [USA Today, 7/20/09].

From the August 2 edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you about the TARP. The TARP inspector general, Neil Barofsky, has criticized your department for not being transparent. He's also said that the taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $23 trillion in liabilities. I know you dispute that figure, but what can you tell us about where the TARP stands right now, and how much of the $700 billion that has been appropriated taxpayers can expect to get back?

GEITHNER: Let me just emphasize what's important to this -- to Mr. Barofsky and the other oversight panels and to the president and to the secretary of the treasury, is we want to make sure we have the highest level of transparency on these programs, and we are doing everything we need to do to make sure that they are delivering the benefits they need with as little risk of fraud as possible. And he has made a number of reforms we've adopted, a very helpful role in shaping these programs, and we are committed to do everything necessary to achieve that.

Now, the program itself -- we're in a much better position than I thought we were going to be, frankly, if you just look back four months ago, three months ago, or six months ago. The financial system today is more stable. The cost of credit -- credit is more available. Cost of credit is down significantly. Broad concern about the collapse of the financial system has receded dramatically, and that is very, very, very important to the prospects of --

STEPHANOPOULOS: We're not going to see a collapse, are we?