Friday, May 22, 2009

Geithner Calls for ‘Very Substantial’ Change in Wall Street Pay

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called for major changes in compensation practices at financial companies and said the Obama administration’s plan to help realign pay with performance will be rolled out by mid-June.

“I don’t think we can go back to the way it was,” Geithner said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” to be aired tonight and over the weekend. “We’re going to need to see very, very substantial change.”

He said that Wall Street’s pay practices, which include big year-end bonuses, encouraged excessive risk-taking and helped precipitate the financial crisis. What’s needed is a set of broad standards that financial supervisors can use to make sure that doesn’t happen again, he said.

The administration’s pay plan would be part of a proposed comprehensive overhaul of financial regulation aimed at both protecting consumers and reducing vulnerability to crises. Geithner has previously ruled out setting specific caps on pay and declined to alter existing compensation contracts.

In a wide-ranging interview, the Treasury chief declined to say whether the administration would propose stripping the Securities and Exchange Commission of some of its powers as part of the plan and dismissed suggestions of a rift with Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair.

Geithner, 47, shied away from declaring the financial crisis over, saying that credit is still tight and interest rates are still high for many business borrowers. He forecast that would improve gradually as companies and consumers reduced their debt levels to more financially manageable levels.

Recovery Process

“That’s going to make the process of recovery somewhat slower than it would otherwise be,” he added.

The Treasury chief said it was a “real concern” that some banks that had received money from the government would pay it back too quickly. To discourage that from happening, banks that want to repay must show they have a lot more capital than they need and are able to raise money from the private sector “on a substantial scale” without government help, he said.

Geithner told lawmakers earlier this week that every $1 of capital at banks can generate more than $8 of lending. Still, he said in the interview that the Treasury won’t require that banks commit to specific increases in their lending as a precondition for paying the government back.
‘Deep Trouble’

“Lots of countries have got themselves in deep trouble with policies that force their banks to lend,” he said. “That’s likely to lead to a weaker, less efficient banking system, a less efficient economy.”

The government has distributed almost $300 billion in capital to about 600 U.S. banks and financial firms under the $700 billion financial rescue package approved by Congress last year. A number of lenders, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley, have applied to repay the government funds.

Geithner is under pressure to act quickly to rein in the financial services industry.

“No one bails out little grocery stores,” U.S. Representative Jose Serrano, a Democrat from New York, told the Treasury chief at a hearing in Washington yesterday.

As part of its efforts to combat the crisis, the Treasury is putting together a Public-Private Investment Program to purchase as much as $1 trillion in distressed mortgage-backed securities and other assets from the banks. The partnerships would use $75 billion to $100 billion of government funds.

Bank Pressure

Geithner played down expectations that the program would ramp up quickly once it was launched and declined to say whether banks should be pressured to participate if it doesn’t, as the FDIC’s Bair has suggested.

“We want to get these programs in place and see how they work,” he said. “They can be helpful and valuable in putting a floor under things, even if they don’t see a lot of early participation.”

Geithner said the credit crisis reflected “systematic failures” in financial oversight that would require “pretty significant changes across the board.” Among the changes the administration is considering IS the establishment of an independent agency tasked with consumer protection.

The SEC may be stripped of some of its powers under the regulatory restructuring plan being put together by Geithner and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, people familiar with the matter have said. In one scenario, the agency would lose its oversight of mutual funds to a new agency for policing consumer-finance products.

SEC Resources

Geithner praised SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro and said he would support giving her agency more resources where needed. He declined to say whether he thought the SEC should lose oversight of mutual funds as part of the overhaul.

He also said the administration is working with top lawmakers to craft a new regulator that would police risk across the financial system. He said no judgments have been made yet about who would fill that task, or what the roles of the Federal Reserve and Treasury will be. A “white paper” on the subject is due in several weeks, he said.

The Treasury chief brushed off suggestions that he and Summers were at odds with the FDIC’s Bair and that the two didn’t consider her a team player. He called Bair “very creative” and said that he had worked very closely with her.

“One of her great strengths is she’s a strong advocate for her agency and strong advocate of her points of view,” Geithner said. “That’s the kind of thing that everybody wants around the table, including Larry Summers.”

The Treasury chief belittled charges by former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders that President Barack Obama was adopting a socialist agenda. While markets can’t solve all America’s problems, the administration recognizes their importance, he said.

“It’s the least plausible charge anybody could say,” Geithner said. “The president understands how important markets and businesses are to the future prosperity of the U.S.”