Geithner’s Flip-Flop: The Untold Story


Tim Geithner spent 19 months hammering out his plan for how to save the banking system. Then, at the last minute, after realising that the whole thing was a gigantic, fabulously expensive hairball, he junked it. 

So now we’re back to square one.

Neil Irwin and Binyamin Applebaum, Washington Post:

Just days before Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner was scheduled to lay out his much-anticipated plan to deal with the toxic assets imperiling the financial system, he and his team made a sudden about-face.

According to several sources involved in the deliberations, Geithner had come to the conclusion that the strategies he and his team had spent weeks working on were too expensive, too complex and too risky for taxpayers.

They needed an alternative and found it in a previously considered initiative to pair private investments and public loans to try to buy the risky assets and take them off the books of banks. There was one problem: They didn’t have enough time to work out many details or consult with others before the plan was supposed to be unveiled…

At the centre of the deliberations with Geithner were Lawrence H. Summers… Lee Sachs, a Clinton administration official…. and Gene Sperling, another former Clinton aide. The debates among them were long and vigorous as they thrashed countless proposals and variations. Sometimes, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila C. Bair and Comptroller of the Currency John C. Dugan joined in…

Senior economic officials had several approaches in mind, according to officials involved in the discussions. One would be to create an “aggregator bank,” or bad bank, that would take government capital and use it to buy up the risky assets on banks’ books. Another approach would be to offer banks a government guarantee against extreme losses on their assets, an approach already used to bolster Citigroup and Bank of America.

As the first week of February progressed, however, the problems with both approaches were becoming clearer to Geithner, said people involved in the talks. For one thing, the government would likely have to put trillions of dollars in taxpayer money at risk, a sum so huge it would anger members of Congress. Officials were also concerned that the program would be criticised as a pure giveaway to bank shareholders. And, finally, there continued to be the problem that had bedeviled the Bush administration’s efforts to tackle toxic assets: There was little reason to believe government officials would be able to price these assets in a way that gave taxpayers a good deal.

By Wednesday, Feb. 4, Geithner was leaning toward a different approach that his former colleagues at the Federal Reserve had developed months earlier, the source said. This involved a joint public-private fund to buy up the assets. Private investors, likely hedge funds and private-equity funds, would put up capital, and the government would loan money to the fund. If the private investors made wise decisions about which assets they bought, they would be able to pay back the government and make money for themselves…  

And if the private investors made dumb decisions, hey, no worries–the taxpayer would pick up the tab. (Our assumption).  (Keep reading >)

Geithner had 19 months to work through this and the problems only became clear in the first week of February?

Here’s a simpler plan: Temporary receivership and restructuring.  Fast, simple, effective.  And, most importantly, it works.