The Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is said to be on the ropes again -— as if there weren’t a period in his bizarre two years as the country’s economic point man that he hasn’t been. But this time, I’m told, it’s pretty real; annoyed that he isn’t doing enough to force banks to modify mortgages and keep people who should have never been able to “buy” homes in them, left-leaning Dems in the House are calling for his head.
Republicans are not so crazy about him either -— this is, after all, one of the point-men in charge of making sure the $800 billion stimulus package worked, which by most account it hasn’t. Throw in the messy fact that even though he has never worked a day on Wall Street, Geithner’s biggest constituency is the banking business, where his connections to the fat-cats run long and deep: He’s been aiding and abetting their risk-taking for at least the past decade, much of it as the president of the New York Fed, and now in his role as Treasury Secretary.
Says one Wall Street executive with ties to the Obama White House, who knows and likes Geithner: “For better or worse, Tim is a lightening rod because of his connections to the Street, and that’s why he probably won’t last beyond the mid-term elections” in the fall.
Why wait until the end of the year? It’s difficult for the administration to get rid of him now that Congress is grappling with a new regulatory structure for the financial industry, including the so-called Volcker Rule -— the plan proposed by one of Obama’s other economic advisers, Paul Volcker, to limit the type of risk-taking that caused the financial collapse and the Great Recession.
Obama embraced Volcker’s plan after Republican Scott Brown won Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat, a sign that the country has begun to associate Obama with the Wall Street fat-cats earning billions in bonuses while Main Street suffers with high unemployment. Never mind that the Rule -— at least as articulated by Volcker himself -— doesn’t really address the root-cause of the crisis, namely, the various government bailouts of risk-taking that led firms to take larger and larger risks.
Geithner for his part is needed to prod Congress along, and in the words of one Wall Street senior executive, make the Rule as bearable as possible.
“Bearable” for Wall Street means narrowing the definition of so-called proprietary trading. Volcker has said publicly that he intends to eliminate banks’ ability to risk their own capital in trading stocks and bonds if the financial institution is considered “systemically important,” or so important to the financial system that if it failed because of a bad market bet, the government (aka taxpayers) would have to bail it out, similarly to what happened in 2008. Geithner is said to favor the more narrow definition of prop trading than Volcker, meaning Wall Street would be free and clear to do much of what it does now.
There is even talk in Washington of an internecine battle between Geithner and Volcker, the former Fed chairman and one of the great economists of the last 30 years, over how best to define prop trading. The betting on Wall Street is that Geithner will ultimately win, and not because he can persuade Obama to back off bank bashing during a political year; Getting Congress to agree on a comprehensive bank regulatory overall is like herding cats. Despite some recent bipartisan work between Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd and Republican Bob Corker on a bill, there appears to be broad disagreement on just how much of a role government should play in the banking business. In other words, Geithner will win by default.
And then, most people I speak to on Wall Street and on Capital Hill believe, we won’t have Tim Geithner to kick around any more. As I said it has been a strange two years since he came to office. The markets rallied when he was announced as Obama’s choice to run Treasury on the notion that continuity is good -— at least Obama wasn’t selecting Bill Ayers to run the economy.
The markets then tanked when Geithner announced a half-hearted attempt to rid the banking system of toxic assets. His stewardship of the economy has been pretty dismal, at least on paper. He goes before Congress often as a sacrificial lamb, having to explain why Wall Street bonuses are surging as the construction industry -— the alleged beneficiary of all those “shovel ready” projects the stimulus package was supposed to create -— is suffering from 20%-plus unemployment.
Then there are all those emails about his time as NY Fed president back in 2008, when the agency agreed to spend nearly $200 billion to bail out insurance giant AIG, and in so doing transferred billions of dollars of that bailout money to Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, which purchased from AIG insurance on their toxic assets.
Geithner has said he was largely out of the loop on the AIG bailout because he was preparing to become Treasury Secretary -— thus he didn’t really know his friends at Goldman were getting a back-door bailout. By bailing out AIG, the government was in effect guaranteeing the full value of those toxic assets, which if Goldman had to mark down to their depressed market value, would have made the firm insolvent, or pretty close to it.
Maybe so, but no one I know seems to believe him.
So the thinking goes, that when he does leave, Geithner will get some cushy job on Wall Street, perhaps even Goldman Sachs. If he does, it will be payback for a job well done, at least as far as Wall Street is concerned.