What the Mortgage Deal In The Works Reveals About The Obama Administration

Yves Smith wrote a post this morning highlighting the $20 billion mortgage settlement the Obama Administration, the banks and the State Attorneys General are hashing out. Her conclusion is that this is this is a Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud. Read the post. It is quite good.

Here is my take.

The Administration has now moved into re-election mode. Uppermost in their mind is the need to demonstrate that they have taken the right policy steps on the economy all along. And this means making the recovery stick.

Obama’s economic agenda for re-election, Nov 2010

What that means is that there will be no foreclosure moratoria, and certainly no ‘fat cats on Wall Street‘ rhetoric. The Obama Administration is looking to cultivate a pro-business profile. This is why erstwhile Obama-basher and GE CEO Jeff Immelt has been brought on side as well. That’s also why Obama has brought Bill Daley into the tent as Chief of Staff. Call it the Jamie Dimon comeback – that’s what I am calling it. Call it whatever you like. The fact is the old Obama Administration already set policy early in 2009 and the new Obama Administration now has to defend it if the President wants to be re-elected, which he clearly does.

So, of course they are going to push for a mortgage settlement. As with the Goldman case this past summer, the number is eye-poppingly large enough to throw a bone to the anti-Wall Street crowd but small enough that it doesn’t jeopardize the still fragile US financial system. Bankers can continue business as usual. And that is the goal, of course. Remember Tim Geithner’s statement about the Administration’s needing to do "deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand" things to right the economic ship?

I watched exceptionally capable people just get killed in the court of public opinion as they defended those policies on the Hill. This is a necessary part of the office, certainly in financial crises. I think this really says something important about the president, not about me. The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team. Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone. So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse. We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too. Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King. The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent. It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank losses. All banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent. That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror. Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds. That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand. The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad. As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit. American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets. His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done. The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery. With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services. I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development. But this is the road we are on.


Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.