Why Geithner's Treasury leadership proved divisive

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 24, 2013 at 9:46 am •  Published: January 24, 2013
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— AUTO BAILOUTS

Government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler became a political issue in 2012. Republican Mitt Romney opposed rescuing the two companies. Obama countered that the bailout saved jobs at automakers, parts companies and other businesses. Both companies are now selling more cars, hiring workers and earning profits.

But unlike with the bank and AIG bailouts, the government is expected to lose money on the auto bailouts — up to $24 billion out of the $80 billion it provided.

The auto industry rescue was begun under the Bush administration but expanded under Obama. Administration officials have said the effort saved more than 1 million jobs and came as the economy was enduring a severe crisis. Geithner was involved in crafting the auto bailout and selling it to Congress.

Private economists generally view the auto bailout favorably. "There are certainly those who argue that it could have been done in a less expensive manner, but the auto bailouts did save U.S. jobs," said David Wyss, an economics professor at Brown University.

— HOUSING CRISIS

The Bush administration took control of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in September 2008. The two have continued under government control in what became the costliest of the bailouts.

The government has given $187 billion to Fannie and Freddie and been repaid $55 billion for a net cost so far of $132 billion. The money was supplied so the two can continue to play a key role: buying or guaranteeing mortgages and packaging them into bonds to be resold to investors. This system expands the availability of mortgages.

The future of Fannie and Freddie remains hazy. Geithner's Treasury proposed several options for their future but didn't push any.

Under Geithner, Treasury compiled a mixed record of helping homeowners at risk. Of $50 billion in TARP money earmarked to reduce foreclosures, only $6 billion has been tapped. As of November, 1.1 million homeowners have received permanent loan modifications through the administration's main foreclosure-prevention program. An additional 1.5 million have been helped by the Federal Housing Administration.

The administration's initial program to ease mortgage payments for the most troubled homeowners became a source of derision. Homeowners called it a bureaucratic mess. Treasury officials countered that the administration had inherited a foreclosure crisis for which it had to devise solutions on the fly.

Critics say Geithner should have taken a harder line in forcing mortgage servicers to modify home loans. They also say he should have pushed hard to let struggling homeowners reduce their loan principal.

But Geithner's supporters say he had to deal with congressional Republicans who felt the government shouldn't be helping people escape their debts.

— FINANCIAL REGULATION

In 2010, Congress passed what the Obama administration hailed as the stiffest restrictions on banks and Wall Street since the Great Depression. The legislation, named for Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank, both Democrats, contained proposals crafted by Geithner.

It authorized the government to break up companies considered a risk to the financial system. It created an agency to safeguard consumers. And it aimed to tighten scrutiny of complex financial instruments that had previously escaped regulatory oversight and had fueled the crisis.

Geithner said the bill would reduce the risk of another crisis. But critics saw the legislation as flawed. Republicans said it created obstacles to the smooth operation of financial markets. And liberals said Geithner didn't go far enough to try to curb the worst abuses. They complained that he caved to pressure from banks to weaken the reforms.

The argument will likely continue long after Geithner's exit. Since taking control of the House in the 2010 election, Republicans have sought to dismantle Dodd-Frank.

Democrats are pushing for studies of how much benefit large banks enjoy from being deemed "too big to fail." Many Democrats want to require struggling financial firms to be dismantled rather than having taxpayers save them.