Mindful of soaring deficits and an anti-Wall Street mood, President Barack Obama wants a new 10-year tax on the country's largest banks to cover a projected $117 billion shortfall in the government's financial crisis bailout fund.
The president planned to propose Thursday a levy of 15 basis points, or 0.15 percent, on the liabilities of large financial institutions to make sure every dollar spent from the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program to rescue Wall Street firms, auto companies and mortgage holders is either repaid or paid for. Congress would have to approve the tax.
A senior administration official said the tax, which officials are calling a "financial crisis responsibility fee," would apply only to financial companies with assets of more than $50 billion. Those firms — estimated to amount to about 50 institutions — would have to pay the fee even though many did not accept any taxpayer assistance and most others already paid back their government infusions.
The official said banks could pay for the tax by tapping their generous executive bonus pools. The administration official described the plan on the condition of anonymity because it had not been officially announced.
At issue is the net cost of TARP, the fund initiated by the Bush administration to help financial institutions get rid of toxic assets. The fund has since evolved, helping not only the banking sector, but also autos and homeowners.
Insurance conglomerate American International Group, the largest beneficiary with nearly $70 billion in bailouts, would have to pay the tax. But General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, whose $66 billion in government loans are not expected to be fully repaid, would not be subject to a tax.
Bankers did not hide their objections.
"Using tax policy to punish people is a bad idea," Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., told reporters even before details of the tax were known.
"It would be very hard for the industry to pay for the auto companies," Dimon added. "I mean, at one point you have to be a little fair."
The plan serves Obama in two ways — it capitalizes on public antipathy toward banks blamed for causing the crisis, and it addresses a desire to show progress toward reducing record federal deficits.
The administration official said Obama wanted to accelerate a requirement in the existing TARP law that requires the president to seek a way to recoup unrecovered money in 2013, five years after the law was enacted.
The administration is also rejecting Dimon's argument that banks should not pay for shortfalls from the auto industry. The official said the thinking is that major financial institutions were both a significant cause of the crisis and major beneficiaries of the government's rescue efforts and should thus bear the brunt of the cost.
For banks, the official said, the tax would not affect their biggest liability — insured deposits, which already are assessed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The bank levy would generate an estimated $90 billion over 10 years. It could remain in place longer, however, if needed to eliminate the shortfall. The official said that if the shortfall was eliminated within a decade, the tax would still remain in place for the full 10-year minimum.
Banks have been paying back their infusions. Any shortfall would probably come from money used to prop up AIG, to support GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy protection and to assist homeowners with their mortgages.
So far, the Treasury has given $247 billion to more than 700 banks. Of that, $162 billion has been repaid and banks have paid an additional $11 billion in interest and dividends.
In Congress, the idea was receiving a predictable partisan reaction, with Democrats embracing it and Republicans rejecting it.
"Look, the financial institutions collectively, particularly the larger ones, caused problems by their errors — their errors of judgment, their irresponsibility, in some cases their skating around dishonesty," said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass.
"I think it is entirely reasonable to say that the industry that, A, caused these problems more than any other and, B, benefited from the activity, should be contributing," he said.
Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a member of Frank's committee, ridiculed the idea. "To think that banks will loan more money if you tax them is beyond economic ignorance," he said.
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