One almost feels sorry for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
He’s a punchline in his own country because he oversees the IRS even though he conveniently forgot to declare $80,000 of income (and managed to get away with punishment that wouldn’t even qualify as a slap on the wrist).
Now he’s becoming a a bit of a joke in Europe. Earlier this month, a wide range of European policy makers basically told the Treasury Secretary to take a long walk off a short pier when he tried to offer advice on Europe’s fiscal crisis.
And the latest development is that the German Finance Minister basically said Geithner was “stupid” for a new bailout scheme. Here’s an excerpt from the UK-based Daily Telegraph:
“Germany and America were on a collision course on Tuesday night over the handling of Europe’s debt crisis after Berlin savaged plans to boost the EU rescue fund as a “stupid idea” and told the White House to sort out its own mess before giving gratuitous advice to others. German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble said it would be a folly to boost the EU’s bail-out machinery (EFSF) beyond its €440bn lending limit by deploying leverage to up to €2 trillion, perhaps by raising funds from the European Central Bank. ”I don’t understand how anyone in the European Commission can have such a stupid idea. The result would be to endanger the AAA sovereign debt ratings of other member states. It makes no sense,” he said."
All that’s missing in the story is Geithner channeling his inner Forrest Gump and responding that “Stupid is as stupid does.”
This little spat reminds me of the old saying that there is no honor among thieves. Geithner wants to do the wrong thing. The German government wants to do the wrong thing. And every other European government wants to do the wrong thing. They’re merely squabbling over the best way of picking German pockets to subsidize the collapsing welfare states of Southern Europe. But that’s actually not accurate. German politicians don’t really want to give money to the Greeks and Portuguese.
The real story of the bailouts is that politicians from rich nations are trying to indirectly protect their banks, which – as shown in this chart – are in financial trouble because they foolishly thought lending money to reckless welfare states was a risk-free exercise.
Europe’s political class claims that bailouts are necessary to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, but this is nonsense – much as American politicians were lying (or bamboozled) when they supported TARP.
It is a relatively simple matter for a government to put a bank in receivership, hold all depositors harmless, and then sell off the assets. Or to subsidize the takeover of an insolvent institution. This is what America did during the savings & loan bailouts 20 years ago. Heck, it’s also what happened with IndyMac and WaMu during the recent financial crisis. And it’s what the Swedish government basically did in the early 1990s when that nation had a financial crisis.
But politicians don’t like this “FDIC-resolution” approach because it means wiping out shareholders, bondholders, and senior management of institutions that made bad economic choices. And that would mean reducing moral hazard rather than increasing it. And it would mean stiff-arming campaign contributors and protecting the interests of taxpayers.
Heaven forbid those things happen. After all, as Bastiat told us, “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”
Dan Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the DC-based Cato Institute, America's leading libertarian think tank, and he blogs about policy issues at International Liberty. This article was authored for the Centre for Policy Studies and also appears at Daniel's blog.