Accounting for Scott Sumner

Robert Waldmann

This whole post is after the jump as my accounting is not ready for prime time.

Scott Sumner thinks he is the first to note that the cost to the US government of bailing out the big banks is more likely to be a profit than a cost. Clearly he doesn’t read angry bear much, as I have been predicting that for months.

His accounting strikes me as very odd. Last I hear, the total cost of bailouts (including GSEs, AIG, GM and Chrysler) was predicted to be $87 billion. This does not include the cost of the FDIC honoring its contracts which was not discretionary and not a bailout by any normal use of the word.

Now Sumner reports the good news that the cost not including GM and Chrysler will be only 158 billion ?!?

Huh what happened ? First I think he forgot about roughly 125 billion when he wrote “Last time I wrote on this subject the eventual cost to the government from bailing out the big banks was estimated at a negative $7 billion–in other words a profit to Uncle Sam of $7 billion.” I believe that when he wrote “the government” and “uncle Sam” he meant “The Treasury”. Uncle Sam also has this little organization called the Federal Reserve Board. Last I heard it was predicted to make a profit of 125 billion out of its bailout efforts. Not all of that involved big banks, but I just don’t believe that the government made only 7 billion out of its direct interactions with big banks. In any case, the 125 billion (or probably more now) seems to have escaped Prof. Sumner’s notice entirely.

The news which he reports is that the current guess is that the cost of bailing out AIG is going to be about zero. That is, the amount AIG owes is roughly equal to the expected present value of future repayments.

Sumner gets his huge loss overall because he describes the cost of bailing out Fannie and Freddie as “$165 billion and rising.” I believe this is the amount they owe the Treasury minus zero. Sumner argues that big banks and AIG were OK investments and GSEs weren’t because in one case he includes expected discounted repayments and in the other he decides they are zero.

It is worth noting that the GSE rescue involved loans at 10% per year and the GSE debt is not equal to money transferred from the Treasury to GSEs plus the interest the Treasury paid on that extra debt. Oh no. It is the amount transfered plus penalty interest rates charged on that amount.

Basically, I beleive that Sumner did not stick to a consistent definition of “cost” and redefines the word so as to generate meaningless numbers which confirm his prejudices.

Also he doens’t understand the extent of the US government and thinks it is just the department of the Treasury.

One of us is profoundly confused.

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