Support Marketplace

Treasury's spent $124 billion on . . .

The US Treasury building in Washington, D.C.

TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: Take a look at line 71 on your 1040. Or on the EZ 1040, it's line 11. That's where you find out your tax payout for the past year. Too bad there's no line that tells you where it's all going, especially those trillions in bailouts. So many different programs have been cooked up, keeping track of that money is next to impossible.

You may have heard, for example, that the Fed has been buying up mortgage-backed securities,
and that's driven mortgage rates to historic lows. But Marketplace's Steve Henn has learned the U.S. Treasury's been doing this too in a big way for the past eight months. And nobody seems to have noticed.


STEVE HENN: Since October, the U.S. Treasury has spent $124 billion buying mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Tom LaMalfa is a mortgage industry economist. It's his job to know about stuff like this, but until we called and asked him about the program LaMalfa had no idea it existed.

TOM LAMALFA: We've all been tracking on a weekly basis Fed purchases. But the initial $124 billion that came out of the Treasury's pocket just fell into the black hole.

Since the beginning of this year Federal Reserve's been buying mortgage-backed securities too. Together the Fed and the Treasury have spent nearly $400 billion propping up this market. That's driven down interest rates, helping home owners. However, David Ries, a law professor at Brooklyn College, says if lots of homeowners default, the government could lose money. But . . .

DAVID RIES: They are already on the hook for all the liabilities of Fannie and Freddie to begin with. I can't see what the additional downside is.

In fact, the Treasury expects to earn billions of dollars a year off this investment. Still, Ries is amazed a program this size largely escaped public notice. In eight months, members of Congress haven't held a single hearing about it or asked a single question. And remember, this costs roughly what it costs to fund the war in Iraq for a year.

Ries: You know, if you had said this to me nine months ago, I would have said it's impossible.

Paul Keil, a journalist at the nonprofit group ProPublica, discovered it, digging through the Treasury Department's monthly balance sheet.

PAUL Keil: It's a little line item in this report that Treasury issues every month. Just buried there is, "Oh, we spent $124 billion buying all these securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."

Treasury officials told Marketplace it's not like they were hiding this. Officials announced this program when it began in September. But perhaps it's a sign of the times that when it comes to the bailout, it's possible for the public to lose track of more than a $100 billion.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...