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Robert Kuttner

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Obama, Geithner, and the Next Financial Crisis

Posted: 10/09/11 10:03 PM ET

Over the past few weeks, President Obama has at last "pivoted," in the widely used term, from emphasizing deficit reduction to focusing on jobs and taxation of millionaires. Spontaneous protest has done what the organized left failed to do; it has made Wall Street the appropriate target of diffuse economic frustrations. The labor movement has added its weight and institutional skills to these protests, and even President Obama has had some kind words for them.

Fox News and the Republicans have been usefully flummoxed, since it is awfully hard to rise to the defense of the Wall Street banks that caused the financial collapse and to retain credibility with anyone, even the Tea Party base.

But here comes the next phase of the financial crisis, and it will test President Obama's leadership like nothing else. It will also make or break the faltering credibility of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

In recent days, it has become clear that several large banks, most notably Bank of America, are teetering. Though the backlash against the giant bank's proposed five-dollar-a-month charge for debit cards has gotten the headlines, this is the least of its problems. The profits from this new charge would be chump change measured against the bank's chasms of losses, the legacy of its ill-advised purchases of Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch in 2008.

Worried investors have driven Bank of America stock down to the range of 5 to 6 dollars a share. Bank of America's books are still glutted with non-performing mortgage loans, and a grand solution to the mortgage crisis seems further away than ever.

Meanwhile, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley with their large holdings of Greek government bonds are also in some jeopardy, which adds to the general crisis of confidence. The Federal Reserve has been throwing "liquidity," otherwise known as nearly interest-free money, at the banks as necessary, to keep inter-bank markets from freezing up as they nearly did in 2008.

As recently as three weeks ago, at a "Delivering Alpha" financial conference, Geithner assured his audience that despite the European crisis American banks were in great shape:

Our financial system -- because of the actions we took early in the crisis -- is in a much stronger position to deal with these new risks than it was before this crisis. Much, much stronger position. Way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of making sure they have a stronger financial foundation to handle any type of shock.

This has been Geithner's strategy since the earliest days of the crisis: work with the Federal Reserve to throw money at the big banks, resist fundamental changes in their business model, and talk up their solvency even in the face of contrary evidence.

Given the proprietary data that Geithner surely sees as Treasury Secretary, he must know that these words are wishful at best and downright deceptive at worst. If his assurances turn out to be so much baloney, then Geithner, President Obama's re-election chances, and the economy could all be in big trouble.

The fact is that European banks are functioning only because the European Central Bank in spite of its reluctance has been flooding the system with liquidity, and at least one U.S bank -- Bank of America -- is barely solvent and heavily reliant on the Fed.

If events turn critical again and we face a repeat risk of the seizing up of financial markets as in the fall of 2008, the Obama administration's rhetorical populist turn will be of no use. The president will need to make a fateful decision.

Worst of all would be to let a large institution like Bank of America just fail. Outside of the hard-core Tea Party right, nobody supports this.

The second worst policy would be to just keep throwing money at a zombie institution to keep up the pretense that it is solvent. We tried that policy in 2008 and 2009. It helped entrenched bankers keep their jobs and their outsized profits, but a wounded banking system continued to be a lead weight on the rest of the economy.

So now President Obama, if faced with a repeat crisis of large banks, may get a do-over.
In the spring of 2009, when the leading zombie bank was Citigroup, then chief economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Geithner took the position that they could not seize, clean out, and break up Citi because they lacked the legal authority or the tools to do it. It's also clear from several accounts, including my own A Presidency in Peril
and most recently Ron Suskind's new book Confidence Men that Summers and Geithner did not want to do it. According to Suskind, Obama himself wanted to break-up of Citi as his preferred option, and Geithner slow-walked the president until the issue was moot.

But the Dodd-Frank Act now gives the treasury secretary explicit authority to find that a large, systemically significant financial company is "in danger of default"; to designate the FDIC as receiver; and to seize, break up, and reorganize failing large banks. Though there is surely contingency planning for the collapse of a large bank, Geithner seems loathe to use his new authority.

So, consider three possible scenarios in coming days or weeks.

First scenario: the big banks, thanks to advances from the Federal Reserve, keep barely afloat. Geithner's credibility survives, but the real economy continues to be a shambles. This is not exactly auspicious, either for economically frustrated Americans or for an incumbent president facing re-election.

Second scenario: Investors keep fleeing Bank of America, the giant bank finds itself frozen out of short term lending markets as Lehman Brothers was, and the bank finally turns to the government for emergency aid. There is a new financial crisis in the headlines, and it falls in on President Obama and his Treasury Secretary, who was been reassuring everyone that all is well with the large banks.

Third scenario: President Obama decides to get other opinions besides Geithner's and to get out ahead of the crisis. If things turn critical, he directs his Treasury Secretary to seize the bank, as authorized by the Dodd-Frank Act. Obama tells the citizenry that the alternative was endless bailouts or a Lehman-style collapse (just imagine the right trying to defend either), and that this way those who caused the crisis will be appropriately removed from their suites and bonuses while the bank is returned to health so that the broad economy can prosper.

Serious consideration of this last approach would take much more of a "pivot" on Obama's part than we have seen to date. I recall, in reading biographies of Presidents Kennedy and Roosevelt, how both leaders sought multiple sources of advice. Kennedy would pick up the phone and speak to a relatively junior desk officer at the State Department to get his own information unfiltered by his gatekeepers. Roosevelt made sure he had direct access to multiple advisers who disagreed with each other. But Geithner has been astute at blocking access to the president for others who have different views, and Obama has been startlingly incurious and compliant. The man needs to get on the phone.

It also happens that Bank of America is headquartered in Charlotte, North Caroline, site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and the bank is expected to be one of the convention's top-tier corporate sponsors. Oh, my. Moving to resolve and break up the bank under Dodd-Frank, should it prove to be insolvent, would take uncharacteristic nerve.

In September 2008, the financial collapse fell in on George W. Bush and won the election for Barack Obama. A repeat collapse, if handled badly, would fall in squarely on Obama.

Populist rhetoric when angry people are in the streets demanding accountability for bankers is a start, but talk is cheap. If the banking mess turns critical again, we will see what this president has learned, and what he is made of.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.