Monday, October 6, 2008

Government Bailout 101: What the new law says

Here's a rundown of key provisions of the financial rescue plan.

It took two tumultuous weeks of moral and fiscal debate, but Congress and the Bush administration on Friday finally put a capstone on the $700 billion bailout of the financial system.

President Bush signed the bill less than two hours after the plan, which had been amended and passed by the Senate on Wednesday, was approved by the House.

The changes the Senate made include the addition of a host of tax break extensions and some new provisions intended to help individuals and businesses.

Here's a breakdown of some of the economic rescue plan's main provisions:

Attacking credit crisis: The core of the plan the House voted on is the same as what it rejected on Monday: the Treasury's proposal to let financial institutions sell to the government their troubled assets, mostly mortgage-related. It will allow the Treasury access to the $700 billion in stages, with $250 billion being made available immediately.

Protecting taxpayers: The final law is also similar to the original House bill in that it includes a number of provisions that supporters say will protect taxpayers. One will direct the president to propose a bill requiring the financial industry to reimburse taxpayers for any net losses from the program after five years. And the Treasury will be allowed to take ownership stakes in participating companies.

In addition, over time, supporters say, taxpayers are likely to make back much if not all of the money the Treasury uses because it will be investing in assets with underlying value.

The law includes a stipulation that the Treasury set up an insurance program - to be funded with risk-based premiums paid by the industry - to guarantee companies' troubled assets, including mortgage-backed securities, purchased before March 14, 2008.

Curbing executive pay: The law will place curbs on executive pay for companies selling assets or buying insurance from Uncle Sam. For example, any bonus or incentive paid to a senior executive officer for targets met will have to be repaid if it's later proven that earnings or profit statements were inaccurate.

Oversight: The rescue plan will set up two oversight committees.

A Financial Stability Board will include the Federal Reserve chairman, the Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, the Federal Home Finance Agency director, the Housing and Urban Development secretary and the Treasury secretary.

A congressional oversight panel, to which the Financial Stability Board will report, will have five members appointed by House and Senate leadership from both parties.

Tax breaks: The Senate-version of the bill that the House passed on Friday included three key tax elements designed to attract House Republican votes.

It extends a number of renewable energy tax breaks for individuals and businesses, including a deduction for the purchase of solar panels.

The law also continues a host of other expiring tax breaks. Among them: the research and development credit for businesses and the credit that allows individuals to deduct state and local sales taxes on their federal returns.

In addition, the law includes relief for another year from the Alternative Minimum Tax, without which millions of Americans would have to pay the so-called "income tax for the wealthy."

New accounting rules: The bailout plan underlines the Securities and Exchange Commission's power to change accounting rules on how banks and Wall Street firms value securities, and directs the agency to study the issue.

Some observers argue that tight accounting rules are a major reason for the credit crisis in the first place. Others contend that changing the so-called mark-to-market rules will just bury problems lurking beneath the surface and could further shake investor confidence in the already battered financial sector.

Shielding bank deposits: The law temporarily raises the FDIC insurance cap to $250,000 from $100,000. It allows the FDIC to borrow from the Treasury to cover any losses that might occur as a result of the higher insurance limit.

Federal bank regulators, who first floated the idea to Congress late Tuesday, said that bumping up the insurance limits will help improve liquidity at banks across the country. It may also provide a much-needed dose of confidence for consumers who may be worried about the health of their bank.

The plan will also temporarily increase the level of federal insurance for credit union savings to $250,000.

Mitigating foreclosures: The new law calls on federal agencies to encourage loan servicers to modify mortgages by a number of means - including reducing the principal or interest rate. It also extends a temporary provision that exempts from federal income tax any debt forgiven by a bank to a borrower in a foreclosure.

Cost: The law's tax provisions - the bulk of which come from the addition of tax breaks from other legislation - may reduce federal tax revenue by $110 billion over 10 years, according to estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation. More than half of that is due to the one-year extension of AMT relief.

The Congressional Budget Office said it cannot estimate the net budget effects of the troubled asset program because of the many unknowns about that piece of the bill. However, the agency noted in a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday, it expects the program "would entail some net budget cost" but that it would be "substantially smaller than $700 billion."

Overall, the CBO said, "the bill as a whole would increase the budget deficit over the next decade."

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