TARP Watchdog Calls for Tougher Oversight

In its second assessment into the Troubled Asset Relief Program released Friday, the Government Accountability Office told the agency it’s still lacking the necessary oversight needed to monitor the existing $700 billion bank bailout program. The GAO said the Treasury Department must communicate a “clearly articulated vision” for TARP, and how all individual programs are intended to work in concert to achieve that vision. “The lack of a clearly articulated vision has complicated Treasury’s ability to effectively communicate to Congress, the financial markets and the public the benefits and has limited ability to identify personnel needs,” the GAO wrote in its report to the Treasury. The first assessment found critical gaps in the program and called for additional actions — nine actions in particular — to “better ensure integrity, accountability, and transparency,” relative to TARP spending activity. As of Friday, the “Treasury has taken steps to address our recommendations, but still faces several challenges,” the GAO wrote. In response to the first assessment, the Treasury began monthly capital purchase program surveys of its largest 20 participants. The oversight committee said Friday that in order to articulate a strategic vision, the Treasury must expand the scope of those surveys, collecting “at least some” information from all institutions participating in the program — As of Jan. 23, Treasury had dished out $294 billion in TARP funds, of which $194 billion have been used to buy large minority stakes in 317 financial institutions. Friday’s report also urged the Treasury to “expedite” efforts to ensure that sufficient personnel are in place to oversee and control TARP activities.  The Treasury has taken steps to ensure a smooth transition to the new administration, the watchdog said, by keeping positions filled — even after losing potential candidates to conflicts of interest — and utilizing direct hire authority. “However, it [Treasury] continues to face difficulty in providing competitive salaries to attract skilled employees,” the report said. The report also called for a well-defined and disciplined risk-assessment process, a review of existing conflict-of-interest mitigation plans, and continued efforts in developing a “comprehensive system of internal controls.” Given the recency of program actions and time lags in the reporting of available data, GAO continues to believe that it is too early in the program’s implementation to see measurable results in many areas. “However, while perceptions of risk have declined in interbank markets, they changed very little in corporate bond and mortgage markets,” the report said. As GAO also noted in December, these indicators may be suggestive of TARP’s ongoing impact, but no single indicator or set of indicators can provide a definitive determination of the program’s effects because of the range of actions that have been and are being taken to address the current crisis — and range of actions is no understatement. As the GAO probes TARP, officials are also in talks with the Federal Reserve System and financial institution executives about their next strategy for revitalizing the economy. Write to Kelly Curran at Disclosure: The author held no relevant investment positions when this story was published. Indirect holdings may exist via mutual fund investments. HW reporters and writers follow a strict disclosure policy, the first in the mortgage trade.

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