How I sinned (and did a couple of good things) in 2009

By Allan Sloan, senior editor at large


NEW YORK (Fortune) -- We all have our year-end rituals. Mine is to examine what I've written during the year, follow up on yesterday's hot stories that have become today's overlooked stories, and to own up to my mistakes of omission and commission.

1. TARP. Once again, I spent a disproportionate amount of time and space writing about Washington, because it's becoming the country's financial center as well as its political center.

I was wrong to predict that the government would lose money on its TARP bailout loans to Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) and Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500). BofA has repaid its loans, Citi has repaid $20 billion of them, and the government is a bit ahead on the other $25 billion, which it converted to Citi common stock at $3.25 a share.

My mistake was not realizing how much the government would continue to subsidize Wall Street, whose overreaching got us into this mess.

It never occurred to me that the Treasury would let Citi and BofA repay their bailout loans (and escape most government control) even though they're not exactly financially robust. It also never occurred to me that the Treasury would want to recycle the TARP loan repayments into other programs. Foolish me.

2. The prudent lose. It's nice to have company. I've been saying almost since the bailout started two years ago that the prudent people among us have been penalized by the way the government is bailing out imprudent borrowers and institutions. Now, competitors of mine are making the same point.

It's important to revive the economy, and low short-term rates have traditionally been the primary tool for doing that. But the Federal Reserve has gone way beyond cutting short rates. It's been trying to prop up house prices by keeping mortgage rates artificially low, and has been supporting the prices of longer-term securities by buying vast amounts of them.

This has clobbered retired people who are trying to live off interest income to supplement Social Security. So these retirees either have to reduce their standard of living, eat into principal, or take more risk to keep their income up. Not a way to reward lifetime savers.

3. Regulation. I was right to be skeptical about the "populism" in Washington. The Obama administration and Congress have beaten up on the worker-bee types at places like AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) and Wall Street investment houses, and are shrieking about bonuses that in many cases are really part of base pay. But the government got the pay czar to give the designee of its choice a $10.5 million annual contract to run AIG, and will doubtless cut deals for high-level hires at places like Chrysler.

Meanwhile, there's no serious move afoot to break up the "too big to fail" institutions so they won't be too big to fail in the future. So these institutions, some bailed out directly by the government, others bailed out when the government bailed out the world financial system, will go merrily on their way. Until the next crisis, when taxpayers will rescue them again.

The proposal to make hedge fund and private equity fund managers pay a full tax on their piece of their investors' income has gone nowhere. So these fees are still considered lightly-taxable capital gains rather than fully-taxable fee income.

It's the same-old, same-old: the really big players, the ones who contribute so much to campaigns and wield real power, are barely touched while upper-middle-income and small rich types get whacked.

4. The market. At least I got the stock market right. In late 2007, with stocks in free fall, I said that it was time to consider buying stocks, provided you had staying power and a six- or seven-year time horizon. (In fact, I did just that with my own money, and have recovered much of what I lost in 2008 and early 2009.) Through Monday, the Wilshire 5000 index was up $3.1 trillion, or 28%, for the year, according to Wilshire Associates. If stocks end the year where they closed on Monday, the dollar gain would be the biggest ever, following the biggest-dollar-loss year, 2008.

With the market so much higher, stocks are a bigger risk than they were a year ago. What will the market do this year? Would that I knew.

5. Next year: In August, I predicted that Social Security would be the big story of 2010. We'll come back in a year, and see if I was right.

Meanwhile, a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year to you and yours. To top of page