Geithner as Martyr to an Ungrateful Nation: Bo Cutter’s Tragicomic Portrayal of Tim as a ‘Man for all Seasons” (Part 2)

This is the second installment in my comments on Bo Cutter’s essay defending Treasury Secretary Geithner. Bo was a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm and led President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He was Bob Rubin’s deputy at the National Economic Council. The first installment discussed Bo’s extraordinary indictment of the finance industry.

Bo views Geithner as a martyr subjected to unfounded, ungrateful attacks for his actions that prevented the Second Great Depression. Bo doesn’t have much use for Americans that are upset with the senior managers of the finance industry. (This is a bit weird because Bo denounces these senior managers as universally incompetent, cowardly, and unethical.)

[L]iberals hate [Geithner] because he did not take over or dismember the banks, and publicly execute their senior managements.

This passage tells us nothing about liberals, but much about Bo and his peers’ fears of the public. The finance leaders know they are guilty of destroying much of the global economy — while growing extraordinarily wealthy in the process. They know that their primary means of destruction was accounting “control fraud.” They cannot understand why the public has not turned on the finance industry and demanded that the fraudulent financial leaders be prosecuted and their immense gains from fraud recovered. They also cannot understand why we allow the continued existence of systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs). Geithner, Paulson, and Bernanke have warned that the failure of any SDI could cause a global crisis. Under their logic, SDIs are ticking time bombs that will cause recurrent global crises.  Geithner, like Paulson, is making the SDIs much larger and much more dangerous by using them to acquire other large, failed financial institutions. This policy is insane. Virtually no one (that isn’t on their payroll) supports the continued existence of SDIs and no one publicly argues they should be made even larger — but that is our policy. Bo is the authentic voice of giant finance: the idea of shrinking the giant banks to this community is so painful, so personal that it is equivalent to “dismemberment.” (It also shows that the giant finance is predisposed to view itself and its allies as tragic martyrs.)

Bo is only getting started with Geithner’s martyrdom and the ingratitude of the murderous mob to this modern martyr.

And no one thinks he is tall enough. If you read the accounts of Secretary Geithner’s hearings last week, you know this is all classic Washington behavior. If there is one thing at which the glibocracy in DC excels, it is coming out of the hills after the battle is over and shooting the wounded. This is Washington today, a system in total gridlock, in which counting coup is the central activity.

So, Geithner is picked on by nearly everyone, not given any respect because he is short, and now that he is wounded the D.C. denizens are out to shoot him. Despite our scorn, Geithner continues to step into the breach on our behalf. Bo was a senior federal official in crises and found his peers to be cowards: “the crowd of people willing to join you in taking responsibility gets smaller by the second.”

This is why he is so impressed by Geithner:

Then, beginning with his assumption of the Treasury job in November — long before he was confirmed, so he was clearly going to be beaten up on every action he took, but he went ahead and took them — he was at the lead of every major decision made in the recovery effort. (During this presidential transition period, it would have been easy to keep away from the decisions by saying that power was still in the hands of President Bush. But the Bush Administration by that point was completely spent. Someone had to step up and Tim Geithner did.)

Unlike Bo’s cowardly heroes, Geithner is a hero — repeatedly taking the lead in responding to the crises even when he knew that if he did so “he was clearly going to be beaten up on every action he took.” Geithner was abused for using stress tests.

His use of stress tests, which was roundly laughed at by everyone, worked, helping enormously to make much more transparent and less scary the situations all of the major banks were in.

The purported stress tests [see here, here, and here] did make banking seem “less scary” because they were not real and were part of the Geithner/Summers/Bernanke coverup strategy. The SDIs demanded that the accounting rules on loss recognition be junked — and the trio acceded to that travesty. Bo tells us why the SDIs demanded that they be able to hide their massive losses when he explains why he supports the Bush/Obama administration bailouts of AIG’s counterparties: “most of the banks had either insufficient or no capital.” To put it more bluntly, most of them were insolvent and the remainder had so little capital that they posed intense, global systemic risk. The Bush and Obama administration have followed a three-part strategy towards these insolvent and crippled SDIs: (1) cover up the losses through (legalized) accounting fraud, (2) launch an “everything is great” propaganda campaign (the faux stress tests were key to this tactic), and (3) provide a host of secret taxpayer subsidies to the SDIs. This strategy is the opposite of making banks “much more transparent.” The strategy is not shaped by finance, but by politics. Both administrations have sought to keep the American people from knowing about these cover-ups and secret subsidies because they know that we would not tolerate either policy. The cover-ups and secret subsidies are not simply awful financial policies; they are also a betrayal of democracy. When Bernanke writes that the sky will fall if the Fed is subject to audit it is precisely because he knows that the Fed’s policies cannot withstand scrutiny by anyone serving the interests of the citizens (as opposed to the interests of the SDIs). (John 3:20 “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light.”)

Bernanke may believe that when he acts in the interests of the SDIs he is acting in our interests. Charlie Wilson (GM President and President Eisenhower’s nominee as Secretary of Defense): “I thought that what was good for our country was good for GM, and vice versa.” But that’s the point; the Fed and so many of its senior officials such as Bernanke and Geithner are dangerous because the institution identifies too completely with the SDIs. Like Bo, they also see us as murderous populists that cannot be trusted to make democratic decisions about SDIs. Calling Geithner’s and Bernanke’s cover-ups and secret subsidies “transparency” is Orwellian. The best one can say is that Paulson, Geithner, and Bernanke decided (undemocratically) that it had become necessary to destroy capitalism and democracy in order to save them.

Bo’s final claim in support of his martyrdom motif is:

Tim Geithner acted. He acted at the moment action was required … with the fullknowledge that he would face exactly what he is now facing.

Get off his back.

Luckily, I like Star Trek so I have experience puzzling through time paradoxes similar to the one Bo presents here. Geithner had “full knowledge … that he would face exactly what he is now facing.” What he’s facing is calls for him to resign his position as Treasury Secretary. He became Treasury Secretary in 2009. Bo, however, emphasizes:

Starting from late 2007, as the crisis began to unfold, Geithner was at the spear point of every issue and, along with Bernanke, was a creative policy maker who clearly saw the immense dangers we faced and stretched all of the powers of the Federal Reserve Board to find solutions no one else could.

So, Geithner acted “from late 2007″ with “full knowledge” that his actions would be so unpopular that it would destroy his career and that he “would face exactly what he is now facing” (calls for him to resign as Treasury Secretary). Geithner’s career went ballistic after “late 2007.” In 2009, President Obama appointed him Treasury Secretary and has moved to reappoint Bernanke as Fed Chairman. Those are the two most prestigious financial positions in the world. Exactly which aspect of being promoted to his dream job made Geithner a martyr? Where can we sign up for similar martyrdom? Tevye’s response to Perchik’s claim that “money is the world’s curse” applies to Bo’s claim that Bernanke’s promotion makes him a martyr.

May the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover. [Fiddler on the Roof.]

All time paradoxes are, of course, paradoxical and Bo’s doesn’t disappoint. How exactly did Geithner know in “late 2007″ that (1) Obama would be elected President, (2) would appoint Geithner as his Treasury Secretary, and (3) that he would face calls in 2009 to resign as Treasury Secretary?

Why Praise Faux Martyrs When Ed Gray is Available?

If Bo wants to praise a real regulatory martyr — one who got the finance and regulatory issues correct early enough to prevent an economic crisis, reregulated successfully in the face of virulent, powerful opposition, and who did so despite knowing that it would destroy his career at a point where he was in financial distress the obvious candidate is Ed Gray. As Paul Volcker wrote about Ed Gray in a post-publication blurb for my book, The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One:

Bill Black has detailed an alarming story about financial and political corruption….the lessons are as fresh as the morning newspaper. One of those lessons really sticks out: one brave man with a conscience could stand up for us all.
Paul Volcker was Ed Gray’s only pillar of support for his reregulation of the S&L industry. When Gray became Federal Home Loan Bank Board Chairman in 1983 the S&L industry was coming out of the first (interest rate risk) phase of the debacle but descending into an even more severe second phase of accounting control fraud. The National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement’s 1993 report on the causes of the debacle explained the characteristic failure pattern:

The typical large failure was a stockholder-owned, state-chartered institution in Texas or California where regulation and supervision were most lax…. [It] had grown at an extremely rapid rate, achieving high concentrations of assets in risky ventures…. [E]very accounting trick available was used to make the institution look profitable, safe, and solvent. Evidence of fraud was invariably present as was the ability of the operators to “milk” the organization through high dividends and salaries, bonuses, perks and other means (NCFIRRE 1993: 3-4).

In 1983, the S&L accounting control frauds grew at an average rate of 50%. The Texas state S&L Commissioner was sleeping with prostitutes provided by the second worst control fraud in the nation - Vernon Savings (known as “Vermin” to its federal regulators). The California state commissioner, according to the documents, was secretly in business with the worst control fraud in the nation - Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings. Texas and California approved over 300 new S&L charters. Most of them were troubled real estate developers with severe conflicts of interest. Many of them were control frauds. The rate of applications for new charters was expanding.

Gray’s predecessor, Richard Pratt (a theoclassical finance professor) led the deregulation of the industry at a time of mass insolvency. He also largely desupervised the industry. He gimmicked the accounting rules to cover up losses and create fictional income. He cut the number of examiners. There were no criminal referrals or prosecutions of senior S&L officials. The industry was completely out of control. A regional bubble in commercial real estate was already growing in 1983.

Gray reregulated and re-supervised the industry. He ended most regulatory accounting abuses. He doubled the number of examiners and supervisors (over the vigorous objection of OPM and OMB). We began targeting the worst control frauds for closure while they were still reporting record profits and minimal losses. We adopted a rule restricting growth aimed at the Achilles’ heel of every Ponzi scheme - the need to grow massively. Gray brought in experienced regulators with a track record of vigor, courage, and professionalism and put them in place in the Dallas (Joe Selby) and San Francisco (Mike Patriarca) because they were the two worst regions. We deliberately burst the Southwest’s commercial real estate bubble.

Gray put in place a system of criminal referrals and made supporting criminal prosecutions a top priority. The agency (and here great credit must also be given to OTS Director Ryan and the Department of Justice and FBI) effort was so successful that over 1000 “priority” felony convictions of senior S&Ls insiders were obtained - the most successful effort in history against elite white-collar criminals.

We almost always resolved serious failures in a manner that wiped out entirely “risk capital” (shareholders and subordinated debt holders). Gray blocked Texas’ and California’s land rush style grants of hundreds of new charters by refusing to approve FSLIC insurance for any new S&Ls in those states. Gray did all this with the certain knowledge (which he often stated to us) that it would end his career. He was in his 50s and he was in financial distress, so he knew the sacrifice he would make would be severe.

Gray took on, simultaneously, the Reagan administration (particularly Don Regan and the OMB), a majority of the members of the House (who co-sponsored a resolution calling on us not to reregulate), House Speaker Jim Wright, five U.S. Senators (the “Keating Five”), the S&L trade association (which some political scientists rated the third most powerful in the U.S., his two fellow Bank Board members, much of the agency (including two of our economists that met secretly with Keating’s lawyers), and most of the media (which sometimes referred to him as “Mr. Ed” - from the TV program about the talking horse). Charles Keating sued him in his personal capacity for $400 million. The administration threatened to prosecute him for closing too many insolvent S&Ls (under the Anti-Deficiency Act). The administration tried to appoint two members chosen by Charles Keating (the most notorious S&L control fraud) to the agency (which would have given them majority control of the three-person Bank Board). (Pause for two minutes and consider how catastrophic it would have been if the administration had succeeded in giving control of the agency to that decade’s most notorious control fraud.) He served as a “mole” for Keating and proposed to amend the direct investment rule (which Lincoln Savings had violated by more than $600 million) that would have had the effect of exempting it from enforcement. Lincoln’s lawyers drafted the amendment (which, of course, never mentioned Lincoln). I blew the whistle on Keating’s mole, which eventually led him to resign. After I blew the whistle (but before he resigned), the administration nominated him for a full term. The day after he resigned four U.S. Senators (the “Keating Five” minus Senator Riegle) met with Gray to pressure him not to take enforcement action against Lincoln’s massive violation of the direct investment rule.

Don Regan tried very hard to force Gray to resign. He refused, so Treasury Secretary Baker met secretly with Speaker Wright (who, at the behest of Texas control frauds, was holding our proposed bill to recapitalize the FSLIC insurance fund hostage in order to prevent us from securing the funds to close more of the control frauds). Baker and Wright reached a cynical deal: the administration would not reappoint Gray to a new term and would not oppose Wright’s demands for “regulatory forbearance” (which included debasing - again - the accounting rules and adopting other measures drafted by attorneys for the control frauds designed to make it far harder to close insolvent S&Ls. Wright agreed that he would support a $15 billion FSLIC recapitalization bill (instead of the $5 billion bill that the industry and control frauds supported. Wright got the better of the deal because his allies spread the word that the Speaker didn’t really support the $15 billion bill and the House voted for the $5 billion bill.

Gray remains unemployed and unemployable today. But he doesn’t have to avoid mirrors.

Unlike Geithner, Paulson, and Bernanke, Gray acted before the epidemic of accounting control fraud produced a bubble so large that it produced a general economic crisis. Consider what would have happened had Gray not reregulated and resupervised the industry beginning in November 1983. The roughly 300 control frauds in 1984 would have grown at 50% annually and scores of new Texas and California frauds would have entered each year. The result would have been a commercial real estate bubble of epic proportions. Such a bubble would have taken down not only the S&L industry, but also the banking industry (which had massive commercial real estate exposure) and would have severely damaged the insurance industry (which provides much of the permanent/takeout financing for commercial real estate). We cannot yet demonstrate when a bubble will collapse, but we know that accounting control fraud epidemics are capable of extending the life of financial bubbles and hyper-inflating them for several years. The direct losses among S&Ls, absent Gray’s reregulation, would have been over a trillion dollars within five years. The losses to banks and insurance companies would have exceeded the S&L losses. Losses of that magnitude would have caused a severe recession.

It also needs to be stressed that subprime and alt-a loans, qualifying loans based on teaser rates, bonuses to loan officers based on volume (not loan quality), inflated appraisals, and accounting control fraud are not new. They always end badly. Mike Patriarca lead the supervisory effort in 1990-92 that prevented a nonprime lending crisis by forbidding lending practices that we have long known end in disaster. He then left federal service and went into business.

You might think that the first two calls Geithner, Paulson, Summers, Rubin, and Bernanke would have made once they finally realized there was a crisis would have been to Ed Gray and Mike Patriarca to see how successful reregulation is accomplished and how one successfully prosecutes the accounting control frauds that drove the current crisis. But, if you think that you probably also think that the one regulator that stood openly in support of Gray’s reregulation of the industry — Paul Volcker — would be President Obama’s primary economic advisor. Instead, Summers, Geithner, and Bernanke have marginalized Volcker. The Bush and Clinton anti-regulatory Wrecking Crews remain in power in the Obama administration despite a dismal record. They are never held accountable. Bo wants them left in power. He wants us to stop criticizing their failures, to apologize to them for our ingratitude, and to honor them for the terrible career sacrifices they have (mythically) made to protect us from harm.

I disagree. I urge us to learn the lessons not simply of regulatory failures but regulatory and prosecutorial successes (the Gray and Ryan years). Mike Patriarca is in his prime. Put him in charge of a major regulatory agency immediately. Paul Volcker is a national treasure that petty, power-hungry failures (yes, I mean Summers) are wasting.

Oh, and Jim Baker, Jim Wright, and John McCain should show some class and apologize for the shoddy treatment they handed out. Let me be clear on this last point - they shouldn’t apologize for the shoddy treatment of Ed Gray the man - they should apologize for the damage they caused our nation when they took their policy advice from major political contributors (that were leading control frauds) and impeded Gray’s substantive reforms that were essential to protecting our citizens.

Roosevelt Institute Braintruster William K. Black is an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a white-collar criminologist and was a senior financial regulator. He is the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.