Thursday, February 12, 2009

Geithner's Misstep

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's recent speech failed to inspire investors, and if anything spread more doubt. The market's expected a clear solution to be laid out, and that just did not happen. One thing was for certain, though, huge numbers were being thrown around by Geithner. As James Picerno details below in his blog post, Geithner is promissing to release more details about the rescue plan in the coming weeks. We'll have to wait and see if he actually delivers as promised this time?

It's big, it's bold, but it's also vague. And that's the problem.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner yesterday explained the new new plan to solve the financial crisis that ails America. Alas, as articulated yesterday, the plan is short on solution details and long on general notions of what needs to be done.

The challenge is figuring out how the latest effort will work and, more importantly, deciding if it'll fare any better than its misguided predecessors. At the moment, that's a challenge with no immediate answer. As the David Byrne and Brian Eno audio montage intones, "America is waiting for a message of some sort or another."

Certainly the size of the announced plan is a bold stroke. How could $2 trillion be otherwise? We know that some of the money will go to buying up the so-called toxic securities that weigh heavily on the health of banks, and that's a step in the right direction, as the experience with the Resolution Trust Corp. suggests. Taking some of illiquid assets off banks' balance sheets should, in theory, help increase lending, which remains tight even at low interest rates. But the details matter, and it's not yet clear what the fine print will say.

“We need more details from Treasury on how exactly it plans to remove bad assets while protecting the taxpayer,” Senator John Kerry, a Democrat and a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee complains via The New York Times. “We have zombie banks that are weighed down because their liabilities exceed their assets. Without a precise mechanism for addressing toxic assets, it will be difficult to increase lending.”

Similar opining can be heard from economists, including a former IMF economist who now teaches at Harvard. “Tim Geithner did a great job in painting the broad strokes of the problem and laying out general principles, but it was a big disappointment not to have more details,” Ken Rogoff tells Bloomberg News.

Yes, Geithner promised to "flesh out the details" soon, presumably within the next few weeks, maybe in the next few days. Unfortunately, in the current climate, the only thing the secretary managed to do was to stoke more anxiety by introducing yet another strain of uncertainty into the marketplace. The last thing we need now is more indecision and ambiguity.

Sure, the government needs to act, but it needs to act intelligently. If yesterday's Geithner show is an indication, the latest round of talking points isn't quite ready for prime time. We feared as much when we learned over the weekend that the Treasury Secretary's scheduled speech to the Congress would be delayed 24 hours. As it turns out, Geithner should have delayed it a few more days, perhaps by a week or even more. As we learned yesterday, in the wake of a sharp selloff in the stock market, it's better these days to say nothing than to make broad comments that leave much to the imagination.

Meanwhile, the administration has been at fault by lifting expectations over the past week that it was going to announce a solution. The President has been talking up Geithner's big debut in Congress. But the optimist talking points, as much as they're welcome, were premature. No wonder, then, that the markets suffered an attitude adjustment as the reality set in that the big solution was really just another bout of talking without backing up the chatting with a concrete plan of action.

The good news is that the Geithner has only lost the first battle rather than the war. But time's running out, and so is patience. Certainly he'll have another chance to repair some if not all of the damage. But neither the Obama administration nor the economy can afford another halfway effort at explaining what happens next. The stakes now are higher than they were on Monday for bringing clarity and intelligence to the fore. Another stumble may result in even bigger financial pain, and not just in the price of equities.

"The uncertainty the government has created has made it nearly impossible to price many securities," says Douglas Dachille, chief executive of First Principles Capital Management, tells The Wall Street Journal.

At this point, no one's sure how the money will be deployed or what the rules are that will govern its usage. That's a problem. Yes, the White House is talking to Congress about just those details and a clearer plan will undoubtedly be hammered out, perhaps within a few days. Meanwhile, this is water torture, and the Obama administration probably recognizes the misstep in speaking out before a sufficient level of specifics was available for public consumption. Meanwhile, we're told that the plan was intentionally vague. Really? The White House reportedly says it wanted to be warm and fuzzy on the plan so as to give everyone an opportunity to put their two cents into the $2 trillion idea. So much for good intentions.

"First, we're going to require banking institutions to go through a carefully designed comprehensive stress test," Geithner advised yesterday. Apparently he's not kidding. But stressing out the financial industry with half-formed commentary isn't helping.

So far, however, the damage is still minimal, at least in terms of the term spread in government bonds, which is one measure of the credit crunch that's taking a toll. Nonetheless, the spread in the 10-year Note and 3-month T-bill is still over 250 basis points while the 10-year/2-year spread is just a hair under 200 basis points. By comparison, a year ago the 10-year/3-month spread was 130 basis points and the 10-year/2-year spread was 169 basis points. At the extreme low levels of interest rates generally in 2009, a wider spread would reflect running for cover into the arms of short-term government paper. That's a sign of distress in this climate if the spread is primarily a function of near-zero rates on the short end, which basically describes the current situation.

One test of the Obama administration's success on its bailout plan in the coming weeks and months will be to convince investors to move assets out of T-bills and into risky assets. An indication of that will be higher yields in T-bills, which are just hovering above zero. So far, no one's budging.

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