The Two Tim Geithners

Will the real Timothy Geithner please stand up? In recent days it has seemed as if two men with the same name are serving as Secretary of the Treasury. On the one hand, we have the wimpy Tim Geithner, who let AIG get away with its bonus outrage and who has come up with a new scheme to get rid of toxic assets of banks that is a massive giveaway to hedge funds. On the other hand, this week has seen the lionhearted Tim Geithner, who is proposing what appears to be an audacious expansion of federal regulation of financial markets.

The wimpy version has been around for quite a while, characterizing the Geithner who headed the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for five years before he was chosen for Treasury. A look through the online archive of the New York Fed turns up the texts of numerous speeches in which Geithner acted as a cheerleader for the forms of financial “innovation” that paved the way to the current calamity of the world economy. Geithner was not oblivious to the escalation of risk that derivatives and the like were creating, but he expressed confidence that the system could accommodate it. At most, some tinkering with the regulatory structure might be necessary.

For example, in a May 2006 speech to the Bond Market Association, Geithner stated: “The efficiency, dynamism and resilience of the financial system are strategic assets for [the] U.S. economy.  The relatively favorable performance of the U.S. financial system is the result both of the wisdom of past choices made to foster a very open and competitive financial system, but also is the result of good fortune and some of the special advantages that have come from the unique role of the United States and the dollar in the world economy and financial system.”

Later in the same speech, he suggests that “we need to be creative in identifying areas where market-led initiatives, rather than new laws, regulations or formal supervisory guidance, are likely to be successful and possibly more efficient in achieving certain policy objectives.”

Compare this to the Tim Geithner who just told the House Financial Services Committee that “our system failed in basic fundamental ways…To address this will require comprehensive reform.  Not modest repairs at the margin, but new rules of the game.” These rules would: give the feds the power to seize failing non-bank entities, create a kind of super-regulator to oversee all large financial entities, impose stronger capital requirements, tighten hedge fund registration requirements, extend regulation to credit default swaps and over-the-counter derivatives, etc.

All these proposed measures are welcome and long overdue, but they may not go far enough. Perhaps what we have here is the wimpy Geithner only giving the appearance of being bold. The Treasury Secretary (and presumably the Administration) would have us believe that banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions can continue gambling with other people’s money as long as they put more of it aside in reserves, act in a somewhat more transparent manner and pay more attention to risk management.

If there were a truly intrepid Geithner, he would be talking about regulations that put an end to the most speculative financial transactions, rebuild a wall between commercial banking and investment banking, and dismantle huge financial institutions such as Citigroup. That Geithner has yet to appear on the scene.

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