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04/25/2009

Notes From a Press Conference Naif

I was in attendance at Tim Geithner's press conference yesterday, at which he spoke briefly about the G7 Ministers meeting and answered a few questions. I hope it isn't too damaging to my credibility as an economics writer to say it was the first time I saw the secretary in person. He deviated pretty significantly from the text we'd been given beforehand -- a friend said you could almost see him reading ahead of himself and editing out any potentially newsworthy word or phrase -- but it didn't much affect his delivery, which I found both choppy and deliberative, but quite confident.

I didn't expect him to make news, and in fact he didn't. A few of his statements particularly interested me. He repeatedly reiterated his understanding that a banking fix is crucial to recovery, and that time and again countries have suffered unnecessarily from acting too tentatively to fix their banks. He's clearly not ignorant of the arguments being made by his challengers in the economics and finance press, but he seems to think that Treasury's policy trajectory is sufficient. Along those lines, when asked whether he was at all concerned about Barney Frank's decision to go slow on a regulatory reform bill that would have included new powers for the government to take complex financial institutions into receivership, Geithner gave a resounding no. Whatever the Treasury's plans for the banking system in the wake of the stress tests, it would not seem to include the possibility of a "traditional" nationalization for a firm like Citigroup.

As a newcomer to such proceedings, it was very difficult for me not to stand up and demand of the secretary, "Look, just tell us what you actually think you'll have to do about Citi and Bank of America. Get real with us for a second. What's the plan! You must have something more than PPIP in the works." But I was able to restrain myself. I was momentarily struck a little woozy contemplating the weight of the responsibility on the secretary, however. The man is at the fulcrum of history, with the fates of hundreds of millions of lives hanging on his decisions. The pressure was almost visible; I could imagine it crumpling him up like a scrap piece of paper.

But it didn't. He bore it remarkably well, speaking and occasionally smiling, and parrying questions from the gathered reporters. After the show, the consensus among the press was pretty clear -- he's a real slick talker. Made me wonder for a minute if Geithner feels the weight of the job at all, or believes himself to be in control of it. I suppose that to function in the face of so daunting a task as his, you have to forget its magnitude and convince yourself you can manage it. Unjustifed overconfidence is the only way to do the job; to be constantly in tune with the scope of the disaster is to be paralyzed by fear. Forget humility. The humble never dare to take the reins.

Related Links
Harder Times
The Stress Test Blind Alley
Citigroup Questions



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