First of the TARP money repaid

Four small banks became the first to return millions of dollars of emergency aid, and more may soon follow as the industry tries to escape what it considers the onerous conditions attached to the government’s money.

Signature Bank of New York said on Tuesday that it had repaid $120 million to the Treasury Department. Old National Bancorp of Indiana returned $100 million, Iberiabank of Louisiana paid back $90 million, and Bank of Marin Bancorp of Novato, Calif., repaid $28 million. All of the banks paid 5 percent interest on the money they had received.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) is a program of the United States government to purchase assets and equity from financial institutions in order to strengthen its financial sector. It is the largest component of the government's measures in 2008 to address the subprime mortgage crisis.

TARP allows the United States Department of the Treasury to purchase or insure up to $700 billion of "troubled" assets. "Troubled assets" are defined as "(A) residential or commercial mortgages and any securities, obligations, or other instruments that are based on or related to such mortgages, that in each case was originated or issued on or before March 14, 2008, the purchase of which the Secretary determines promotes financial market stability; and (B) any other financial instrument that the Secretary, after consultation with the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, determines the purchase of which is necessary to promote financial market stability, but only upon transmittal of such determination, in writing, to the appropriate committees of Congress."

In short, this allows the Treasury to purchase nonliquid, difficult-to-value assets from banks and other financial institutions. The targeted assets can be collateralized debt obligations, which were sold in a booming market until 2007 when they were hit by widespread foreclosures on the underlying loans. TARP is intended to improve the liquidity of these assets by purchasing them using secondary market mechanisms, thus allowing participating institutions to stabilize their balance sheets and avoid further losses.