Saturday, November 29, 2008

Meet Obama's financial SWAT team

There was a telling moment this week when U.S. president-elect Barack Obama unveiled his choices to take charge of rebuilding the crippled American financial system and reviving the stumbling economy.

All three star nominees - Timothy Geithner, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as the new treasury secretary, and prominent academic economists Lawrence Summers and Christina Romer as top advisers - looked decidedly glum as they were introduced by a beaming Mr. Obama. That may be because they know full well what a rock-strewn road lies ahead as they seek to steer fiscal and economic policies beyond the oh-my-God-we-have-to-do-something approach of the departing Bush administration.

The three - along with a slew of other leading lights recruited for Mr. Obama's large and growing economic SWAT team - bring formidable reputations and experience to the task.

And Mr. Geithner, 47, brings even more than that. He is the little-known third member of the trio of finance officials - along with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke - who have worked days, nights and weekends concocting rescue packages for failing banks as well as unprecedented measures to pump billions of dollars into the U.S. financial system in an effort to thaw frozen credit markets.

Now, Mr. Geithner and the rest of Mr. Obama's economic deep thinkers face an even more daunting task. They must continue to wrestle with the immediate problem of rapidly deteriorating financial and economic conditions, while finding the right long-term mix of fiscal and industrial policies and regulatory reforms to get the derailed American engine back on the track to growth and prosperity.

No incoming U.S. administration has seen anything quite like this since Franklin D. Roosevelt's first cabinet confronted the challenges of the Great Depression.

Most veteran observers say Mr. Obama is at least choosing the right people for the job, as he forms an FDR-style economic brain trust.

Mr. Summers, who turns 54 tomorrow, is a renowned international economist who is firmly rooted in the Democratic centre.

The more conservative Ms. Romer, 49, who will be chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, a policy think tank inside the White House, is a noted economic historian specializing in the causes of the Depression and the fiscal and monetary policy responses it provoked. She is also an expert on modern tax policy.

The star-studded cast also includes illustrious former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, 81, who will head a new economic recovery advisory panel of government outsiders. Its main role appears to be to challenge the ideas of the government insiders, led by Mr. Geithner and Mr. Summers. Mr. Obama plainly hasn't heard that even two economists have trouble agreeing on anything.

Mr. Summers, a treasury secretary in the latter part of the Clinton administration and a former controversial president of Harvard University, will carry the bland title of director of the National Economic Council. But he is widely expected to wield considerable influence behind the scenes as effectively Mr. Obama's economic consigliere.

He is well known in political and academic circles for his intellectual gifts (he was, at 28, the youngest tenured professor in Harvard's history), his ambition (he still covets the job of running the central bank) and his often abrasive, bulldozer-like personality, which he has never hidden from public view.

"He's always the smartest guy in the room, which sometimes gets him into a little trouble; sometimes a lot of trouble," said Roy Smith, a professor of finance at New York University's Stern School of Business. "He's a bit of a risky appointment in that sense, but he's probably better in the White House than in cabinet."

As president of Harvard, Mr. Summers caused an uproar in 2005 when he questioned whether innate differences in ability might explain why fewer women than men were excelling at math and science. For him, it was merely speculation, in need of proper research to verify or refute. But it resulted in a faculty no-confidence vote, and less than a year later he returned to his old job as an economics professor.

It is the lower-profile, non-abrasive Mr. Geithner, though, who will face the closest scrutiny as the successor to the combative Mr. Paulson.

Critics have assailed his failure to police the Wall Street investment banks in his job at the epicentre of the financial crisis as the Fed's New York watchdog and his key role in the government's hasty and botched interventions in the financial system that will cost taxpayers billions.

"He was part of the whack-a-mole troika," says veteran Wall Street economist Ed Yardeni of Yardeni Research. "They have been the ones orchestrating the attempts to deal with the credit crisis, and it's been much too reactive and with too much micro-management."

The fact that they have had to work day and night on the emergency plans "tells you that they aren't dealing with the big picture. They're just reacting to these issues as they pop up."

Mr. Yardeni does not hold out high hopes that the Obama team will do any better than the Bush administration, with its patchwork job. But other critics are even harsher in their assessment.

"All of these 'rescues' are a disaster for the taxpayer, for the financial markets and also for the Federal Reserve System," one analyst told The New York Times. Mr. Geithner "deserves retirement, not promotion," he said.

In background and personality, Mr. Geithner is a polar opposite to Mr. Paulson, who began his Washington career in the Nixon administration but made his name and fortune as a tough Wall Street investment banker. While Mr. Paulson was clawing his way to the top of Goldman Sachs, the shrewdest and most powerful of the firms that once dominated global finance, Mr. Geithner was toiling quietly and efficiently behind the scenes in a series of increasingly important international assignments for the Treasury Department.

There, he came to the notice of two influential Washington insiders: Mr. Summers, who was then deputy treasury secretary and became his mentor, and their boss, Robert Rubin.

Mr. Geithner was a key point man for Washington in dealing with the Asian and other currency crises of the late 1990s. His foreign experience and his central, albeit low-key, role in the current crisis are regarded as huge assets for the top Treasury post.

"He knows where all the bodies were buried," Prof. Smith said. "He has been involved with all the transactions. He's familiar with the details of almost all of the many different programs that the Treasury and the Fed have put in place to get this going."

Most new administrations turn the Treasury job over to a political favourite who may face a steep learning curve. But Mr. Geithner has both the requisite technical expertise and an uncommon link to the Bush administration that will enable a remarkably seamless transition. That is a huge plus in the midst of the worst financial crisis in decades.

What many economy watchers like is that Mr. Obama's team consists largely of proved pragmatists, even though most served stints in the last Democratic administration. The U.S. has had quite enough of ideologues for a while, they say.

That will not make their task any easier, though. As in the early Roosevelt years, Mr. Obama's brain trust is going "to spend a couple of years going from one intervention package to another until they actually find a formula that is going to work," financial historian Charles Geisst said.

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