Surprise! the big bad bailout is paying off

The U. S. government’s often maligned $14 trillion intervention not only staved off global collapse – but is making money.

With Doris Burke

FORTUNE – The bailout of the financial system is roughly as popular as Wall Street bonuses, the federal budget deficit, or LeBron James in a Cleveland sports bar. You hear over and over that the bailout was a disaster, it cost taxpayers a fortune, we didn’t really need it, it didn’t work, it was a failure. It has become politically toxic, which inhibits reasoned public discussion about it.

But you know what? The bailout, by the numbers, clearly did work. Not only did it forestall a worldwide financial meltdown, but a Fortune analysis shows that U. S. taxpayers are coming out ahead on it – by at least $40 billion, and possibly by as much as $100 billion eventually. This is our count for the entire bailout, not just the 3% represented by the massively unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program. Yes, that’s right – TARP is only about 3% of the bailout, even though it gets about 97% of the attention.

A key reason for the rescue’s profitability is that the Federal Reserve System has already turned over more than $100 billion of bailout-related income to the Treasury, and is on track to turn over $85 billion more this year and next. That’s not something most people include in their math. On the negative side, we’re including what may be the first overall cost calculation of a special tax break that’s worth tens of billions of dollars to four big bailout recipients. And, of course, we’ve analyzed reports from the Congressional Budget Office, the Treasury, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and other sources.

We’ll get to the detailed numbers in a bit. But for now, we’d like to remind you why the bailout exists. The revisionist idea that the bailout is the problem – rather than excesses in the financial system

– is simply stunning to those of us who watched the financial crisis surface in 2007, when two Bear Stearns hedge funds speculating in mortgage securities collapsed, and reach a crescendo in September 2008, when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. Many in the financial world applauded Washington’s decision to let Lehman go under – but that applause was quickly replaced by fear as unanticipated consequences of the bankruptcy surfaced.

Lehman’s collapse touched off a terrifying run on money market mutual funds when the Reserve Primary Fund announced it could pay holders only 97¢ on the dollar because of Lehman-related losses. Savers who’d considered money funds as safe as federally insured bank deposits stampeded for the exits, pulling out hundreds of billions of dollars. It took federal guarantees of more than $3 trillion of money market fund balances – bailout! – to stop this modern-day bank run.

Some hedge funds that used Lehman’s London office as their “prime broker” had their assets frozen, setting off a run on prime brokers Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS) as U. S. hedge funds pulled out their assets to avoid getting frozen if either firm failed. Goldman and Morgan were close to running out of cash when the government saved them by making them bank companies with access to the Fed’s lending facilities. Bailout! Bailout! GE Capital (GE) was having trouble rolling over its borrowings, and was rescued by a government guarantee program. Bailout! Then there was American International Group, the now infamous AIG (AIG), which required a 12-figure rescue.

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Surprise! the big bad bailout is paying off