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Timothy Geithner proves his worth

Profile: During his early days as the US Treasury secretary, questions were raised as to whether Timothy Geithner was up to the task of handling the financial crisis. Four years later, he prepares to step aside having earned respect both inside and outside of Washington.
When US Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner contemplated stepping aside last year, Barack Obama persuaded him to stay. Uselei Marcelino / Reuters
When US Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner contemplated stepping aside last year, Barack Obama persuaded him to stay. Uselei Marcelino / Reuters

Stocks dived and legislators scratched their heads; the response to Timothy Geithner's public debut as the United States Treasury secretary was hardly auspicious.

It was the morning of February 10, 2009 and Mr Geithner, still only a few weeks into the role, was facing his first big test: sketching out plans to Congress of the government's ambitious bid to rescue the financial system.

Convincing sceptical politicians and taxpayers that they should again help out banks already bloated on public funds and blamed for the crisis in the first place was never going to be an easy sell.

And the assessment was brutally negative. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 4.6 per cent by market close and politicians on both sides criticised a lack of detail. Some observers questioned whether Mr Geithner or his boss, the president Barack Obama, were up to the task of handling the crisis.

A month later, Republicans were calling for Mr Geithner's resignation after it was revealed that the bailed-out insurer AIG paid millions of dollars in bonuses to staff at the unit that destroyed the company with ill-fated derivative bets.

Four years later, however, and Mr Geithner is not only still in a job but is to step aside in the coming weeks having earned the respect of many both within and outside Washington.

From fighting the recession to plotting how to avoid the fiscal cliff, he has proven himself adept at financial legislating during one of the toughest economic climes in the US since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In turns, he has had to play the roles of firefighter, salesman and negotiator.

He has also emerged as a loyal lieutenant of Mr Obama, remaining by his side since the start of his presidency.

It is a measure of his value to the president that when he previously contemplated stepping aside in the summer of 2011, Mr Obama embarked on a lengthy effort to persuade him to stay.

Mr Obama nominated him for the position in November 2008. After impressing in an hour-long interview, Mr Obama quickly realised that Mr Geithner was the best man for the job, ahead of his older rival and former Treasury colleague, the economist Larry Summers.

The two men have been called 'kindred spirits'. Born in 1961 within two weeks of each other, both spent part of their childhoods in Asia; Mr Obama in Indonesia and Mr Geithner in Thailand and India.

Each had a parent working in overseas development for the Ford Foundation.

Both also see themselves as pragmatists.

Mr Geithner's credentials for the job were solid, if not impeccable. He'd spent most of his career within government, first within the Treasury department and then the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

But he didn't have a PhD in economics like Mr Summers or the level of experience on Wall Street some of his critics felt he needed.

He'd majored in government and Asian studies at Dartmouth College before taking a graduate degree in international economics and East Asian studies from the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

His private sector experience consisted of a three-year stint as an analyst for Kissinger Associates, the consulting firm founded by the former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.

Up until that point, he'd also been more of a behind-the-scenes operator. Treasury secretary was a role that required someone comfortable working in the public eye.

But it was the strength of his personal qualities that helped sway Mr Obama.

Mr Geithner had earned a reputation as a hard-working young hotshot who consistently impressed his colleagues and bosses with his problem-solving skills.

He possessed a quiet confidence in his ability, yet was devoid of the ego held by some other members of the Obama administration's first team of economic advisers.

Mr Geithner also had first-hand exposure to crises. As an assistant treasury attaché in the US Embassy in Tokyo in the early 1990s, Mr Geithner witnessed the start of Japan's economic slide into its lost decade of deflation and stagnation.

Later, back in Washington he helped figure out how to contain a series of financial meltdowns during the 1990s, from Mexico to Thailand to Russia, that threatened to spill over to the rest of the global economy.

His appointment in 2003 as the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank brought him a front row seat to Wall Street's boom and subsequent bust.

He soon honed in on derivatives trading and quickly realised the fast-emerging risks from the largely unregulated exotic instruments such as credit default swaps.

As early as 2004, he was warning of "fat tails", a term suggesting unforeseen dangers at the end of a bell curve.

When the crisis erupted he held an integral position in the government response.

He was a key actor in the rescue of Bear Stearns, the troubled investment bank, the decision to not support Lehman Brothers and the bailouts of AIG, Bank of America and Citigroup.

Once ensconced as Treasury secretary there was more of the same. After the lukewarm reaction to his first attempt in February 2009 to explain to markets how the government would right the financial system, Mr Geithner tried again a month later.

This time he outlined more details about how it would get rid of banks' toxic assets and markets rallied in approval.

By June he was firefighting again. This time it was GM, the car maker, that was filing for bankruptcy.

The Treasury reacted by buying the bulk of GM's assets and taking a 60 per cent stake in the company.

The same month he was helping to sell Congress a plan to try to avert a future financial meltdown: the Dodd-Frank regulation to reform the financial system. As the ferocity of the crisis faded, Mr Geithner turned his hand to other tasks. He has been Mr Obama's chief negotiator with congress to avoid last year's fiscal cliff of spending cuts and tax hikes.

With that task now complete, Mr Geithner will finally get his wish to step aside from politics. Time will tell whether his lasting legacy as Treasury secretary will be helping to revive the economy from the ravages of recession or merely lumping future generations of taxpayers with hefty bills for bailing out troubled corporates.

But it is a measure of his impact that observers are already questioning whether his nominated successor, Jack Lew, Mr Obama's chief of staff, can fill his shoes.

For Mr Geithner, his departure does not necessarily mean a permanent exit from public life.

Speculation is already gathering pace that he may emerge as Ben Bernanke's replacement as the Federal Reserve chairman.

If he does, it is likely markets and legislators will greet his return to government with less scepticism than his appointment as Treasury secretary.

 

tarnold@thenational.ae

Published: January 11, 2013 04:00 AM

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