Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and federal bank regulators have been conducting what they call “stress tests” of the nation’s 19 largest banks. Yet the biggest test is the one confronting Geithner himself and ultimately President Obama: Are they willing to abandon the ruinous policy of propping up major institutions that should be dismantled while simultaneously spending large sums of taxpayer funds to buy stakes in healthier banks that don’t need or want that government involvement?
The sad truth is that Obama’s financial policy is as incoherent as that of the previous administration. It veers between tough talk and complete coddling of the banks. In the case of the stress tests, the results of which are expected to be released early next month, Geithner has put himself in an impossible bind. If all the banks are deemed to have passed the test, the exercise will be seen as meaningless. If any fail, there will be pressure on the Administration to take them over—something Geithner seems dead set against.
And how will Geithner’s desire to use yet more public money to shore up the banks—whether through subsidized purchases of their toxic assets or additional capital infusions—play against a backdrop of rebounding earnings in the financial sector? JPMorgan Chase just announced a healthy profit of $2.1 billion in the first quarter, which followed a $3 billion posting by Wells Fargo and $1.7 billion by Goldman Sachs. Even struggling Citigroup managed to net $1.6 billion for the three-month period.
Like his predecessor Henry Paulson, Geithner believes that in order to avoid stigmatizing truly needy large banks the federal government has to give assistance to all of them. Sticking to that position has made Treasury look foolish as institutions such as Goldman and JP Morgan loudly proclaim their intention to buy back the federal government’s stakes in their firms, as some smaller institutions have already done. Large banks are reported to be urging the Administration to curtail new aid linked to stress test results.
To make matters worse, evidence continues to emerge that the fundamental objective of the bank bailout—freeing up credit for households and businesses—is not being met. Loan volume by the big bailed out banks continues to decline, while large institutions such as Bank of America are boosting their credit card interest rates. It is also telling that within the financial results just announced by JPMorgan, the sector of its business with the most dramatic profit growth was investment banking. In other words, it is making a lot more money from deals and securities than from lending. The same held for Citigroup.
If the “teabag” protestors who rallied around the country this week had any sense, they would have focused on the bank bailout rather than mounting a pointless attack on the validity of the income tax. The question is whether liberals and progressives, who may support Obama on many other issues, will seriously challenge his wrong-headed approach toward the financial crisis.
Note: If you are looking for a handy guide to the bewildering list of federal handouts to the financial sector, check out Pro Publica’s new Eye on the Bailout website.