WASHINGTON - It's something any bank would demand to know before handing out a loan: Where's the money going?
But after receiving billions in aid from U.S. taxpayers, the nation's largest banks say they cannot track exactly how they're spending the money - or they simply refuse to discuss it.
"We've lent some of it. We've not lent some of it. We've not given any accounting of, 'Here's how we're doing it,' " said Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase & Co., which received $25 billion in emergency bailout money in October as part of the $700 billion financial rescue approved by Congress. "We have not disclosed that to the public. We're declining to."
The Associated Press contacted 21 banks that received at least $1 billion each in government money and asked four questions: How much has been spent? What was it spent on? How much is being held in savings, and what's the plan for the rest?
None of the banks provided specific answers.
"We're not providing dollar-in, dollar-out tracking," said Barry Koling, a spokesman for SunTrust Banks Inc., the Atlanta bank that got $3.5 billion in taxpayer money.
Some banks said they simply did not know where the money was going.
"We manage our capital in its aggregate," said Regions Financial Corp. spokesman Tim Deighton, who said the Birmingham, Ala., company was not tracking how it was spending the $3.5 billion it received.
The answers highlight the secrecy surrounding the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which earmarked $700 billion - about the size of the Netherlands' economy - to help rescue the financial industry. The Treasury Department has been using the money to buy stock in U.S. banks, hoping that the sudden inflow of cash will get banks to start lending money.
There has been no accounting of how banks spend that money.
Lawmakers summoned bank executives to Capitol Hill in November and implored them to lend the money - not to hoard it or spend it on corporate bonuses, junkets or acquisitions. But there is no process in place to make sure that is happening, and there are no consequences for banks that do not comply.
"It is entirely appropriate for the American people to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent in private industry," said Elizabeth Warren, the top congressional watchdog overseeing the financial bailout.
But, at least for now, there is no way for taxpayers to find that out.
Pressured by the Bush administration to approve the money quickly, Congress attached few strings on the bailout. And the Treasury Department, which doles out the money, never asked banks how it would be spent.
"Those are legitimate questions that should have been asked on Day One," said Rep. Scott Garrett (R., N.J.), a House Financial Services Committee member who opposed the bailout as it was rushed through Congress.
Nearly every bank AP questioned - including Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp., two of the largest recipients of bailout money - responded with generic statements explaining that the money was being used to strengthen balance sheets and continue making loans to ease the credit crisis.
A few banks described company-specific programs, such as JPMorgan Chase's plan to lend $5 billion to nonprofit and health-care companies next year.
But no bank provided even the most basic accounting for the federal money.