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Has the New York Fed Been Serving the Public Trust? Has Geithner?

04/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Geithner's AIG testimony before the House Oversight Committee, the Secretary again tried to sell the notion that 'if we didn't act then, millions more would have lost their jobs and thousands of factories would have closed.' Even if this were true, why did they have to pay these counterparties one hundred cents on the dollar? The answer may be because, as president of the New York Fed, the counterparties you paid out on AIG owned your company.

To simply say "we had to" is an oversimplification and a partial story. Those of us who saw the crisis coming and recognized the fragility of the system before the Fed or Treasury disagree with the "we had to act" line, but the story is actually larger than that, and predates the unfolding of the crisis. The full story puts Tim Geithner and Larry Summers dead center in creating the environment that drove us to crisis.

Secretary Geithner can keep repeating his assertion he has worked in public service his whole life. Never mind that this calls into question his tangible market experience, this claim begs the question: How does he define working in the public service?

Geithner's last job, as the President of the New York Fed, highlights that question. The NY Fed's most important jobs, arguably, are safety and soundness supervision and capital market supervision. Success in carrying out those responsibilities should be the basic litmus test for the measuring how well the NY Fed is serving the public trust. In these roles it is supposed to examine, regulate and oversee the Federal Reserve regulated bank holding companies in the NY Fed's region, the largest bank holding companies in the country, many of which were AIG's counterparties.

The New York Fed is not government-owned. Most people fail to recognize this fact. Simply, the Federal Reserve Board (responsible for monetary policy, with a dual mandate of full employment and price stability) is an independent part of the federal government, while the New York Fed is a shareholder-owned or private corporation. In other words, where the Federal Reserve Board is www.frb.gov, the District Bank is www.newyorkfed.org. Historically, the New York Fed has been among the most profitable shareholder-owned corporations in the world. Yet it keeps the details of its shareholders' ownership information private. What we do know is that its owners include precisely those institutions it is tasked to regulate and supervise and those is has obviously failed to adequately supervise. Unlike the other District Banks of the Federal Reserve system, which have overseen their banks quite well, the New York Fed's concentration of the largest banks, coupled with its unique role of managing the market operations of the entire Fed system, has built a culture where it sees itself as a market participant and peer to those firms it regulates.

The President of the NY Fed is chosen by, paid by and reports to the private shareholders of that private institution. Only three of the nine Directors of the Board of the New York Fed are chosen by the Federal Reserve Board and, until this year, the NY Fed's Chair -- chosen by the Federal Reserve Board in Washington -- was a former Chairman of Goldman Sachs who still sits on Goldman's Board.

We do not know the full roster of shareholders, but the list of the NY Fed's Board and management group is particularly interesting, reading like a Who's Who of sell-side financial corporations that the taxpayer has bailed out and whose systemic riskiness Washington would rather take indirect and half measures to address rather than take a head-on approach of resolving.

In truth, Geithner's ineffectiveness in his role at NY Fed President and his current political posturing -- without any policy substance to directly address too-big-to-fail or the Fed's flawed powers to bailout firms -- seems to have resulted from design rather than accident. After all, in a previous "public service" role, Geithner was the lead negotiator for the WTO's General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade for financial services. In this role, Geithner reported to Larry Summers, who in turn reported to Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin. In 1998, this team won the banks EVERYTHING they requested from that treaty. From open access to new markets to unrestricted growth in equity and credit derivatives, they opened the door to rapid and deregulated growth of the large multinational banks, allowing them to become "too big to fail". Moreover, the terms of the agreement has made it almost impossible to put the "too big to fail" genie back in the bottle without running afoul of rules of this international agreement. That was the work of Geithner as "public servant."

It appears that his reward for this work was nomination to run the privately owned NY Fed. The nomination was orchestrated by many of those same banks that own the NY Fed and for whom he delivered on that GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) "Understanding on Commitments in Financial Service" (an international agreement, won by arm-twisting, that led to global deregulation of the fnancial services industry and encouraged the largest firms to enter new business lines and new financial markets without resistance).

I expect documents to come to light that will show that Geithner and Summers did the WTO negotiations on behalf of the industry and viewed the completion as a 'deliverable' to their financial constituents. How can Obama say, while Summers and Geithner are his team, "if the banks want a fight, I am ready to fight them"?

Geithner's comment from January 1998 demonstrates that he was working on behalf of the industry and not necessarily the public:

Second, we, I think, established -- I hope you agree, Bob -- very effective cooperation with the U.S. financial community, both in defining priorities, and more importantly in some ways... mobilizing a coordinated approach with other globally active financial institutions in other jurisdictions...Fourth, we worked very closely with the international financial institutions so that they made a very strong, compelling analytical case for the benefits of liberalization, so that they built specific conditions into programs where that was appropriate, and so that they provided technical support and technical assistance to countries who were trying to find the right path of liberalization in an environment of considerable financial stress... the agreement establishes quite substantial new opportunities for access to these rapidly growing markets, with substantial increases in the equity thresholds open to foreign firms... the agreement provides protection for the substantial existing presence of U.S. financial institutions from the threat of future discrimination or future protection. And this is not a static commitment. It means that they can participate fully in the growth of these markets as they evolve further".

I expect more damning statements of Geithner and Summers using the office of the Treasury to work on behalf of the bankers.

So how did this WTO process to liberalize the global financial regulatory structure begin? Well, according to the "Financial Services and the GATS 2000 Round" report:

"In 1975 Pan American, which was still there, and American International Group (AIG) took a shot at trade in services. In 1979, I was in New York with the American Express Company and was in charge of strategic planning and acquisitions. We were having problems, which we now call market access problems (we did not have this kind of terminology at that time), in thirty or forty countries. We had no remedy under the trade laws or under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which only covered goods.

To make a long story short, we decided that we would have to change that, which meant starting a new round of trade negotiations including services. My boss, Jim Robinson, chief executive officer (CEO) of American Express, asked me to start a new trade round as soon as possible. He asked, 'How long will it take?' I said, 'I don't know, ten years maybe. I don't know. I have never done it. I am just reading this book by Ken Dam called the GATT.' He said, 'Well, do it as soon as you can.' I said, 'I need some money.' He said, 'Don't worry about money. This is so important, you will have an unlimited budget." If there was one phrase that really pushed trade and services, that was it. We put a person in Brussels, a person in Tokyo, two or three people in Washington, three people in New York, and so forth.

We enlisted the aid, which was really important, of Citicorp and also AIG. John Reed came along a few years later as CEO. We had an alliance in which Jim Robinson of American Express, John Reed, and Hank Greenberg of AIG were working together. I was the go-between. Having those three men with a lot of staff was the key. We went from zero probability of success to having a chance...One of the things that distinguish the American private sector from the rest of the world again is its relationship to the media, which is very good. All kinds of events are held with the U.S. media and sometimes the foreign media in attendance. This is very, very important. We do not see this any- where else in the world."

Finally, in 1998 Geithner and Summers delivered. What did they deliver? What are the realities of the "Understanding on Commitments in Financial Services" in the GATT agreement that were thrust on the global sovereign world? Well, as two small examples from the document:

"Notwithstanding Article XIII of the Agreement, each Member shall ensure that financial service suppliers of any other Member established in its territory are accorded most-favoured-nation treatment and national treatment as regards the purchase or acquisition of financial services by public entities of the Member in its territory. "

And:

"A Member shall permit financial service suppliers of any other Member established in its territory to offer in its territory any new financial service".

If being a public servant is funneling unreasonable amounts of taxpayer capital, without market discipline, to the largest and most poorly managed banks, then Geithner's selection as Secretary of Treasury makes sense. The same logic that allows senior officers of Lehman, Pepsi, Pfizer, GE, and Loews to be selected as 'Class B Directors' of the New York Fed, chosen as "representatives of the public" makes Geithner the perfect "public servant" to oversee those instutions these largest banks have successfully robbed. To be fair, it is also the same twisted logic that seated the last Treasury Secretary, a man who is being publically whitewashed in the media today -- even though, as Chairman of Goldman, he single handedly convinced the SEC to allow Goldman and other investment banks to lever-up so wrecklessley that they would need to be bailed out as AIG counterparties.

This piece was originally posted on New Deal 2.0.