By James Kwak
These days, some papers get more attention when they are in draft form than when they are published, in part because of the length of the review and publication cycle. Recall the Romer and Romer paper on the impact of tax changes, or the Philippon and Reshef paper on the financial sector, both of which made huge splashes years before they were finally published. My best-known paper also falls in that category. “The Value of Connections in Turbulent Times” began knocking around the Internet in 2013, and is only now being published by the Journal of Financial Economics—nine years after we began working on it, and at a time when the world seems to have completely moved on from its subject. (Note: that link will allow you to download the published version of the paper for free, but only until September 4, 2016. Thanks Elsevier, I guess.)
The paper, as you may have heard years back, shows that financial institutions with connections to Tim Geithner experienced abnormal positive market returns when his nomination to be treasury secretary was leaked and then announced in November 2008, and suffered abnormal negative returns when the news of his tax issues threatened to undermine his confirmation in January 2009. The interesting thing is that this is not ordinarily supposed to happen in the United States. Having connections to important government officials is not supposed to provide financial benefits to a company, and therefore nominations of those officials do not usually produce stock market bumps. The evidence is not completely one-sided, but in one representative example, researchers found that companies with connections to Dick Cheney did not experience abnormal returns in response to unexpected news about Cheney. This is in contrast to developing countries, where numerous studies have found that connections to important politicians are reflected in stock market valuations.
But it’s less clear why the markets (which, remember, are made up of at least some supposedly rational investors) thought that having connections to Geithner would pay off. Our main argument—after testing and discarding a bunch of other possibilities, like the effect was due to Citigroup, or to very large banks—is that, in the confusion of the time, it seemed likely that the treasury secretary would be given a large amount of discretion; and the more discretion that is available to an official, the more valuable it is simply to be able to get a meeting with him, or get him to return your phone call. You don’t have to think that Tim Geithner would consciously help out someone he served on a board with, or someone he had spent time with as president of the New York Fed; you just have to think that people are influenced by the people they spend time with, and so access matters.
This isn’t how we think our government is supposed to operate, but of course it’s how we all realize that it does operate. That’s one reason why individuals and corporations are willing to donate huge amounts of money to super PACs—so they can get access when they need it. What was unusual about the financial crisis was that, with the financial system and economy apparently falling apart, the value of those connections was much higher than usual. It also showed how, when push came to shove, the United States’ political institutions behaved more like those of a developing country than we would care to believe—the central point of Simon’s famous Atlantic article.
By James Kwak
Over the years, Tim Geithner has come in for a lot of well-deserved criticism: for putting banks before homeowners, for lobbying for Citigroup when it wanted to buy Wachovia, for denying even the possibility of taking over failed banks, and so on. The release of his book, whatever it’s called, has revived these various debates. Geithner is certainly not the man I would want making crucial decisions for our country. But it’s also important to remember that he was only an upper manager. The man who called the shots was his boss: Barack Obama.
That’s the theme of Jesse Eisinger’s column this week. I’m on Eisinger’s email list, and he described the tendency to focus on Tim Geithner—while ignoring the role of the president—as “If only the Tsar knew what the Cossacks are doing!” I wasn’t familiar with the Russian version, but I’ve always been fond of the seventeenth-century French version. In September 2009, for example, Simon and I wrote this about the financial reform debate:
“During the reign of Louis XIV, when the common people complained of some oppressive government policy, they would say, ‘If only the king knew . . . .’ Occasionally people will make similar statements about Barack Obama, blaming the policies they don’t like on his lieutenants.
“But Barack Obama, like Louis XIV before him, knows exactly what is going on.”
By Simon Johnson
In an interview Thursday on PBS NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had the following exchange:
“JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think Jamie Dimon should be off the board [of the New York Federal Reserve Board]?
TIMOTHY GEITHNER: Well, that’s a question he’ll have to make and the Fed will have to make. But again, on the basic point, which is it is very important, particularly given the damage caused by the crisis, that our system of oversight and safeguards and the enforcement authorities have not just the resources they need, but they are perceived to be above any political influence and have the independence and the ability to make sure these reforms are tough and effective so we protect the American people, again, from a crisis like this. And we’re going to, we’re going to do that.”
In the diplomatic language of Treasury communications, Mr. Geithner just told Jamie Dimon to resign from the New York Fed board (here is the current board composition). It looks bad – and it is bad – to have him on the board of this key part of the Federal Reserve System at a time when his bank is under investigation with regard to its large trading losses and the apparent failure of its risk management system. (Update: Mr. Dimon is on the Management and Budget Committee of the NY Fed board; here is the committee’s charter, which includes reviewing and endorsing “the framework for compensation of the Bank’s senior executives (Senior Vice President and above)”.)
Mr. Geithner’s call is a major and perhaps unprecedented development which can go in one of two ways. Continue reading
By Simon Johnson
In a major speech earlier this week to an American Bankers Association conference, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner laid out his view of what went wrong in the financial sector prior to 2008, how the crisis was handled 2008-10, and what is now needed with regard to implementation of reforms. As chair of the Financial Stability Oversight Council and the only senior member of President Obama’s original economic team remaining in place, Mr. Geithner’s influence with regard to the banking system is second to none.
Unfortunately, there are three major mistakes in Mr. Geithner’s speech: his history is completely wrong; his logic is deeply flawed; and his interpretation of the Dodd-Frank reform does not mesh with the legal facts regarding how the failure of a global megabank could be handled. Added together, this suggests one of our most powerful policymakers is headed very much in the wrong direction. Continue reading
By Simon Johnson. This post comprises the first few paragraphs of a column now running at Project Syndicate: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/johnson17/English
In a recent interview, United States Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner laid out his view of the nature of world economic growth and the role of the US financial sector. It is a deeply disturbing vision, one that amounts to a huge, uninformed gamble with the future of the American economy – and that suggests that Geithner remains the senior public official worldwide who is most in thrall to the self-serving ideology of big banks.
Geithner argues that the world will now experience a major “financial deepening,” owing to growing demand in emerging markets for financial products and services. He is thinking, of course, of “middle-income” countries like India, China, and Brazil. And he is right to emphasize that all have made terrific progress and now offer great opportunities for the rising middle class, which wants to accumulate savings, borrow more easily (for productive investment, home purchases, education, etc), and, more generally, smooth out consumption.
But then Geithner takes a leap. He wants US banks to take the lead in these countries’ financial development….(column continues at Project Syndicate.)
By Simon Johnson
In modern American life, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner stands out as amazingly resilient and remarkably lucky – despite presiding over or being deeply involved in a series of political debacles, he has gone from strength to strength. After at least eight improbably bounce backs, he might seem unassailable. But his latest mistake – blocking Elizabeth Warren from heading the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – may well prove politically fatal.
Geithner was a junior but key member of the US Treasury team that badly mishandled the early days of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and received widespread criticism (Life #1). He was promoted as a result and thereafter enjoyed a meteoric rise.
As President of the New York Federal Reserve from 2003, and de facto head of the government’s financial intelligence service, he completely failed to spot the problems developing in and around the country’s financial markets; nothing about this embarrassing track record has since stood in his way (Life #2). He subsequently became Hank Paulson’s Wall Street point person for one of the most comprehensively bungled bailouts of all time – the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP, which in fall 2008 first appalled Congress with its intentions and then wasn’t used at all as advertised (Life #3). Continue reading
By Simon Johnson
We live in an age of unprecedented bailouts. The Greek package of support from the eurozone this weekend marks a high tide for the principle that complete, unconditional, and fundamentally dangerous protection must be extended to creditors whenever something “big” gets into trouble.
The Greek bailout appears on the scene just as the US Treasury is busy attempting to trumpet the success of TARP – and, by implication, the idea that massive banks should be saved through capital injections and other emergency measures. Officials come close to echoing what the Lex column of the Financial Times already argued, with some arrogance, in fall 2009: the financial crisis wasn’t so bad – no depression resulted and bonuses stayed high, so why do we need to change anything at all?
But think more closely about the Greek situation and draw some comparisons with what we continue to learn about how Lehman Brothers operated (e.g., in today’s New York Times). Continue reading