The news came Tuesday afternoon that Bank of America will repay the $45 billion it received as part of the U.S. government's Troubled Asset Relief Program. BOA's move might be a good sign for the recovering housing market and the overall economy.
First, it signals that the nation's largest mortgage lender has gotten itself back into decent shape. Whether that means more lending to home buyers remains to be seen, but it stands to reason that a healthier bank is in a better position to lend money.
Think of it this way: Would you rather have the nation's largest mortgage lender able to repay $45 billion or have it buckling under the weight of its acquisition of Merrill Lynch, which was in such bad shape that BOA hinted at backing out of the merger.
Although it's true that the move HAS to have something to do with its search for a CEO to replace out-going chief Ken Lewis -- the repayment will get BOA out from under the government's restrictions on CEO compensation -- the move is also good news for a couple of other obvious reasons.
First, the bank plans to raise capital to help pay for the repayment. This means selling stocks, which means it's counting on investors to be confident enough to pony up. And investors, as the bank probably hoped, are showing confidence already. Shares of BOA stock went up 2.2 percent after the announcement. Shares are around $16 after having hit a low of little more than $3 in March.
The second part of good news is that it would appear the government's moves to shore up the financial industry last year were the right ones. By helping to prop up BOA, which acquired Merrill and Countrywide Financial, the government helped the financial sector avert further meltdown. Yes, the $700 billion TARP was painful spending of taxpayers' dollars, but in hindsight, it appears to have been vital to the economy's overall health.
"We appreciate the critical role that the U.S. government played last fall in helping to stabilize financial markets," Lewis remarked in a BOA news release.
Now, some critics will argue that this repayment will be bad for consumers -- that the repayment will lift some restrictions on the company imposed by the government on banks that received TARP money. True, it will again let BOA decide on its own executive pay and bonuses -- topics that got big banks in hot water -- but the repayment will leave in place an element that is probably more important.
BOA, even in repayment, will have to maintain higher capital levels required by the government of all institutions receiving TARP money. Not having enough capital on hand -- banks were much less restricted earlier this decade -- is what got financial institutions in trouble when the credit crunch hit. And not-good-enough capital levels are blows to a bank's ability to lend money.
That the country's biggest mortgage bank is strong enough to repay its TARP money, is able to raise the money to do it and that it will be able to maintain healthy capital levels are good signs for the tight credit market.