By L. Randall Wray, Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Research Director with the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability and Senior Research Scholar at The Levy Economics Institute, who writes for New Deal 2.0.
There is a growing consensus that it is time for President Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. While he is at it, he needs to clean house by firing Larry Summers, by banning Robert Rubin from Washington, and by appointing a replacement for Chairman Bernanke. It is time for a fresh start.
Geithner is facing renewed scrutiny due to his questionable actions while at the NYFed. As reported on Bloomberg and in the NYT, secret emails show that the NYFed under Geithner’s command prohibited AIG from reporting that it was passing government bail-out funds directly to counterparties, including Goldman Sachs. AIG had been negotiating with the banks, asking them to take as little as 40 cents on the dollar against bad CDOs they held. AIG was the biggest insurer in the country and had provided $62 billion of credit default “insurance” to these banks. The CDOs went bad and AIG could not cover claims. It was forced into insolvency and the government came to the rescue, with $182 billion of bailout funds through last June. By all rights, its counterparties should have lost big on their bad bets. Apparently, Geithner arranged the bailout of AIG with full knowledge that it would pass the bailout funds directly to the banks. Whether or not some protection should have been provided to the banks, it clearly was not good public policy to provide dollar-for-dollar protection to them. If you are a favored Wall Street bank, no bet can go bad!
Geithner’s relations with Wall Street bankers have always been incestuous, raising serious questions about his intentions. Note that Geithner worked with then Treasury Secretary Paulson to broker the AIG deal. Paulson, of course, had been the CEO of Goldman. Geithner is the protégé of Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Rubin, also from Goldman, and he got his job at the NYFed through the efforts of Pete Peterson. In addition to the AIG deal, Geithner had the NYFed provide $29 billion of funding for J.P Morgan Chase’s hostile takeover of Bear Stearns. In the deal, the NYFed got $30 billion of questionable collateral. Geithner hired Blackrock in a no-bid contract to manage these assets. Blackrock is a spin-off of Pete Peterson’s Blackstone Group, and was 49% owned by Merrill Lynch, headed by John Thain (another Goldman alum). As head of the NYFed, Geithner’s closest advisors were Thain, William McDonough (Vice Chairman at Merrill), Gerald Corrigan (Managing Director at Goldman), Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan), and Richard Fuld of Lehman’s. The head of the NYFed’s Board of Directors was Stephen Friedman, former Goldman Sachs Chairman. As Gary Weiss put it back in 2008, “Thus Geithner reports to a board that is composed of people who are not only under his purview but would also benefit from any potential bailouts. The structure of the New York Fed’s board bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the New York Stock Exchange in the bad old days, when member firms, regulated by the N.Y.S.E., were heavily represented on its board”. The AIG deal seems to have been business as usual for Geithner.
According to Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, “It appears that the New York Fed deliberately pressured AIG to restrict and delay the disclosure of important information to the S.E.C.”. Not only did Geithner want to keep this information from the public, but also from fellow regulators. (Whoops, Geithner admitted he was never a regulator while at the NYFed.) Indeed, at the time, Geithner refused to even tell Congress who the counterparties were-until overwhelming pressure required that he release the names. This smells fishy because it is.
The Fed’s justification for such secrecy was that it was trying to preserve the value of the taxpayer’s investment in AIG. (Vice President Donald Kohn explicitly made this argument before the Senate.) But that is nonsense-there was no value to preserve. This was just a give-away to protect Goldman and other counterparties. Later when AIG’s executives demanded that compensation limits be lifted so that they could get their bonuses, Geithner came to their rescue, arguing that contracts are contracts no matter how putrid they might appear. We now know that the executives were demanding cash rather than stocks in their own firm because they expect the stocks will prove to be worthless-they are managing a firm that will never have any value and they know it. This is something Geithner refuses to tell the public.
Remember, this is the same guy who “forgot” to pay his taxes. Worse, he improperly claimed a tax deduction for a summer camp for his kids. He is ethically challenged. Should he be running the Treasury?
More important than such blunders, however, is that Geithner’s policies are not working. As Republican Congressman Brady of Texas put it, “Conservatives agree that, as point person, you’ve failed. Liberals are growing in that consensus as well. Poll after poll shows the public has lost confidence in this president’s ability to handle the economy. For the sake of our jobs, will you step down from your post?” here Today’s employment figures show that rather than a recovery, our economy is still hemorrhaging jobs at a scary pace. While the payroll number was down “only” 85,000 jobs, the household survey was down 589,000 for December. Over the past three months we have lost an average of 325,000 jobs. And that is in spite of the fiscal stimulus as well as the trillions of bail-out funds provided to the financial sector. We are at least 26 million jobs short. Even if the job losses stopped, real recovery will require job creation on a massive scale. The problem is that Congress, and the public, no longer has sufficient faith in the Administration to provide new funding-and the stimulus will soon run out. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon put it this way: “We may have to sacrifice just two more jobs to get millions back for Americans.”
Of course it is not quite that simple, but it is a first step.
We need an economic team that recognizes the following:
1. Banks do not face a liquidity crisis, rather they are massively insolvent. Reported profits are due entirely to trading activities-which amount to nothing more than a game of Old Maid, with institutions selling bad assets to each other at inflated prices on a quid-pro-quo basis. As such, they need to be shut down and resolved. Geithner is not the right person to head such an effort because his past resolutions have always been designed to protect Wall Street, not Mainstreet.
2. Saving financial institutions does not save the economy. The financialization of the economy promoted by Greenspan and Rubin has led to a financial sector that is at least three orders of magnitude too big. If anything, all the efforts directed toward saving Wall Street have only made the economy more fragile. Another financial crash is inevitable because the financial system is still too large to be supported by the economy-even if the economy could recover. We need a Treasury Secretary who recognizes that the best course of action is to downsize the financial system. Geithner is not that guy.
3. As such, all of the bail-outs and guarantees provided to financial institutions (over $20 trillion) need to be unwound. Not because we cannot “afford” them but because they are dangerous. Unfortunately, Congress has come to see all of these trillions of dollars committed to Wall Street as a barrier to spending more on Mainstreet. Thus, even if the Wall Street bail-outs were not dangerous, they need to be reversed to generate fiscal policy space for another economic stimulus package. It will not be easy to convince Congress that the solution to our economic crisis is more government spending. And Geithner is not the Treasury Secretary to lead such an effort because he has lost the confidence of Congress and the public.
4. Finally, we need an economic team that understands government finance. The current team is hopelessly confused, led and misguided by Robert Rubin. He thinks government is nothing but a big household, which must balance its budget. He continues to believe that the Clinton boom was due to federal budget surpluses, not recognizing that it was actually due to an unsustainable boom of household borrowing. Indeed, as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, he oversaw the creation of the conditions that led to this current crisis. The new team must have no connection to Rubin (or Pete Peterson) and his anti-deficit hysteria. The Great Depression of the 1930s only ended with the massive spending of WWII, when the budget deficit reached 25% of GDP. Our current situation is not yet that severe, and it is likely that a sustained recovery can be obtained long before the budget deficit reaches such a level. However, the longer that Geithner, Summers, Bernanke, and Rubin remain in charge, the greater the probability that this could still turn into another Great Depression.