In this interview with Wall Street Journal Deputy Managing Editor Alan Murray, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner answered questions submitted by users of Digg.com. One of the most popular topics was Ron Paul’s bill to audit the Federal Reserve.
Tim Geithner: “There are certain things about what the Fed does that you need to make sure that you preserve as independent of political influence. And that line is a line we don’t want to cross. And I think even [Ron Paul] recognizes how important it is to us to have the Fed independent of politics”.
Alan Murray: I’m Alan Murray with the Wall Street and I’m here at the US Treasury Building with the man of the house, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, conducting a Digg dialogue. Secretary Geithner, thanks very much for being here.
Tim Geithner: Nice to see you Al.
Alan Murray: I think you know how this works. I’m merely a prop in this exercise. My job is to ask the questions that have been offered up by the Digg online community. There were thousands of questions proposed and then members of the community voted on those questions. I’m going to ask you the top ten. The first one came from Borez. These people don’t always use their real names, but that’s his Digg name, 1,134 diggs, why has the Federal Reserve Bank never been audited?
Tim Geithner: You know, the Fed actually is subject to very comprehensive oversight by the Congress, by a series of external auditors, and it does play this very important role in the system and that requires that Congress have the ability to do a very careful review of how it conducts its operations, but very important is, I’m sure the people understand, that you’d want to keep politics out of monetary policy, and there are good reasons for that.
We went through centuries of financial crises in the United States, at least two, before the Fed was established. Those crises were produced in part by the fact that we didn’t have a central bank with independent ability to deal with these kinds of things and you will keep those kinds of things away from political influence that can compromise the effect in this policy.
Alan Murray: But as this shows there clearly is a group of people out there that feels very passionately about this. The third question on the list was 712 Diggs was from Motobike_man who said, “What is your position on Ron Paul’s House Resolution 1207?” which, as I understand it, calls for a comprehensive audit of the Fed. Why does this persists if as you say the Fed is already fully audited?
Tim Geithner: Well, the Fed is dramatically more transparent than it was, is subject to a very comprehensive oversight and audits, but there are certain things about what the Fed does, that again you need to make sure that you preserve as independent from political influence and that line is in the line that we don’t want to cross, and I think even the sponsor of that bill recognizes how important it is to us to have the Fed independent of politics and I’m sure many of the people concerned about the Federal Reserve System and will understand that it would be problematic for the country if you let politicians come in and shape conduct of monetary policy in the country.
Alan Murray: You don’t want to cross the line, but does this kind of concern indicate that maybe the line needs to be moved?
Tim Geithner: Well, the… yeah, okay.
Alan Murray: That maybe the Fed needs to be more transparent than it’s been in the past.
Tim Geithner: Yeah, I do. I think it’s very important and I think this chairman has been… has gone a long way to open up the workings of the Fed, so that people can assess them and remember, what the Fed does every day, people can see and they make their judgment about whether they’re having the right impact in terms of making sure we’re sustaining growth with low inflation. Those actions, you know, are subject to the test of the market probably really every day, every hour you can see and people can judge for themselves whether the Fed is doing what it’s supposed to do under the laws of the land.
Alan Murray: Well, some of them clearly don’t like what they see. The 9th question on the list was from zwendkos, 357 Diggs. He wrote, “You are a member of the Federal Reserve,” I think he meant you were a member of the Federal Reserve, “a group that has so thoroughly mismanaged our monetary policy that they helped create a massive housing bubble because of the foolish loans and speculation enabled by the low interest rates and then you were involved in a horribly mismanaged bailout that hasn’t freed up credit markets and can’t even account for all that is spent. Why are you running the Treasury Department?” It was the end of the question. How do you respond and that was number 9 on the list.
Tim Geithner: I’m running the Treasury because this President asked me to do it and the Senate confirmed me for that position. What the… you know, this is a terrible mess we’re in as a country and this crisis had a lot of causes. One of the causes was that monetary policy around the world was too loose too long. Interest rates were too low and so you had too much…
Alan Murray: [...] misjudgment by the Fed?
Tim Geithner: Well, again, the Fed moved to tighten its strings way ahead of other countries, but as the Fed tightened most countries around the world still kept interest rates very low and you had this huge increase in wealth around the world creating resources that were looking for investment opportunities and that money flowed into the United States and pushed down long-term interest rates even as the Fed tightened and that did help contribute to the housing boom we saw.
But that boom we say here was present in many countries around the world. It was a broad, global monetary policy judgment that helped produce that, but that was not the only thing. You know, we also had very systematic failures of supervision and regulation that allowed a huge amount of leverage to build up, risk to build up outside the traditional protections and constraints and those misjudgment by people running financial institutions and those failures and supervision brought this economy to the edge of collapse.
Alan Murray: Some people do wonder why given this history, it makes sense now to give more power to the Federal Reserve as your financial reform bill does.
Tim Geithner: I want to go back to the first part or the last part of the question, though. People want to look back over this crisis with the benefit of a little more perspective and make judgments about what we got right, what we got wrong. We did not move soon enough to put in place powerful enough measures to contain the damage of this crisis. We waited too long. We came at the crisis without adequate tools, not just to prevent crises, to prevent this kind of build up in leverage accessories taking we say, but to contain the damage of failure when it happened. Those were tragic mistakes. That’s what made this crisis so much more damaging than it should have been and that’s why it’s so important that we pass regulatory reform, financial reform, that gives us better powers to prevent crises and to manage them better and that will require changing a lot of things.
Alan Murray: Another question or another institution that’s very much on the mind of the Digg community is Goldman Sachs. Larryjr88 asked, this is the question with 728 Diggs. He asks, “Goldman Sachs is a large profit-seeking company, which you were/are a part of. Isn’t it a conflict of interest to funnel tax dollars into this private company using your new position as Secretary of the Treasury, keeping in mind that you and your old buddies benefit monetarily? Maybe I’m mistaken, but isn’t this a textbook example of political corruption?” Were you ever employed by Goldman Sachs?
Tim Geithner: I have never worked for Goldman Sachs. In fact, I spent almost my entire professional life since I left school working in the public sector as a public servant.
Alan Murray: Do you own any stocks in Goldman Sachs?
Tim Geithner: I don’t, so…
Alan Murray: Have you ever done any work for Goldman Sachs?
Tim Geithner: No.
Alan Murray: Have been in the pay for Goldman Sachs?
Tim Geithner: No.
Alan Murray: So where does this…
Tim Geithner: You know what? It’s like the thing about our age. You know, these things get some sailings and currency. It’s kind of crazy, but it does demonstrate a really important thing, which is that it’s very important that people understand that the people that hold these jobs, people that work in these positions need to be held to the highest tenets of integrity and we would never ever have people in these jobs who would do anything for the benefit of an individual company or individual firm and that is a very important obligation that all of us have.
Alan Murray: But that’s a serious question that lies behind this. There’s another question here. It’s the 5th question from keythb with 579 Diggs. It says, “How do you feel about the revolving door between high job positions in the Treasury Department and Goldman Sachs?” You worked for Bob Rubin who ran Goldman Sachs before he was Treasury Secretary.
Tim Geithner: I was… I worked for him as a civil servant at the Treasury.
Alan Murray: But while he was Treasury Secretary…
Tim Geithner: And while he was Treasury Secretary, not a Goldman Sachs.
Alan Murray: Not a Goldman Sachs. Right. You… Hank Paulson was your predecessor as Secretary of the Treasury.
Tim Geithner: Yes, right.
Alan Murray: He ran Goldman Sachs. Steve Friedman, who was co-head of Goldman Sachs was the chairman of your board…
Tim Geithner: At my request.
Alan Murray: At your request that the New York Federal Reserve Board. I think you have some Goldman… your chief of staff was a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs. Clearly this makes some people nervous.
Tim Geithner: These are… let me just say this, these are deeply honorable men, great public statesman, willing to come serve their country in very challenging times and did exceptionally good things for the country. It’s very important to recognize that. We’re in a position where this government was forced to do exceptional things to save the economy from the brink of the catastrophe and the people that this country need to make sure we have people in these jobs here with experience in markets, so as we negotiate with these firms to protect the taxpayer and make sure we’re getting our money back that we have people that understand these markets can actually understand them. So we will always be, as the Treasury has always done, we will always be looking for people with experience in the financial community, in business community coming in these jobs because that is important for the American people and just one important fact, you know, we’re making some progress in, even already, in walking back some of the broad investments that we had to make in the industry and we’re doing a relatively good job at earning a good return for the taxpayer. Just to give you one example, the average return we’ve had on the $80 billion of capital of investments the government made that we’ve now had repaid, the average return for us is roughly 16 percent in annual rate. That’s a pretty good…
Alan Murray: You talk about the Goldman Sachs investment…
Tim Geithner: Higher than that.
Alan Murray: Higher than 16.
Tim Geithner: I think the Goldman thing is in the mid-20s, but the important thing is that you need to have people in these jobs. These are complicated and difficult in any times. They’re exceptionally difficult and complicated in a kind of crisis like this and the American people need to have people here who understand and can negotiate effectively, can do various other things to make sure we’re protecting the financial interest of the American people.
Alan Murray: Okay, but key period lies in… Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail. Lehman, a major competitor of Goldman Sachs. The next day, AIG is bailed out by the government. AIG was on the other side of numerous credit default swaps that Goldman Sachs was involved in. During that week, we now know that Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs was on the phone a couple dozen times with Secretary Paulson and he says he was on the phone some with you that same week. Are you surprised that that gives people a sense of inappropriate contact between these institutions?
Tim Geithner: Alan, like the things we’ve been through as a country, we still face… have made the American people just deeply angry and frustrated and skeptical about the quality of judgments made by this government. It’s a completely understandable thing and we have been forced to do just extraordinary things and frankly, offensive things, to help save the economy from the risk of even more catastrophic damage and that requires… it required us in part because we had so poor tools coming into this, doing things that are going to be deeply unpopular, but we do them not for the benefit of any institution and I’m completely confident that none of those decisions that you referred to had anything to do with the specific interest of any individual firm, much less Goldman Sachs.
But… but if governments in a crisis don’t act, don’t act to help repair a damaged financial system, don’t act to provide stability and confidence, don’t act to get credit flowing again, then what we faced and learned through history, the Great Depression, Japan in the nineties, what you’ll see is much, much more damage. You’ll see hundreds of thousands of businesses fail that should not have failed. People lose their incomes, lose their pension values, lose livelihoods as you saw in the last… part of the last year. And the basic imperative, it’s a moral imperative, not just an economic imperative, in a crisis like this, to protect people who are innocent of the mistakes that brought us to this place. To make sure that they do not suffer from the judgment of others, you have to do things to provide stability and confidence and repair the damage caused by that and that is the necessary thing to do for the country.
Alan Murray: Was the relationship between Goldman Sachs and the various agencies of government in any way inappropriate in your view?
Tim Geithner: Not in my view. Absolutely not and we should never ever tolerate anybody in these positions ever doing something that would be judged as to benefit individual institutions.
Alan Murray: Okay, Question 4, again, from zwendkos, 690 diggs, “You failed to pay some of your federal taxes in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004. Please explain.” You’ve explained it before. They’re asking you to explain again.
Tim Geithner: No, it’s an understandable thing. I was the president’s nominee to be Secretary of the Treasury. You would expect my tax history to be of interest to the American people. It’s a completely understandable thing, and one great strength about our system is that people who are asked to do these jobs have to go through an exceptionally careful review of their entire financial, personal, and professional history and the great strength of our system is all that information was put in the public domain. The Congress of the United States had the opportunity to go through it over a prolonged period of time. All done and disclosed before I was first nominated, and they had a chance to make a judgment and I think, again, it’s understandable that people will be interested in looking at that question.
Alan Murray: There was second questioner who asked about that, who said, “Giving you the benefit of the doubt that you were neither inept nor corrupt but were simply overwhelmed by an overly complex tax code, what recommendations do you have for simplifying the tax code?
Tim Geithner: There are a lot of things that I think we can do to make this tax code more simple and make it easier for people to understand to comply with their obligations. The president has already made some initial headway in that, we’re putting in stronger efforts to help enforce the existing laws and collect more taxes and we’ll be making our proposals going forward to that.
Alan Murray: Question 6, from bossm4n, 520 diggs, “Last week you requested the Congress to raise the $12.1 trillion statutory debt limit, saying that it could be breached as early as mid-October. This is in addition to the increase already approved in February to accommodate the added debt from the $787 billion stimulus plan. How is this anything other than runaway government spending? What will it take for us to see US debt go in the other direction?
Tim Geithner: This is a very important issue and it’s going to… it reflects this challenge that we’re going to be living with it for a long time. We came into office with $1.2 trillion deficit. That deficit was the product of three important things: a judgment by the past administration to undertake very, very expensive tax cuts and a very expensive expansion of Medicare without paying for it. Those decisions themselves added $6 trillion in additional debt to us over the next ten years.
Also, they decided to not pay for the wars we undertook to protect our national security interests and we had a deep recession, deepest recession in generations and that itself added a substantial check to our existing deficits and we will not get through… we will not get a recovery in place, unless the American people understand that when we get through this, when we fix the damage caused by this crisis, when we get growth back on track, we need to bring those subsidies down to a sustainable level and we are completely committed to do that and the people around this president were here in office in the nineties when we produced, helped produce, under President Clinton, a [...] fiscal responsibility that helped generate one of the best, most broad-based economic expansions led by private investment, strong productivity growth, income gains more broadly shared and that basic lesson shows how important it is for us to accomplish and get this country back to where we live within our means.
Alan Murray: Well, clearly, people aren’t fully convinced of that yet. There is another question here. This was number 8 on the list, ericwithaknotac, 376 diggs, “Are you yourself troubled by the massive amount of government spending? What do you think will happen to the dollar over the next ten years? Could this provoke a dollar crisis?”
Tim Geithner: Again, like this is our basic challenge. You know, again, we inherited and started in office with a deep financial crisis. To get out of that, we were forced to do exceptional things; those were necessary things to do. There is no path to getting our deficits down over a long term that doesn’t start with gains coming back on track. It’s the necessary thing to do, but we have to make sure that people understand, not just Americans but people around the world understand that we need to return to the point where we’re back living within our means and that will require doing exceptionally difficult things over a sustained period of time. There is no choice for us, though.
Alan Murray: Well, my understanding reading the polls is the thing that has really convinced a lot of people or caused a lot of people to raise questions about the degree of your commitment to doing that is the healthcare bill. I’m talking about what was initially, at least, a trillion dollar expense that wasn’t driven by the recession. It wasn’t driven by any of the things that you just mentioned that caused the deficit to rise.
Tim Geithner: Two really important things to say on that front. The first is that our long-term deficits are mostly driven by the fact that healthcare cost in the United States are growing much more rapidly than the economy as a whole, than inflation and unless we address that and that requires comprehensive reform, we’re going to face a deeply irresponsible and unsustainable fiscal position. So healthcare reform is necessary for us to get these deficits down over time.
The president has made it clear that he is not prepared to support healthcare reform, unless it is fully paid for, fully paid for. It does not add a dollar to our national debt. So he’s going to do something his predecessors have not done, which is to make sure that a new initiative like this, which is deeply consequential for the country, is clearly done in a way that’s fiscal responsible. That means over the next ten years, it would not add a dollar to our deficits and longer term, it has to bring those cost down and I think it’s a complicated thing to understand and I think people are understandably concerned about our deficits, but we’re concerned, too, and that’s why the president decided that we need to go on healthcare reform early, so we can reduce those costs as the principal driver of this long-term deficits.
Alan Murray: Question 7 from danielrh9 with 441 diggs, “Why is the government only supporting ageing and increasingly obsolete carmakers? You’ve given an extraordinary amount of money to General Motors, but the government has failed to encourage new, innovative and cleaner forms of personal transportation, such as produced by Tesla Motors. Why has TARP money not been invested in companies such as Tesla?” I don’t know if this fellow is an investor in Tesla, but he makes an interesting point. Should we be investing in companies that are the winners in the industrial contest, not the losers?
Tim Geithner: He is right than we are, in a sense. If you look at what is in the Recovery Act, there is I think the largest program ever of government support for investment in renewable technologies across the US manufacturing industry, so that we’re moving towards a more energy-efficient economy and you know, we’re seeing… again, the largest support this country has ever contemplated to encourage greater investments and more energy-efficient technologies, not just the automobile industry, but elsewhere and we need to… we’re behind with much of the rest of the world in terms of quality of innovation in these areas and we need to fix that.
Alan Murray: Secretary Geithner, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this Digg dialogue.
Tim Geithner: I’m happy to do it. Good to see you.