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I try very hard to give the folks running our government the benefit of the doubt. It's very difficult, and I realize that it's probably futile in the end, but I do it anyway.
On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner provided fresh support for the devil on my shoulder, who tells me to just assume that most government officials have precisely no clue.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Geithner showered support on the financial reform package introduced in the Senate, and urged lawmakers to push it through into law. While I'm highly in favor of financial reform, and would admittedly rather see something happen than nothing, I'd hoped that high-profile figures like Geithner would speak out on the areas where the Senate bill still falls far short.
Instead, we get an op-ed that does nothing to move us toward good, comprehensive reform. Let's take a closer look at what he had to say.
On consumer protection
The best way to protect American families who take out a mortgage or a car loan or who save to put their kids through college is through an independent, accountable agency that can set and enforce clear rules of the road across the financial marketplace.
This comment makes me wonder whether the Treasury Secretary has higher political ambitions. I've complained in the past that politicians' pandering to voters about those mean and nasty financial institutions has been a bit over the top.
Were legitimate abuses and predatory lending going on? Sure, but this is hardly the top concern when it comes to preventing the next financial crisis.
Too big to fail
As the Senate bill moves to the floor, we must ... push to make sure the government has real authority to help end the problem of "too big to fail."
Last week I criticized Paul Krugman for pooh-poohing the "too big to fail" issue, but here Geithner has done the exact opposite -- treated it like a silver bullet, while ignoring potentially more important issues. Key among them is the dilemma that Krugman (and I) highlighted: The "shadow banking" industry needs regulation.
Lehman Brothers was able to put itself in line for a world of hurt by using ultra-short-term lending to lever itself up to untold heights -- quite literally, thanks to the "repo 105s." While much of Lehman is (hopefully) safely tucked away inside Barclay's (NYSE: BCS ) , quasi-banks such as Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) were doing many of the same things that Lehman was. And while Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) have a steady base of deposits, they do plenty of business in those shadow markets as well.
The banking smackdown
To prevent large financial firms from ever posing a threat to the economy, the Senate bill gives the government authority to impose stronger requirements on capital and liquidity. It limits banks from owning, investing, or sponsoring hedge funds, private equity funds or proprietary trading operations for their own profit unrelated to serving their customers.
It would be really great if this were all true. Unfortunately, it's not. Geithner is correct that the bill "gives the government the authority" to do more cracking down on banks. However, giving the authority is all it does -- the rest is left up to the potentially fickle judgment of whoever's doing the regulating at the time.
As for the rest of it, Geithner is suggesting that the Senate bill actually puts the so-called "Volcker Rule" -- which limits certain banking activities -- in place. In reality, the bill is squishier than SpongeBob on the subject. It merely requires that the government conduct a study to figure out what the impact of such regulations would be.
And while the bill mentions regulators' ability to crack down on non-banks like AIG (NYSE: AIG ) , that still remains a very cloudy area as well.
Tim getting tough
This is a defining moment for financial reform. We have to get it right. We cannot build a system that depends on the wisdom and judgment of future regulators. Even the smartest individuals armed with the sharpest tools will not be able to find every weakness and preempt every crisis. Instead, the best strategy for stability is to force the financial system to operate with clear rules that set unambiguous limits on leverage and risk.
While this tough talk may sound very Rocky-takes-on-Apollo-Creed, it made me wonder whether Geithner has actually read the bill he's talking about. Most of the major reform areas dealt with in the bill are addressed by giving some council or agency or supervisory board new powers to oversee what goes on, and slap wrists as it sees fit. As far as I've seen, there are almost none of the "clear rules" that Geithner seems to think are so important.
Alas, I've crossed one more public official off my list of the folks I hope will speak out for stronger and more effective reform. But that's just my opinion. What do you think? Is the Senate bill all we need to get the system back on track? Head down to the comments section and share your thoughts.
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