DRI-303 for week of 5-11-14: The Real ‘Stress Test’ is Still to Come

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Real ‘Stress Test’ is Still to Come

Timothy Geithner, former Treasury Secretary and former head of the New York Federal Reserve, is in the news. Like virtually every former policymaker, he has written a book about his experiences. He is currently flogging that book on the publicity circuit. Unlike many other such books, Geithner’s holds uncommon interest – not because he is a skillful writer or a keen analyst. Just the opposite.

Geithner is a man desperate to rationalize his past actions. Those actions have put us on a path to disaster. When that disaster strikes, we will be too stunned and too busy to think clearly about the past. Now is the time to view history coolly and rationally. We must see Geithner’s statements in their true light.

Power and the Need for Self-Justification

In his Wall Street Journal book review of Geithner’s book, Stress Test, James Freeman states that “Geithner makes a persuasive case that he is the man most responsible for the federal bailouts of 2008.” Mr. Freeman finds this claim surprising, but as we will see, it is integral to what Geithner sees as his legacy.

This issue of policy authorship is important to historians, whose job is getting the details right. But it is trivial to us. We want the policies to be right, regardless of their source. That is why we should be worried by Geithner’s need to secure his place in history.

Geithner and his colleagues, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, possessed powers whose exercise would have been unthinkable not that long ago. Nobody seems to have considered how the possession of such vast powers would distort their exercise.

Prior to assumption of the Federal Reserve Chairmanship, Ben Bernanke wrote his dissertation on the causes of the Great Depression. Later, his academic reputation was built on his assessment of mistakes committed by Fed Board members during the 1920s and 30s. When he joined the Board and became Chairman, he vowed not to repeat those mistakes. Thus, we should not have been surprised when he treated a financial crisis on his watch as though it were another Great Depression in the making. Bernanke was the living embodiment of the old saying, “Give a small boy a hammer and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” His academic training had given him a hammer and he proceeded to use it to pound the first crisis he met.

In an interview with “Bloomberg News,” Geithner used the phrase “Great Depression” three times. First, he likened the financial crisis of 2008 to the Great Depression, calling it “classic” and comparing it to the bank runs of the Great Depression. Later, he claimed that we had avoided another Great Depression by following his policies. For Geithner, the Great Depression isn’t so much an actual historical episode or an analytical benchmark as it is an emotional button he presses whenever he needs justification for his actions.

When we give vast power to individuals, we virtually guarantee that they will view events through the lens of their own ego rather than objectively. Bernanke was bound to view his decisions in this light: either apply principles he himself had espoused and built his career upon or run the risk of going down in history as exactly the kind of man he had made his name criticizing – the man who stood by and allowed the Great Depression to happen. Faced with those alternatives, policy activism was the inevitable choice.

Geithner had tremendous power in his advisory capacity as President of the New York Federal Reserve. His choices were: use it or not. Not using it ran the risk of being Hooverized by future generations; that is, being labeled as unwitting, uncaring or worse. Using it at least showed that he cared, even if he failed. The only people who would criticize him would be some far-out, laissez-faire types. Thus, he had everything to gain and little to lose by advising policy activism.

Now, after the fact, the incentive to seek the truth is even weaker than it is in the moment. Now Bernanke, Geithner et al are stuck with their decisions. They cannot change their actions, but they can change anything else – their motivations, those of others, even the truths of history and analysis. If they can achieve by lying or dissembling what they could not achieve with their actions at the time, then dishonesty is a small price to pay. Being honest with yourself can be difficult under the best of circumstances. When somebody is on the borderline between being considered the nation’s savior and its scourge, it is well-nigh impossible.

And a person who begins by lying to himself cannot end up being truthful with the world. No, memoirs like Stress Test are not the place to look for a documentary account of the financial crisis told by an insider. The pressures of power do not shape men like Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner into diamonds, but rather into gargoyles.

We cannot take their words at face value. We must put them under the fluoroscope.

“We Were Three Days Away From Americans Not Being Able to Get Money from ATMs”

Not only are Geithner’s actions under scrutiny, but his timing is also criticized. Many people, perhaps most prominently David Stockman, have insisted that the actual situation faced by the U.S. economy wasn’t nearly dire enough to justify the drastic actions urged by Geithner, et al.

Geithner’s stock reply, found in his book and repeated in numerous interviews, is that the emergency facing the nation left no time for observance of legal niceties or economic precedent. He resuscitates the old quote: “We were three days away from Americans not being able to get money from their ATMs.”

There is an effective reply because its psychological shock value tends to stun the listener into submission. But meek silence is the wrong posture with which to receive a response like this from a self-interested party like Paulson, Bernanke or Geithner. Instead, it demands minute examination.

First, ask ourselves this: Is this a figure of speech or literal truth? That is, what precise significance attaches to the words “three days?”

Recall that Bernanke and Paulson have told us that they realized the magnitude of the emergency facing the country and determined that they must (a) violate protocol by going directly to Congress; and (b) act in secret to prevent public panic. Remember also that Paulson told Congress that if they did not pass bailout legislation by the weekend, Armageddon would ensue. And remember also that, typically, Congress did not act within the deadline specified. It waited  ten days before passing the bailout deal. And the prophesied disaster did not unfold.

In other words, Paulson, Bernanke, et al were exaggerating for effect. How much they were exaggerating can be debated.

That leads to the next logical point. What about the ATM reference itself? Was it specific, meaningful? Or was it just hooey? To paraphrase the line used in courtroom interrogation by litigators (“Are you lying now or were you lying then?”), is Geithner exaggerating now just as Paulson and Bernanke exaggerated then?

Well, Geithner is apparently serious in using this reference. In the same interviews, Geithner calls the financial crisis “a classic financial panic, similar to the bank runs in the Great Depression.” In the 1930s, U.S. banks faced “runs” by depositors who withdrew deposits in cash when they questioned the solvency of banks. Under fractional-reserve banking, banks then (as now) kept only a tiny ratio of deposit liabilities on hand in the form of cash and liquid assets. The runs produced a rash of bank failures, leading to widespread closures and the eventual “bank holiday” proclaimed by newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So Geithner’s borrowing of the ATM comment as an index of our distress seems to be clearly intended to suggest an impending crisis of bank liquidity.

There is an obvious problem with this interpretation, the problem being that it is obvious nonsense. Virtually every commentator and reviewer has treated Geithner’s backwards predictions of a “Great Depression” with some throat-clearing version of “well, as we all know, we can’t know what would have happened, we’ll never know, we can’t replay history, history only happens once,” and so forth. But that clearly doesn’t apply to the ATM case. We know – as incontrovertibly as we can know anything in life – what would have happened had bank runs and bank illiquidity a la 1930s so much as threatened in 2008.

Somebody would have stepped to a computer at the Federal Reserve and started creating money. We know this because that’s exactly what did happen in 2010 when the Fed initiated its “Quantitative Easing” program of monetary increase. The overwhelming bulk of the QE money found its way to bank reserve accounts at the Fed where it has been quietly drawing interest ever since. We also know that the usual formalities and intermediaries involving money creation by the Fed could and would have been dispensed with in that sort of emergency. As Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke was known as “Helicopter Ben” because he was fond of quoting Milton Friedman’s remark that the Fed could get money in public hands by dropping it from helicopters in an emergency, if necessary. Bernanke would not have stood on ceremony in the case of a general bank run; he would have funneled money directly to banks by the speediest means.

In other words, the ATM comment was and is the purest hooey. It has no substantive significance or meaning. It was made, and revived by Geithner, for shock effect only. This is very revealing. It implies a man desperate to achieve his effect, which means his words should be received with utmost caution.

“The Paradox of Financial Crises”

Geithner’s flagship appearance on the promotion circuit was his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (5/13/2014), “The Paradox of Financial Crises.” The thesis of this op-ed – the “paradox” of the title – is that “the more aggressive the government is in designing a rescue plan, the easier it is to force more restructuring in the financial sector, and the better the chances of leaving the surviving system stronger and less dependent on the taxpayer.” Alas, Geithner complains, “Americans don’t give their presidents much in the way of emergency authority to fight” financial crises. As evidence of the need for this emergency authority, Geithner cites the loss of 16% of U.S. household net worth in 2008, “several times as large as the losses at the start of the Great Depression.”

No doubt eyebrows were raised throughout the U.S. when Geithner bemoaned the lack of emergency authority for a President who has appointed dozens of economic and regulatory “czars,” single-handedly suspended execution of legislation and generally behaved high-handedly. Geithner’s thesis – a generous description of what might reasonably be called a desperate attempt at self-justification – apparently consists of three components: (1) the presumption that financial crises are uniquely powerful and destructive; (2) the claim that, nevertheless, a financial crisis can be counteracted by sufficiently forceful action, taken with sufficient dispatch; and (3) the further claim that he knows what actions to take.

The power of financial crises is a trendy idea given currency by a popular scholarly work by two economists named Rogoff and Reinhart, who surveyed recessions featuring financial panics going back several centuries and ostensibly discovered that their recoveries tended to be slow. How much merit their ideas have is really irrelevant to Geithner’s thesis because Geithner’s interest in financial crises is entirely opportunistic. It began in 2008 with Geithner’s improvisations when faced with the impending failure of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, et al. It perseveres only because Geithner’s legacy is now tied to the success of those machinations – which, unlikely as it might have seemed six years ago, is still in dispute.

Geithner’s theory of financial crises is not the Rogoff/Reinhart theory. It is the Geithner theory, which is: financial crises are uniquely powerful because Geithner needs them to be uniquely powerful in order to justify his unprecedented recommendations for unilateral executive actions. In his book and interviews, Geithner peddles various vague, vacuous generalities about financial crises. In order to these to make sense, they must be based on historical observation and/or statistical regularities. But they cannot jibe with the sentiments expressed above in the Journal. Geithner claims to be enunciating a general theory of financial crisis and rescue. But he is really telling a story of what he did to this particular financial system in the particular financial crisis of 2008.

And no wonder, since the financial system existing in the U.S. in 2008 was and still is like no financial system that existed previously. Instead of “banks” as we previously knew them, the failing financial institutions in 2008 were diversified financial institutions – nominally investment banks, although that activity had by then assumed a minor part of their work – some of whose liabilities would once have been called “near monies.” Meanwhile, the true banks were also diversified into securities and investment banking, and the larger ones controlled the overwhelming bulk of deposit liabilities in the U.S. This historically unprecedented configuration accounted for the determination of Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner to bail them out at all costs. But they weren’t drawing upon a general theory of crises, because no previous society ever had a financial structure like ours.

Geithner stresses the need to “force more restructuring in the financial sector,” as though every financial crisis was caused by corporate elephantiasis and cured by astute government pruning back of financial firms. This is not only historically wrong but logically deficient, since the past government pruning couldn’t have been very astute if crises kept recurring. Indeed, that is the obvious shortcoming of the second component. There are no precedents – none, zero, nada – for the idea that government policy can either forestall or cure recessions, whether financial or otherwise. This is not for want of trying. If there is one thing governments love to do, it is spend money. If there is another thing governments love to do, it is throw their weight around. Neither has solved the problem of recession so far.

What leads us to believe that Timothy Geithner was and is well qualified to pronounce on the subject of financial crises? Only one thing – his claims that “we did do the essential thing, which was to prevent another Great Depression, with its decade of shantytowns and bread lines. We put out the financial fire…because we wanted to prevent mass unemployment.”

Incredible as it seems now, Timothy Geithner had even fewer economic credentials for his post as Chairman of the New York Federal Reserve than Ben Bernanke had for his as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Geithner had only one economics course as a Dartmouth undergraduate (he found it “dreary”). His master’s degree at John’s Hopkins was split between international economics and Far Eastern studies. (He speaks Japanese, among other foreign languages.) He put in a three-year stint as a consultant with Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm before graduating to the Treasury, where he spent 13 years before moving to the International Monetary Fund, then becoming Chairman of the New York Fed at age 42. As Freeman observed in his book review, Geithner “never worked in finance or in any type of business” save Kissinger’s consulting firm.

This isn’t exactly a resume of recommendation for a man taking the tiller during a financial typhoon. Maybe it explains what Freeman called Geithner’s “difficulty in understanding the health of large financial firms.”

When asked by interviewers if he had any regrets about his tenure, Geithner regrets not foreseeing the crisis in time to act sooner. This certainly contradicts his theory of crises and his claim of special knowledge – if he was the man with a plan and the man of the moment, why did he fail to foresee the crisis and have to go begging for emergency authorization for Presidential action at the 11th hour? Why should we now eagerly devour the words of a man who claims responsibility for saving the nation while simultaneously admitting that he “didn’t see the crisis coming and didn’t grasp the severity of the problems when it appeared?” He now boasts a special understanding of financial crises, but “didn’t require the banks he was overseeing to raise more capital” at the time of the crisis. In fact, as Freeman discloses, the minutes of the Federal Reserve show that Geithner denies that the banking system in general was undercapitalized even while other Fed governors were proposing that banks meet a capital call.

Geithner offers no particular reason why we should believe anything he says and ample reasons for doubt.

“The Government and the Central Bank Have to Step In and Take Risks”

Geithner’s book and publicity tour are a public-relations exercise designed to change his image. Ironically, this involves a tradeoff. He had image problems with both the right wing and the left wing, so gains on one side rate to lose him support on the other side. The Wall Street Journal piece shows that he wants to burnish his left profile. He closes by lamenting that “we were not able to do all that was important or desirable.  …Long-term unemployment remains alarmingly high. There are very high levels of poverty and appalling inequality, not just in income and wealth, but in the opportunities Americans have for a quality education or economic mobility.” Having spent the bulk of the op-ed apologizing for not allowing undeserving Wall Street bankers to go broke, he now nods frantically to every left-wing preoccupation. None of this has anything to do with a financial crisis or emergency authorizations or stress tests, of course – it is just Geithner stroking his left-wing critics.

The real sign that Geithner’s allegiance is with the left is his renunciation of the concept of “moral hazard.” Oh, he gives lip service to the fact that when the government bails out business and subsidizes failure, this will encourage subsequent businessmen to take excessive risks on a “heads I win, tails the government bails me out” expectation. But he savagely criticizes the moral hazard approach as “Old Testament” thinking. (The fact that “Old Testament” is now a pejorative is significant in itself; one wonders what significance “New Testament” would have.) “What one has to do in a panic is the opposite of what seems fair and just. In a financial crisis, the natural instinct is to let creditors suffer losses, let firms fail, and protect taxpayers from any risk of loss. But in a financial panic, a strategy based on those instincts will lead to depression-level unemployment. Instead, the government and the central bank have to step in and take risks on a scale that the private sector can’t and won’t… reduce the incentive for investors, lenders and depositors to run…raise the confidence of businesses and individuals… breaking a vicious cycle in which the fear of a financial-system collapse and a deep recession feed on each other and become self-fulfilling.”

This is surely the clearest sign that Geithner is engaging in ex post rationalization and improvisation. For centuries, economists have debated the question of whether recessions are real or monetary in origin and substance. Now Geithner emerges with the secret: they are psychological. Keynes, it seems, was the second-most momentous thinker of the 1930s, behind Sigmund Freud. All we have to do is overcome our “natural instinct” and rid ourselves of those awful “Old Testament” morals and bail out the right people – creditors – instead of the wrong people – taxpayers.

Once again, commentators have glossed over the most striking contradictions in this tale. For five years, we have listened ad nauseum to scathing denunciations of bankers, real-estate brokers, developers, investment bankers, house flippers and plain old home buyers who went wild and crazy, taking risks right and left with reckless abandon. But now Geithner is telling us that the problem is that “the private sector can’t and won’t …take risks on a scale” sufficient to save us from depression! So government and the central bank (!) must gird their loins, step in and do the job.

But this is a tale left unfinished.  Geithner says plainly that his actions saved us from a Great Depression. He also says that salvation occurred because government and the Fed assumed risks on a massive scale. What happened to those risks? Did they vanish somewhere in a puff of smoke or cloud of dust? If not, they must still be borne. And if the risks are still active, that means that we have not, after all, been saved from the Great Depression; it has merely been postponed.

It is not too hard to figure out what Geithner is saying between the lines. He wants to justify massive Federal Reserve purchases of toxic bank assets and the greatest splurge of money creation in U.S. history – without having to mention that these put us all on a hook where we remain to this day.

In this sense, Timothy Geithner’s book was well titled. Unfortunately, he omitted to mention that the most stressful test is yet to come.

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