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The Big Bite

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March 12, 2009

As President Obama’s “big bang” agenda gets underway (wherein the government is simultaneously tackling the problems of the economy, health care, education and energy) criticism of this strategy is beginning to mount.  Commentators from the conservative end of the spectrum are, not surprisingly, the most vocal in their admonitions that these other issues are detracting attention from the most pressing issue facing America and the world:  the economy.  As William Galston pointed out in The New Republic, Obama’s “big bang” strategy runs the risk of repeating Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to push a far-reaching agenda at the beginning of his term:

It is time for President Obama to focus his considerable leadership and communication skills on the financial crisis–to speak candidly with the people about the magnitude of pthe roblem, to embrace a solution commensurate with the problem, and to do whatever it takes to persuade Congress and the people to accept it.  If he does not, he could end up where another highly intelligent, self-disciplined, and upright president did three decades ago.

Conservative pundit, Tony Blankley, expressed similar dismay that not enough thought and effort have been dedicated to this urgent problem.  He added that this sentiment is not limited to those on the “far right”:

Obama not only is failing to focus more or less exclusively on protecting the financial system and the economy that depend on it but also is letting his ideological ardor drive him to expend both his own and his administration’s attention, along with the vast new tax dollars, on those programs rather than on the financial and economic crises.

Thus — and here is his political danger — if the financial system fails (and much of the economy along with it), it will be a fair, true and politically lethal charge against Obama that he didn’t do all he could as soon as he could to protect us from the catastrophe.  It was this decision that shocked even some of his moderate supporters, such as David Gergen, David Brooks and others, who are muttering in private.

And this misjudgment is only compounded by the slow and inept start of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the man who has the line responsibility to fix it and who only this past weekend got around to nominating some of his vital sub-Cabinet officials.  The failure of both Obama and Geithner, in the five months since the election, to come up with a plan to deal with the toxic assets and insolvency of major financial institutions may well look even more irresponsible than it already does if the derivatives crisis in fact hits the world.

Most of the anxiety over the Obama administration’s economic plan (or lack thereof) concerns its lack of disclosed details and the administration’s apparent decision to ignore the warnings of prominent economists about the urgency of taking the only logical action:  put the “zombie” banks through receivership to purge them of their “toxic assets” (most notably mortgage-backed securities).  The scant information disclosed about Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s Financial Stability Plan is that it involves “stress testing” the banks to determine their true financial condition and creating some sort of investment fund by which private investors would be enticed to purchase the toxic assets with taxpayer money being used to guarantee the value of those assets.

Turbo Tim has repeatedly stated that he is opposed to “nationalization” of the functionally insolvent banks.  This position is in direct opposition to the warnings of two Nobel laureates and countless other Economics professors, including Dr. Nouriel Roubini, who predicted the economic crisis back on September 7, 2006.  As Steve Coll discussed on The New Yorker‘s Think Tank blog:

To compound all this, Geithner, Bernanke, and the President seem to have organized themselves as a determined minority in resistance to the gathering view among mainstream economists, even Alan Greenspan, that the best solution to the bank problem, at this point, is, in fact, temporary receivership — on the model of the Resolution Trust Corporation that cleaned up the savings-and-loans industry in the early nineteen-nineties, or the more routine receivership processes of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  Is this resistance by Geithner, Bernanke, and the President genuine and fully determined, or is it part of the political and confidence equation above, and therefore susceptible to change?  In the President’s case, it’s hard to be sure.  In Geithner’s case, he seems to be saying what he means. Where is Larry Summers, the top White House economic adviser, on this critical question?  Also hard to tell.  Perhaps, like Alan Greenspan, he is privately leaning toward receivership; if so, his position would be complicated by the fact that his younger, former protege, Geithner, who now holds a more visible position than his own, thinks otherwise.  Anyway, the facts about the health of the banks are not yet officially in hand — that is the purpose of the “stress tests” that are now being administered, to analyze which of the country’s largest nineteen banks are in the strongest positions, and which are in the weakest.  Policy options are still being developed. The likelihood of various economic forecasts is still being debated.  And so we endure more Kremlin-like opacity.

Is Turbo Tim simply “playing it close to the chest” by holding off on announcing any plans to put zombie banks into receivership, so as to prevent a “run” on more healthy institutions and the destruction of what is left of their stock value?  Although I would like to believe that, those more knowledgeable than myself are quite skeptical.  Columbia University Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz (2001 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) pointed out in the March 29 issue of The Nation, that placing the insolvent banks into receivership must be done immediately.  The process of endless bailouts for these banks is a waste of money that appears to be solely for the benefit of the banks’ shareholders:

It has been obvious for some time that a government takeover of our banking system–perhaps along the lines of what Norway and Sweden did in the ’90s–is the only solution.  It should be done, and done quickly, before even more bailout money is wasted.
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The politicians responsible for the bailout keep saying, “We had no choice. We had a gun pointed at our heads.  Without the bailout, things would have been even worse.”  This may or may not be true, but in any case the argument misses a critical distinction between saving the banks and saving the bankers and shareholders.  We could have saved the banks but let the bankers and shareholders go.  The more we leave in the pockets of the shareholders and the bankers, the more that has to come out of the taxpayers’ pockets.
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By these standards, the TARP bailout has so far been a dismal failure. Unbelievably expensive, it has failed to rekindle lending.  Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gave the banks a big handout; what taxpayers got in return was worth less than two-thirds of what we gave the big banks–and the value of what we got has dropped precipitously since.

Since TARP facilitated the consolidation of banks, the problem of “too big to fail” has become worse, and therefore the excessive risk-taking that it engenders has grown worse.  The banks carried on paying out dividends and bonuses and didn’t even pretend to resume lending.

The most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Paul Krugman, has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of the Obama administration’s approach to this problem:

A real fix for the troubles of the banking system might help make up for the inadequate size of the stimulus plan, so it was good to hear that Mr. Obama spends at least an hour each day with his economic advisors, “talking through how we are approaching the financial markets.”  But he went on to dismiss calls for decisive action as coming from “blogs” (actually, they’re coming from many other places, including at least one president of a Federal Reserve bank), and suggested that critics want to “nationalize all the banks” (something nobody is proposing).

As I read it, this dismissal — together with the continuing failure to announce any broad plans for bank restructuring — means that the White House has decided to muddle through on the financial front, relying on economic recovery to rescue the banks rather than the other way around.  And with the stimulus plan too small to deliver an economic recovery … well, you get the picture.

Is the administration’s approach to the financial crisis being handicapped by an over-extension of resources because of the overwhelming demands of the “big bang” strategy?  Whether or not that is the case, the administration’s current solution to the bank problem is drawing criticism from both the left and the right.  If President Obama stays with the course charted by “Turbo” Tim Geithner, odds are that our new President will be restricted to a single term in The White House.

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