Citigroup Tops List of Bailed-Out Banks

With a whopping $476.2 billion, Citigroup (NYSE:CITI) trumped the nation’s top banks in receiving the most funds from the federal government during the recession in its effort to avert bankruptcy, according to the final report by the Congressional Oversight Panel.

According to the panel, which tallied up the total amount of aid each bank received during the financial crisis, Citi took in $50 billion from the government’s TARP programs, $73.6 billion from FDIC programs and $125.3 billion from the various Federal Reserve liquidity programs.

Rounding out the top five were Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), which received a total of $336.1 billion in aid, Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS), which took in $135 billion, J.P. Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), which racked up $129.6 billion, and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) with $107.2 billion.

The panel, which is dissolving this week, was created in 2008 in the aftermath of the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to provide public accountability for the TARP program. The panel was to be terminated six months after the expiration of TARP authority.

Looking back, the recession, while wrenching, did not fall to the levels of the Great Depression, according to the panel, though it did leave taxpayers in a financial rut. The Congressional Budget Office estimated on Wednesday that TARP will cost taxpayers $25 billion.

TARP’s expense didn’t hit the $356 billion originally predicted, though this was mostly due to failed programs that never took off, such as its foreclosure prevention programs.

“Viewed from this perspective, the TARP will cost less than expected in part because it will accomplish far less than envisioned for American homeowners,” the panel said in the report. Though, more optimistically, strides toward economic recovery also kept costs lower, according to the panel, which noted that if the financial system suffered another shock on the road to recovery, “taxpayers would have faced staggering losses.”

While the Congressional Oversight Panel did not give TARP full credit for averting a Great Depression-level disaster, it did commend the program and other government efforts for providing “critical support to markets at a moment of profound uncertainty.”

The government achieved this not only by providing desperately demanded capital to banks, but by “demonstrating that the United States would take any action necessary to prevent the collapse of its financial system.”

Despite its benefits however, the bailout may have created moral hazard, where large financial institutions rationally decide to take inflated risks with the expectations that taxpayers will bear the loss if their gamble fails. The panel also expressed concern that the bailouts only underscore the reality of “too big to fail” banks.

“At the height of the financial crisis, 18 very large financial institutions received $208.6 billion in TARP funding almost overnight, in many cases without having to apply for funding or to demonstrate an ability to repay taxpayers,” the panel said. “In light of these events, it is not surprising that markets have assumed that ‘too big to fail’ banks are safer than their ‘small enough to fail’ counterparts.”

Credit rating agencies have since adjusted to that mentality, making it more expensive for smaller banks to borrow relative to larger institutions that are virtually guaranteed by the government.

“Ironically,” the panel said, “these inflated risks may create even greater systemic risk and increase the likelihood of future crises and bailouts.”