Yalman Onaran and Michael McKee, Bloomberg News
It was 2004 and Tim Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, had a message for the Federal Open Market Committee in Washington. He told his 18 colleagues gathered around the long mahogany table that a clearinghouse was needed to monitor risks in the burgeoning $5 trillion market for credit-default swaps — the over-the-counter derivatives that would later spin out of control and help take down Wall Street.
In a move that may have foreshadowed his role as President Barack Obama’s Treasury secretary, Geithner over the next two years nudged financial firms to voluntarily clear a backlog of swap trades. They stopped short of creating a clearinghouse to bring more transparency to the market.
“Geithner was making noise on reining in derivatives, but he didn’t push hard enough,” says Jane D’Arista, a former economist at the Congressional Budget Office in Washington and a longtime Fed observer. “Maybe he’ll be more forceful now that he’s in a position with real power. But I’m not so sure.”
From his years as a Dartmouth College student and mid-level Treasury official through his stint at the New York Fed, Geithner, 47, has thrived as a backroom negotiator and conciliator. Now, as he struggles to rescue Wall Street from a crisis that happened on his regulatory watch, investors and economists question whether the 75th Treasury secretary can transform himself into a bold leader equal to the challenges ahead.
Wall Street executives have cheered Geithner’s nomination.
“Treasury Secretary Geithner possesses the intelligence and experience needed to partner with President Obama and his economic team to lead us to a recovery,” says Robert Wolf, head of UBS AG’s Americas unit based in Stamford, Connecticut.
The rookie secretary has already learned that the honeymoon won’t last long. After Geithner presented a $2.5 trillion financial rescue plan on Feb. 10, the Dow Jones Industrials tumbled 4.6 percent because investors found it bereft of details. Geithner also gave no indication that he would act quickly to dismantle the weakest of the banks, a move that Joseph Mason, a former bank regulator who teaches finance at Louisiana State University, says he should take now.
Japan prolonged its credit crunch and recession for almost a decade before it finally nationalized two of its biggest banks, the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan and Nippon Credit Bank, in 1998.
“The key to all our problems is the zombie banks,” Mason says. “We’re giving them money, which is not going to solve anything. We’re repeating the mistakes of Japan, which wasted a decade by not moving decisively against its zombie banks.”
No Treasury secretary since Henry Morgenthau, who served from 1934 to ‘45 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, has faced so many crises at once. After receiving $800 billion in loans, guarantees and capital injections since October, the financial industry is still hunkered down, unwilling or unable to put the wind back into the sails of capitalism. Geithner played a role in shaping the $787 billion stimulus plan, and now he and Lawrence Summers, head of the National Economic Council, must recommend to President Obama whether to give General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC an additional $14 billion in loans on top of the $17.4 billion Bush administration bailout or force them into bankruptcy. At the White House, the new Treasury secretary may have to compete for the president’s attention with Summers, his former mentor, and Paul Volcker, who has been clamoring for more power as chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board.
Geithner’s strengths — his methodical style and bureaucratic savvy — were honed over 21 years in government, as he dealt with crises from Asia to New York.
“He really understands process and decision making and how to advance an agenda,” says Michael Froman, who was former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s chief of staff. “Some people are just better at it than others, not just having the big idea but breaking it down into the several dozen steps that need to make it work. That’s Tim.”
The Treasury secretary’s experience at the New York Fed from 2003 to ‘08 gave him an inside view of Wall Street that will help him choose the best remedies for today’s crisis, says Alex Pollock, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a former president of the Chicago Federal Home Loan Bank. “He’s very well qualified,” Pollock says.
‘He’s Not Change’
Note from Allison: This is Joseph Stiglitz. He’s the most cited economist in the world, a Nobel Laureate, and the guy who first price-tagged the Iraq war at $3 trillion. As you’ve probably already gathered, he’s a genius. Also, he’s smart, which is different than genius because it means he possesses the gift of “breakin’ it down,” and speaking simply so we mortals can understand him.
He very clearly explains why Obama has devised a plan to help the banks, and not the bankers, and he also details what we need to do in order to change our financial system. Well worth the watching.
Watch the videos here.