What Treasury’s thinking

By Felix Salmon
August 19, 2010
Lounsbury, Tabarrok, and Smith.

On Wednesday, there was another meeting, this time with professional, salaried bloggers, with a decidedly center-left bias. (Tim Fernholz, Mike Allen, Derek Thompson, Shahien Nasiripour, Nick Baumann, Ezra Klein, me. Matt Yglesias was literally left out in the rain, unable to get past Treasury security.)

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Treasury’s blogger meeting on Monday has been covered by quite a lot of the participants — see Lounsbury, Tabarrok, and Smith.

On Wednesday, there was another meeting, this time with professional, salaried bloggers, with a decidedly center-left bias. (Tim Fernholz, Mike Allen, Derek Thompson, Shahien Nasiripour, Nick Baumann, Ezra Klein, me. Matt Yglesias was literally left out in the rain, unable to get past Treasury security.)

I half understand why Treasury makes the distinction between the two types of bloggers, but Ezra and I both felt a little jealous that we had to compete with Mike Allen asking about politics when we could have listened to a detailed and wonky discussion between Steve Waldman and Tim Geithner on the subject of bailout incentives.

The discussion was all held on deep background, so I can’t quote anybody. I can tell you that Geithner looked healthier than the past couple of times I’ve seen him: I daresay he’s actually getting some sleep these days, which has got to be a good thing. I also learned a fair amount about how Treasury views the world.

The big picture, at least as I grokked it, is that although the recovery started off stronger than Treasury had hoped, the broad economy is still in a pretty weak position. The Fed is doing its part to try to keep a certain amount of momentum going, but fiscal policy is harder, because it needs the cooperation of Congress. And it’s far from clear what kind of fiscal legislation can be passed at this point.

On housing, the main message from the big conference on Fannie and Freddie is that there’s a broad-based consensus, Rick Santelli rants notwithstanding, that large-scale government participation in the housing market is necessary to prevent further house-price declines. And yes, Treasury would very much like to make sure that house prices don’t fall any more than they have already. There’s no Bush-style policy of trying to maximize homeownership, or anything like that, and indeed Treasury now seems pretty resigned to the fact that its much-vaunted loan-modification program is going to have only a pretty marginal effect, doing more to delay foreclosures than to prevent them. But the very powerful government guarantee on Frannie’s bonds is here to stay, you won’t be surprised to hear. And even delaying foreclosures can be a good thing if it helps to give the broader economy a bit of time to recover.

In terms of markets, Treasury has no worries about bond bubbles. If corporate debt is trading at low yields, that’s great: it makes it easier for companies to borrow money to employ more people. There also didn’t seem to be much concern about the failure of the Chinese yuan to strengthen visibly against the dollar, even after the authorities there said that they would allow it to do so. Of course the US wants to see a stronger yuan. But it seems happy for China to get there in a relatively slow and unpredictable manner.

On unemployment, there’s definitely concern that the longer people stay out of work, the less employable they become, turning a cyclical problem into more of a structural one. But again, it’s hard to see what Treasury can actually do about that, given political realities.

Finally, I detected a change of rhetoric on the subject of Basel III, as various end-of-year deadlines approach and seem certain to get missed. A few months ago, there was real hope that the US and Europe would be able to agree on tough new standards for bank capital and liquidity requirements. Today, there are real fears that they won’t be able to come to an agreement, and that the toughest standards acceptable to the Europeans will still be too lax for the Americans, whose banks are much better capitalized right now.

Negotiations are still ongoing, and no one yet is spending much time worrying about what might happen if they fail. The aim, very much, is to come out of the process with a set of strong global regulatory benchmarks. And the groundwork seems to be there: the Basel technocrats have done an excellent job of closing loopholes and defining both capital and liquidity in a rigorous manner. The only question now is to fill in the all-important blanks, and to agree on actual numbers for those ratios. That won’t be easy.

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