Australia’s former prime minister Paul Keating, as the Sydney Morning Herald explains, does not think much of Barack Obama’s choice of Treasury Secretary.
When Barack Obama announced his champion to rescue the world from economic ruin, it was the first time most Americans had ever heard the name Tim Geithner.
The initial impression was good. The stockmarket surged and the pundits swooned. “Exactly a decade ago, he was Uncle Sam’s golden-boy emissary sent into the stormy centre of what was then the world’s worst financial crisis [the Asian crisis],” reported The New York Post.
The paper gushed: “Just 36 at the time, he’d been raised in Asia and knew the culture so intimately he scored successes and won confidences that other diplomats couldn’t match. Geithner earned widespread plaudits for pulling together quarrelling Asian finance ministers into a $US200 billion rescue of their economies.”
“A fantastic choice,” said a Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi analyst, Chris Rupkey, as the Dow rose by nearly 6 per cent. Even one of Obama’s political rivals, the hard-bitten Republican senator Richard Shelby, agreed Geithner was “up to the challenge”.
If anyone in the US media had thought to ask a former Australian prime minister for his assessment, they would have heard a different view. And they would not have been so surprised at Geithner’s performance since.
In a speech to a closed gathering at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on Thursday, Paul Keating gave a starkly different account of Geithner’s record in handling the Asian crisis: “Tim Geithner was the Treasury line officer who wrote the IMF [International Monetary Fund] program for Indonesia in 1997-98, which was to apply current account solutions to a capital account crisis.”
In other words, Geithner fundamentally misdiagnosed the problem. And his misdiagnosis led to a dreadfully wrong prescription.
Geithner thought Asia’s problem was the same as the ones that had shattered Latin America in the 1980s and Mexico in 1994, a classic current account crisis. In this kind of crisis, the central cause is that the government has run impossibly big debts.
The solution? The IMF, the Washington-based emergency lender of last resort, will make loans to keep the country solvent, but on condition the government hacks back its spending. The cure addresses the ailment.
But the Asian crisis was completely different. The Asian governments that went to the IMF for emergency loans – Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia – all had sound public finances.
The problem was not government debt. It was great tsunamis of hot money in the private capital markets. When the wave rushed out, it left a credit drought behind.
But Geithner, through his influence on the IMF, imposed the same cure the IMF had imposed on Latin America and Mexico. It was the wrong cure. Indeed, it only aggravated the problem.
Keating continued: “Soeharto’s government delivered 21 years of 7 per cent compound growth. It takes a gigantic fool to mess that up. But the IMF messed it up. The end result was the biggest fall in GDP in the 20th century. That dubious distinction went to Indonesia. And, of course, Soeharto lost power.”