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We live in tumultuous times. Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) , Bank of America, (NYSE: BAC ) JPMorgan (NYSE: JPM ) , and General Motors (NYSE: GM ) may have repaid their bailouts, but the economic fallout of the financial crisis is still with us in the form of high unemployment and higher projected national debt.
We wanted to hear what the man tasked with tackling these issues is thinking about today. So two Fools put on their button-down shirts and went downtown to attend Politico reporter Mike Allen's interview of Treasury Secretary Geithner. What followed was a refreshingly frank discussion on a wide variety of topics.
Here's what he had to say. (Edited for brevity. A more comprehensive version is available here.)
On most of the bailouts being recovered
No one thought it was a realistic prospect we'd be where we are today. A lot of analysts at the time said the direct costs of the crisis would be in the trillions. It will be a very, very, very small ultimate cost to the taxpayer -- less than $100 billion altogether -- much smaller than the savings and loan crisis.
We didn't do it with enthusiasm, and we don't want to do it again.
On the recovery
As people save more and bring down their debt, growth slows. Because of the oversupply of houses, monetary policy doesn't have as much power to stimulate recovery. It takes time to work these things out.
Does the country have a jobs crisis?
Absolutely. Of course. Yeah. Millions of people are still looking for work, risk losing their homes, or are worried about their economic security.
While the political debate in Washington now seems overwhelmingly dominated by long-term deficits, the most important thing is to get more people back to work as quickly as possible.
We are sort of three or four years into the housing repair, but we've got several more years to go. But the pace of repair will depend much more on economic growth, which I expect will occur at a moderate pace.
On financial crises
Financial markets are a product of decisions made by humans, by individuals, and you can't prevent people from making mistakes. There'll be future financial crises. The job of government is to make those crises less frequent, less traumatic, and cause less collateral damage by putting in place better shock absorbers so the system is better able to adjust to those inevitable mistakes.
Will "dark forces" undermine financial reform?
It's very clear they're trying to starve the agencies of funding so they can't enforce protections for investors, and they are trying to block appointments as a way to get leverage over the outcome, and they are trying to slow down, so that they can weaken over time, those reforms.
They won't have success ultimately.
Which bank handled the crisis well?
I don't think any of them covered themselves in glory. They all got caught up in a race to the bottom in care and prudence. They all got caught up in the pressures that led to more leverage, more risk taking. And they all got caught up in a terribly damaging compensation race built on completely unrealistic expectations for what financial businesses could produce in terms of return.
On the Greek crisis
It's completely within Europe's capacity to manage this in a way with no collateral damage. It's not expensive. It's complicated, but it's not rocket science.
On threats to not raise the debt ceiling
I mean, really think about it: As a negotiating strategy, you are going to go say, "If you don't do things my way I'm going to force the United States to default?" It's not a credible negotiating strategy.
On Treaury's Plan B
Our plan is for Congress to pass the debt limit. Our fallback plan is for Congress to pass the debt limit. Our fallback to the fallback plan is for Congress to pass the debt limit.
On long-term debt reduction and RyanCare
The balance between revenues and savings is so important. The House Republican budget illustrates what you have to do if you are unwilling to touch revenues. If your objective is to leave in place these exceptionally low tax rates for the most fortunate Americans, then you are going to have to dismantle the basic commitments to our seniors, to the poor and to the elderly.
It's just not realistic, it's not going to happen, it's not possible. Balance is important not just for fairness, but for the credibility of the plan.
If people up there try to solve this by assuming away the problem, by using growth assumptions that create the illusion that we are going to solve it, by assuming there will be political courage in the future, that kind of magical thinking -- then the markets will say it's not real.
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