WASHINGTON — The Treasury Department has failed to persuade the world that it has a viable plan to stabilize big U.S. banks, and unless and until it does so, the economic downturn at home and abroad is unlikely to bottom out.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said as much, telling Congress last week that "restoring a reasonable degree of financial stability will be critical determinants of the timing and strength of the recovery."
Yet experts warn that each week that goes by without a credible bank plan puts an economic recovery and public confidence in President Barack Obama at risk.
A McClatchy-Ipsos poll this week found that 65 percent of Americans still approve of Obama. However, a Wall Street Journal survey of 49 mainstream economic forecasters this week found that this elite group — which influences public confidence — is losing faith in Obama and in Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
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On average, the forecasters rated Obama's performance at 59 on a scale of 1 to 100. A majority said they were dissatisfied with Obama's economic policies. Geithner received an average grade of 51 — lower than the 57 grade given to his predecessor, Henry Paulson, in January, his last month in office, as the crisis deepened.
"The fact that this administration has been so slow in putting a fix in place for banks is a problem. It's sort of a missing link in terms of all the things they've done," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist for forecaster IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass.
"I think that's a problem. It's clearly creating an issue in terms of the equity market and the financial markets more generally. And I think it's beginning to erode the sense of confidence that had been building up relative to this administration."
Treasury spokesman Isaac Baker said that the administration had taken "an unprecedented level of action toward economic recovery" and emphasized that it inherited the problems it's trying to fix.
"While Wall Street and investors were disappointed when they didn't get a sweeping bank bailout, we've laid out a plan to stabilize the financial system while protecting the taxpayer and ensuring government funds are spent wisely," he said. "This crisis was years in the making, and it will take time to solve, but this administration is committed to doing whatever it takes to stabilize our financial system and repair our economy."
What could turn things around?
For starters, the Treasury could unveil more details of its plan to have the public and private sector together purchase the toxic assets that are clogging the banking system.
So far, Geithner hasn't gotten any further toward removing those assets from the banks than his predecessor did. Paulson promised in October to have the government purchase mortgage-backed securities and other related complex financial products, only to shift his focus toward direct cash injections into the banks. The securities remain in the banks, and they're the root of the credit crisis that's stifling economic activity.
After waiting almost two months to see Geithner's bank plan, a growing number of authorities — including James Baker, who was President Reagan's Treasury secretary — think that Obama should nationalize, or take over, the troubled large banks.
Nationalization could speedily strip away the toxic assets that banks won't sell for the low prices they're likely to command and that investors won't buy for the high prices that bankers insist they must have to stay solvent.
"I think what they are avoiding (nationalization) is what they are going to do," Behravesh said. "You don't have to call it that — 'receivership' or some other kind of political name that's more acceptable. Taking over a bank, it kind of moots the point of what's the price of these assets.
"My feeling is when the government owns 36 percent of Citigroup and it's now a penny stock . . . what's the hang-up here?" Behravesh asked. "Shareholder value has already been destroyed. Let's not play games and bite the bullet."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has frowned repeatedly on nationalization. On Thursday, he defended the delayed bank plan, saying that it must wait for results of ongoing "stress tests" on the 19 largest U.S. banks — those with assets of more than $100 billion.
"It's a little bit like visiting the pharmacist before you go see the doctor, right? We believe it's important to go get a health assessment before you go get your prescription filled," Gibbs said.
"And I think it's pretty safe to say that on at least a couple of instances that might have happened in previously dealing with this crisis . . . you had a pot of money to solve the problem, but you didn't have an assessment for . . . what was needed from banks and what was needed in order to have them continue to grow."
Gibbs and even Obama have been asked repeatedly of late to reiterate support for the Treasury secretary. And on March 7, "Saturday Night Live" lampooned him. In the show's opening sketch, Geithner's doppelganger held up a toll-free number that Americans could call to give him ideas for how to fix the banking crisis.
"There is a pack mentality and so the current flavor is to blame Geithner and that's unfortunate. He can't be as bad as everyone is saying right now," said Vincent Reinhart, a former chief economist of the Federal Reserve's rate-setting Open Market Committee. "When was the last the time a Treasury secretary was part of an 'SNL' skit?"
Part of the problem, Reinhart said, is that Geithner is flying solo because he's unable to find deputies who can win approval from a that's Congress angry at Wall Street.
"That reflects importantly that the expertise you want comes from the financial sector, and the financial sector is held in ill repute right now," said Reinhart, now a scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization.
Then there's partisanship. When Geithner testifies, as he did Thursday before the Senate Banking Committee, Republicans treat him as someone without much clout.
"This sounds a lot like David Axelrod to me, rather than a fundamental appraisal," complained Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in response to a Geithner answer to budget questions. Axelrod was Obama's campaign strategist and is now his top political adviser.
As president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Geithner was involved in many of the nation's top economic decisions during the past five years, but he was behind the scenes. Today, he's on center stage, where he often appears tentative and defensive.
Geithner entered the job weakened by a confirmation scandal over repeated errors in his tax filings. His problems grew after Obama promised that he'd unveil details of a bank plan, but instead Geithner rolled it out on Feb. 10 with only broad brush strokes, sending stock prices plummeting.
More than a month later, the details remain sketchy. When Geithner testified on Thursday, he repeated the logic of the plan but didn't explain how it would work.
"It requires different approaches, and to solve it we're going to have to work with the market, because we don't want the taxpayer and the government taking all those risks on the government's balance sheet and leaving the government with huge, incalculable losses — risks we cannot manage effectively," Geithner said.
(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)
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