Can someone please explain what Timothy Geithner really thinks about Wall Street? Today we get completely mixed messages from the Treasury about financial reform.
One the one hand, The New York Post and Bloomberg reported that the Treasury has succeeded in getting the White House to drop the so-called Volcker Rule, the proposal that is named after the administration's chief proponent, Obama advisor and former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, and would force banks that get deposit insurance to shed their proprietary trading operations and other speculative businesses.
On the other hand, the Washington Post quotes the Treasury secretary as insisting that financial reform is necessary to prevent another financial crisis.
Which is it, Tim? Sure, he would insist that he is seeking more authority to unwind banks that are too big to fail. But that's not reform. That's the opposite if it's not accompanied by the Volcker Rule and a tougher stance on over-the-counter derivatives than the administration has pursued to date (the latter would make the consumer protection agency the administration is also proposing less necessary, but it won't hurt to have that either.)
In fact, resolution authority without the other measures amounts to a license for moral hazard, since the last thing regulators will want to do is unwind banks that are in trouble. That's because the Treasury and other bank regulators will be driven by the same fear that has paralyzed them to date: They're scared of upsetting Mister Market.
But of course, when Mister Market calls the tune, asset prices cannot fall even if they're overvalued. So perhaps the Treasury thinks we can simply re-inflate another bubble. That's wishful thinking at best, and Geithner strikes us as too smart to indulge in that. At least we hope so.
Yes, there's the corollary argument that the economy needs banks to make fat profits so it can grease its wheels. But that's not happening despite all manner of taxpayer funds shoveled its way, as one Fed loan officers' survey after another has shown.
And if it were really the economy that Geithner is so concerned about, there's a convincing case for having the government spend money on infrastructure and school repair and investment in mass transit instead of giving it to Wall Street. Ah, but it's too late for that, evidently.
That suggests that Geithner's actions are purely political. Indeed, he seems to be calling for reform that has no teeth purely so as not to be accused of kowtowing to the banks, when that's exactly what he's doing by undermining Tall Paul's position.
To be fair, Geithner may simply be acknowledging the political reality that banks have too much power to get real reform enacted over opposition in Congress. But if that's the case, why doesn't he say that instead of pretending to be pursuing serious reform?
We can only conclude that he's not really serious about reform. But of course the blame doesn't fall entirely on him. He works for the president. And Geithner's last appearance in public was a photo opportunity with the First Lady.
God save us from the Beltway, and the Beltway from Wall Street.