Martin Wolf of the Financial Times is on fire over the Geithner/Obama bailout plan.
I thought Wolf’s lede was over-the-top when I read it; much less so after I wended my way through his entire piece.
Has Barack Obama’s presidency already failed? In normal times, this would be a ludicrous question. But these are not normal times. They are times of great danger. Today, the new US administration can disown responsibility for its inheritance; tomorrow, it will own it. Today, it can offer solutions; tomorrow it will have become the problem. Today, it is in control of events; tomorrow, events will take control of it. Doing too little is now far riskier than doing too much. If he fails to act decisively, the president risks being overwhelmed, like his predecessor. The costs to the US and the world of another failed presidency do not bear contemplating.
What is needed? The answer is: focus and ferocity. If Mr Obama does not fix this crisis, all he hopes from his presidency will be lost. If he does, he can reshape the agenda. Hoping for the best is foolish. He should expect the worst and act accordingly.
It’s difficult to find a bone to pick with Wolf’s arguments, and his urgent tone, like Pearlstein’s outrage this morning, is much needed.
All along two contrasting views have been held on what ails the financial system. The first is that this is essentially a panic. The second is that this is a problem of insolvency…
Under the first view, the prices of a defined set of “toxic assets” have been driven below their long-run value and in some cases have become impossible to sell…
Under the second view, a sizeable proportion of financial institutions are insolvent: their assets are, under plausible assumptions, worth less than their liabilities…
Personally, I have little doubt that the second view is correct and, as the world economy deteriorates, will become ever more so.
Nouriel Roubini made this case—that the banks are insolvent and need to be nationalized—yesterday, as well.
Here’s Wolf’s capper:
But it also seems it has set itself the wrong question. It has not asked what needs to be done to be sure of a solution. It has asked itself, instead, what is the best it can do given three arbitrary, self-imposed constraints: no nationalisation; no losses for bondholders; and no more money from Congress. Yet why does a new administration, confronting a huge crisis, not try to change the terms of debate? This timidity is depressing.
Martin Wolf is no paranoid gold bug or Wall Street-hating firebreather. He’s a Davos-going, well-respected economics writer—and a Commander of the British Empire, for crying out loud.
I hope Mr. Obama is reading his FT.Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.