NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Another Monday, another rescue. The fast-moving financial crisis that hit Citigroup hard a year ago, nearly swamped it last week. But over the weekend, President Bush and his advisers decided to inject another $20 billion into one of the world's biggest banks, money that he said today was necessary to safeguard the financial system. The president also said that he spoke with the next president about his decision.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I told the American people, and I told the president-elect when I first met him, that anytime we were to make a big decision during this transition, he will be informed as will his team. Secretary Paulson is working closely with president-elect's transition team, and it's important for the American people to know that there is close cooperation.
CONAN: Earlier this afternoon, President-elect Obama held a news conference in Chicago to announce some key economic appointments and talked about Citigroup, his aggressive new financial rescue plan significantly more aggressive than the one he campaigned on, and tax plans that may also differ from those he emphasized before the election. Later in the hour, more than a hundred retired military leaders issued a statement calling for the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' On the opinion page this week, we'll talk with one retired admiral about why he changed his mind. But first, the scrambled mess of economic news has real consequences for you, the consumers, so we know you've got questions. What do you want to know about President-elect Obama's economic recovery team, the plan he's assembled to execute it on the Citigroup rescue, the snub to the auto industry? Our phone number 800-989-8255. Email us email@example.com. And you could join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation.
We begin with Peter Wallison, a Treasury general counsel in the 1980s and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. PETER WALLISON (Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute): Good to be here. Thank you.
CONAN: And as you look at the team that President-elect Obama announced today, is this a team that's going to be able to work with both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans? Are they be the best and the brightest that President-elect Obama was talking about?
Mr. WALLISON: Well, you never know who's the best and the brightest. The brightest are easy to measure, the best is much more difficult to measure. But I'm quite happy myself with his team. I think Larry Summers and Tim Geitner in particular, who I know are solid economists and well-acquainted with the market. And I think among all of the people that President-elect Obama could have chosen, these are the two best.
CONAN: Larry Summers, of course, the former secretary of the Treasury, announced today as the director of the National Economic Council. Tim Geitner, who used to work for him at the Treasury Department, now going to be the next secretary of the Treasury. I wanted to ask you also, the president-elect said today when he was asked about the stimulus package, he declined to give specifics on the numbers involved. Some of his advisers have said something in the range of $700 billion to more than that. But in any case, he was saying that there is consensus that a big jolt to the economy is necessary, and that left and right, everybody agrees that a big stimulus package is required. Do you agree?
Mr. WALLISON: Oh, yes, I certainly agree. I don't agree with probably the dimensions that the - or the direction that this stimulus package will take, because my own view is that a very large tax cut would be the most effective way to get money into people's hands quickly. I'm afraid that a lot of what the Obama stimulus package will consist of is payments to states perhaps, and perhaps infrastructure projects which take an awfully long time to get into the economy. We need an immediate jolt, and for that reason, a tax cut not just the tax credits that Obama has been talking about, but a true cut in everyone's income taxes would be the best jolt for the economy.
CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Sebastian Mallaby is here with us in Studio 3A. He's a columnist at the Washington Post, director of the Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Good of you to be with us today.
Mr. SEBASTIAN MALLABY (Columnist, Washington Post; Director, Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations): Good to be here.
CONAN: And as you look at the infrastructure spending that has been at least proposed and talked about as opposed to tax cuts as we just heard from Peter Wallison, how do you come down on this?
Mr. MALLABY: Well, Peter Wallison is quite right that it takes a while for this infrastructure expenditure to feed into the economy if, you know, President-elect Obama is saying just now, you know, we're in a negative downward spiral. And the earliest that we can possibly imagine passing this stimulus is not until January, and then it takes a while for government agencies to pump that money out. There's a big lag there. I also think though that there's a similar question you can raise about tax cuts. With tax cuts, you give people the money, it takes a while to - for that tax cut to take effect. And when it gets to people, they may spend it or they may save it. You can't control that. So I think you have to sort of try both. You have to hope that either of them work to some extent. And in the mean time, I think you do have to go to the Federal Reserve and quietly, you know, let them know that if they choose to do something quite radical in terms of essentially printing money to get more money out into the economy, they will have the approval and sort of support of the incoming team at the Treasury, because it's monetary policy that can most quickly change the dynamic in the markets.
CONAN: This is a political and psychological moment, as well as an economic one. Of course, those things play into everything. And President-elect Obama appeared to be anxious to continue to spread this sort of calm, the oil on the waters that he displayed during his campaign to say, well, without saying quite so much if there might be some criticism of the man who's in office now, as not being active enough, I am engaged. The new plan begins, the work begins today.
Mr. MALLABY: That's right. I mean, there was a terribly debilitating sense leading up to the end of next week, sort of leadership vacuum from Washington. On the one hand, the Treasury had promised an enormous bank bailout plan which was supposed to be targeted at banks bad debts. Then the plan changed. And it was going to be about injecting equity into banks. Now it's changing again with the Citigroup bailout back toward the government helping to deal with bad debts. So you've got all this chopping and changing which is simply terrible for confidence, because the markets know that the economy left to its own devices is going to spiral downwards and its only going to be government action at this point that breaks the fall. And so when you seem to have a leadership vacuum from Washington, it's disastrous. That's why just the mere leaking of the news, that Tim Geitner would be nominated as Treasury secretary on Friday afternoon sent the market up on a very big rally. The market rally has continued so far today. And so, you're right. I mean, it's a psychological moment. And by stepping forward, holding a press conference, I think President-elect Obama is helping.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on this conversation. 800-989-8255, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. And why don't we begin with Jenny? And Jenny's with us in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
JENNY (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I sort of had a two-part question and I'll get to roll quickly and take my answer off the air. My question to your panel is why do these bank bailouts always seem to occur on a late night Saturday and Sunday, and we all wake up on Monday to find out about it. And how come they aren't in front of the congressional panel like the Big Three is, you know, having everybody wag their finger about the corporate jet, the no plans, et cetera. And I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: All right, Jenny. Thanks very much for the phone call. And I think we can answer the first part of her question, Sebastian Mallaby, by suggesting the markets are closed over the weekend, and that's why these plans are leaked over the weekend.
Mr. MALLABY: That's right. I mean, it takes a while to work them out. And so typically, you know, the market goes crazy during the week, the negotiations start during the week. But they get to a head, and they get to a conclusion, and yield a result on a Sunday night. In Citigroup's case, it was rather late on Sunday night. You know, but the caller raises a very reasonable question which is, you know, when Detroit comes to Washington, there's all this complaint about what kind of jet they showed up into the hearing. And they're told to go away and think again and take some time, and weren't not in a hurry. When it's Wall Street, the government is in a hurry. I'm afraid there's actually a good reason for that, which is that financial panics can destroy banks extremely quickly, and that can have knock-on effects to other banks just as quickly, and then, that ripples out into the entire economy. The reason why Detroit, the three car companies are in such a problem now, is that financing to buy a vehicle, auto loans, simply dried up. And if you look at the chart of the way that auto loans dried up, you see the fortunes of the car companies kind of crash after that. And so, this is just one example of the way that the government really has to respond super quick to banking crises in a way that - it has, you know, it has few more weeks and margin with car companies which is why you get this apparent double standard in the way they're treated.
CONAN: But Peter Wallison, the double standard is exactly the point there, with a lot of fingers shaken at Detroit and tisk tisk, and boo hoo. And nevertheless, everybody agrees that Citigroup made a lot of mistakes too. Nevertheless, they're getting a lot of money.
Mr. WALLISON: Well, of course, as Sebastian Mallaby suggests banks are central to the continued operation of our economy, and the automobile companies as important as they are, are only in effect recipients of bank lending. So, we have to get the bank's lending. We have to keep the banks in strong position in order to support every industry that is operating, not just the auto company. I would add too, that the Sunday nights are important because you have to get many of these things done before the Asian markets open. A lot of this has to do with the confidence of investors and the rallies or falls in the Asian markets affect the European markets which open next, and then those effect the way the U.S. markets operate. So, Sundays turn out to be a pretty important day.
CONAN: Now, let's get Cynthia on the line, Cyhthia with us from Vernon in New York.
CYNTHIA (Caller): Hello, Neal and guest. I would like to make this comment, and have a question. Obama told us that if we voted for McCain, we'd have four more years of Bush policies. But he never said that if he was elected, he would have four more years of Clinton policies. And Clinton's administration in my view was just is responsible for the tragedy of the war and the sanctions and the bombing of Iraq, and getting fair trade instead, I mean, free trade NAFTA through instead of fair trade. So I would just like to say one more thing from the provinces, that anybody who make - in my view that people who make a $100,000 or more, they talk about a recession. We, the peasants in the provinces, we know now that it is a depression. And also the last thing, I know why the fellow from the American Enterprise System says what he says, because that's a very conservative think tank. I don't know about the other one. So are there two different views represented by your guests? And I'll listen now.
CONAN: OK. Cynthia, very nice of you to talk. And, well, to her first point, well, Sebastian Mallaby, it does represent a different point of view from Peter Wallison. I can assure you of that. But we just have a few seconds left in this segment. But certainly, Clinton personnel are in charge of economic policy, and Larry Summers associated with the deregulation with free trade, and with, well, with a budget discipline. And nevertheless, those are not going to be the policies that President Obama necessarily pursues. We'll talk more about that when we get back from our break. Our guests are Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post, and the counsel on foreign relations, and Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The theme today for President-elect Barack Obama was urgency. At a news conference a couple of hours ago, he said, we do not have a minute to waste. He pushed the new Congress to move quickly to pass a stimulus package in January. Though, he declined to be drawn on how large that package should be. He warned the economy is likely to get worse before it gets better. We're talking with Sebastian Mallaby this hour about what Mr. Obama's plan means for the economy and for you. He's a columnist at the Washington Post, and director at the Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Also with us is Peter Wallison, former general counsel of the U.S. Treasury Department and the Arthur Burns fellow in financial policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. What do you want to know about the Obama economic recovery plan, or the team that he's assembled to execute it? 800-989-8255. Email us email@example.com. The president-elect laid out an aggressive strategy to try to help the besieged economy. But he also had some strong words for at least one struggling sector.
President-elect BARACK OBAMA: We can't just write a blank check to the auto industry. Taxpayers can't be expected to pony up more money for an auto industry that has been resistant to change. And I was surprised that they didn't have a better thought out proposal when they arrived in Congress. I think Congress did the right thing, which is to say, you guys need to come up with a plan and come back before you're getting any taxpayer money.
CONAN: And let's get another caller on the line. And this is Sterling, Sterling with us from Aiken in South Carolina.
STERLING (Caller): Yes. Neal, can I get a comment from your panel there? I think if the Big Three did have to claim bankruptcy and reorganize, because what they doing sure is not working. Would that give the financing a chance to come up?
CONAN: Sebastian Mallaby, what do you think?
Mr. MALLABY: Well, when the caller says the financing a chance to catch up, I guess he means that the reorganization would give the car companies that chance to survive. I mean, you know, that depends on whether the reorganization is good enough that it really puts them on a sound footing. I would say that, you know, the two things to be said about what Obama said just now. You know, the first is that substantively he's correct. The car companies did come to Washington without a clear plan about how they were going to reorganize. And so, it's correct to say to them. You know, don't expect money until you do better than that. But politically, I think it's very important also that if Obama is calling forward, an unprecedented, enormous stimulus package, he's going to throw masses of money at the economy to try and turn it around. He needs to get Congress behind him, and that includes Republicans in the Senate, who do remain powerful enough to veto things. And I think, he therefore needs to show that he's credentials are not merely that he's coming out at this from the said of liberal spend money in all directions kind of point of view. He can be tough when it's merited. But he does want to spend money when the economy is in a downward spiral and he wants to get out of that. So I think it's politically important as well as substantively correct.
CONAN: And Peter Wallison, should the Big Three automakers in Detroit be allowed to go into bankruptcy?
Mr. WALLISON: Well, it depends on what bankruptcy really means. You can go into reorganization under the supervision of a bankruptcy trustee. And you are not actually required at that point to stop your business. The auto companies say that this would be not possible for them because people would not buy cars under those circumstances. But I think the financing arrangements and the warranty arrangements and things like that can be substituted if necessary. And I don't think it necessarily means that the automobile companies will not be able to sell their cars. I think one of the best things that can be done for the auto industry is to put it under some sort of pre-packaged reorganization structure, which can be done under the bankruptcy laws. Let them terminate a lot of the contracts that are very unfavorable, reform their pension arrangements, reform their health services arrangements, and put them back on a sound footing. Right now, they just cannot compete.
CONAN: Wait a minute. You say reform their pension and reform their health care. In other words, the people who sign contracts years ago expecting their pension plan and their heath coverage to be continued, they're not going to get what they signed up for.
Mr. WALLISON: That's one of the problems that automobiles have, automobile companies have. And that is that they are burdened with a much older workforce and health-care requirements that their competition does not have. So these things have to be looked at again. If we want to have a healthy and competitive auto industry, those contracts are going to be looked at and reformed in some way.
CONAN: But you're going to bankrupt an awful lot of people as opposed to bankrupting a car company.
Mr. WALLISON: That's not necessarily the case.
Mr. MALLABY: There's a government backstop, which is worth recording, I mean, the pension benefit guarantee corporation, is that it's a federal entity. And it will ensure that retirees get at least part of the pension promise, not 100 percent, but part of it. And on the medical side, there is Medicare, so it's tough. People did sign contracts. They did work on the basis that they were going to get a certain kind of benefit. And that promise will be partially broken. Just as the promise to creditors who loaned money, thinking they will get all the money back that must be broken to some of the debts weren't be repaid. But I think Peter Wallison is right, that the restructuring has to include some of this promises to retirees.
CONAN: Thanks Sterling for the call. Now, let's go next to James, James on line with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
JAMES (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead please.
JAMES: I had a comment. I just went to the mail box, before climbing in the car and turning on your show. And I had a letter from Citibank, raising the interest rates into the minimum interest rate on my credit card from 12.99 to 18.99 percent. And I'm sure this is a mass mailing to everyone. You know, we don't have a balance. We haven't had one in many years. But I'm just thinking that the United States population has just loaned them $45 billion and in return we get a raise in of the minimum interest rates for all those people. Everyone I know has a credit card balance. And so, you know, we're supposed to get an injection of cash, but at what price? Either supposed to make credit available, and maybe they are but at what price? And those who have no other options, this is a tax on them. They're going to have a fewer cash to spend on other things. So, it's just a comment. Any comments your panelists will have be most appreciated.
Mr. MALLABY: Yeah. I mean, the caller is exactly right. That this is precisely how trouble of the banks in the one hand feeds directly into the lives of every American. And that's why Obama was right today to say, look, Main Street and Wall Street have that fortunes in the same basket. You can't have trouble in the financial sector without it being trouble for everybody. Now, you know, is it unfair that Citigroup gets money from the government, and yet it's still raises interest rates for credit card holders. You know, in the some sense it may be. But the thing is that, you know, the credit card holders will be even worse so if the Citigroup went under. And the best hope we had is to stabilize this financial companies with government assistance. Then in time, they will resume the prevision of loans, and credit card loans included, to everybody else, and I'm afraid there's no other way around it.
CONAN: And Peter Wallason, I want to hear you on that but in the context of this email from Heather in Minneapolis. If Citibank is too big to fail, is there any stipulation this bailout for it to be cut into smaller pieces a la Ma Belle? Isn't this a sign that we can't afford these huge multi-national conglomerates?
Mr. WALLASON: Well, I don't think that is a good policy. I think we do need large, large financing institutions like Citibank when we are dealing in a globalized world. Our companies that operate globally need financing globally, so we shouldn't really be thinking that bigness per se is the reason for our problems. If we cut all this banks down to smaller size and they had made the same terrible investments, that Citi and the rest of them made all over the world, we would just have many, many more banks in trouble. So, it's big - it's not bigness that has caused the problems. We ought to be focusing on making sure that in the future banks function properly and we have the proper policies in place to keep them from taking excessive risks. On the question of the credit cards, that is a very difficult question. I agree with Sebastian Mallaby on that. This is a very complex question. And if the banks were not to recover as much as they need in order to survive from their credit card and other activities, we would have to feed more money into them. So, it's a question of balancing the interest of taxpayers on the one hand, balancing the interest of our economy and also balancing the interest of people who have credit cards. When the banks recover and they are able to adjust more fully their credit card debt, their credit card interest rates against the risk that they are taking, it's likely that those rates will be reduced. But right now, they have to recover whatever they can in order to continue functioning.
CONANA: James, Good luck. Thanks very much for the phone call. I think he's left us and listened to the answer off the air. Now let's go on to the question of tax cuts. Well, let's go to Rita. Rita is with us from Newbury in Ohio.
RITA (Caller): Hi. I'm an old realtor, and I have a suggestion and a question. Don't you think it would be wise if we stopped banks from selling them mortgages? It seems to me that that's the nub of the problem. If they continue to that, we'll continue to have foreclosures. Because they treat they're mortgages like a hot potato. Because they know that the people are not qualified to pay them.
CONAN: Sebastian Mallaby, should banks be required to hold on to the mortgages they lend out at least for a period of time?
Mr. MALLABY: That's actually a very interesting debate. I mean, on the one hand, people thought before that if the banks made or earn from mortgage and then sold bits of it in securities to lots of other people, the risk would be spread out around the system and so we'd have less risk because each holder of the security could afford to take the hit. What we discovered is that there is so much of this securitized mortgage debt that in fact, people couldn't afford to take the hit and it was spread from one bank to another bank and the bank A gave it to bank B, gave it to A and then in the end, it wasn't really distributed very well. And so yes, I think the conventional wisdom or sort of the leading edge of this debate is pointing towards some effort to force the banks that originate their mortgage loans to keep some of that risk on their own balance sheets, not just set it out of the back door because then, they have an incentive to monitor the loans and make sure that the quality of the lending is better next time around.
Mr. WALLISON: Yeah, it's important though to keep in mind, if I may add, that if the banks can't sell their loans, they don't get the cash back to make further mortgage loans and if we require them to hold on to the loans that they make, then we will reduce the actual amount of lending that is possible for homes. So we have to balance those two issues. But it is certainly true as Sebastian Mallaby suggests that the banks should probably be required to hold on to at least a portion of the risk so that they are attentive to the question of underwriting which is very important and has been ignored in the past.
CONAN: Rita, thanks for the suggestion.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to Dana, Dana with us from Wauseon in Ohio.
DANA (Caller): Yeah. I've got a two-part question with regards to taxes. Are you still there?
CONAN: Yeah, we're here.
DANA: The one is I think the capital gains tax encouraged the housing problem, but secondly, what about implementing Obama's plan to let the Bush tax cuts just run their course and then give the tax cut to the run of the mill guy out here in the small town and then in the working class communities throughout the country?
CONAN: If memory serves, Dana, I think President - then Senator - Obama campaigned on the idea of repealing President Bush's tax cuts and today, he talked about whether they might be repealed or allowed to expire naturally. In other words, continue, I think, until 2011 when the law requires them to expire.
DANA: Then I would say that we need them faster than that, so they do need to be repealed.
CONAN: And Peter Wallison he talked about the disproportionate benefit in those tax cuts for the wealthier people and given the economic crisis, those who have more ought to be asked to pay a little bit more.
Mr. WALLISON: Yes. But on the other hand, the people who would be taxed in that situation or many of the people especially in the small business world who are employing a lot of people and what we want to do is keep people employed. The more we tax people especially in a week economy, the less likely we are to have solid employment, or at least the unemployment problem which is likely to get worse over the next two years will get significantly if people who are in the upper five percent of all taxpayers are required to pay more.
CONAN: And Sebastian Mallaby that may be a valid economic point but the issue of fairness that I think Dana is raising here is uppermost in a lot of people's minds.
Mr. MALLABY: That's right. I mean, I think, in this environment where Peter Wallison and I have both defending the idea of giving out money to Wall Street and saying that how come he's kind of a in a different category and there is a question of equity. I mean, the average home owner who's falling behind on mortgage payments is in a very tough spot. So far, the federal assistance for that kind of person is very limited. There may be more to come but basically, the line share of this bailout money so is going to Wall Street and there is something fundamentally troubling about that and so in my view, you do have to bring in this political consideration of what's going to pass, what's going to make it possible to put through this program without having a political backlash and maybe tax hikes for the wealthy is a legitimate part of that.
CONAN: Dana, thanks very much for the call.
DANA: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute and Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Art's on the line, Art with us from Cleveland.
ART (Caller): Hi. I haven't heard anyone explain yet exactly how a bailout works. So for a banker financial service company getting money, does the money go right to their balance sheets? Are there any restrictions on how they can use it and do they have to repay all or a portion of it?
CONAN: Peter Wallison, you used to work in the Treasury Department.
Mr. WALLISON: We didn't do bailouts at that time. But the way these bailouts, if they are bailouts, are working, there are variety of ways. One of them is to add capital to the banks which is simply cash. That is given in return for a security of some kind, usually a preferred, nonvoting preferred stock. Another way is what the Treasury did and the rest of the government did with Citibank today and that is to guarantee a portion of their assets so that if those assets further decline in value, that will not further weaken the institution and also provide some additional capital to those institutions. So both of those things assist in keeping their balance sheets strong and that addresses the central problem that everyone in the banking industry has been facing because of doubts about the quality of their assets and that is that we are putting some kind of floor under the assets giving people confidence to continue to trade with these institutions, lend money to them, deposit funds with them and allow them if they in themselves feel that they don't have enough capital to continue operating to start making some loans. But it will take some time.
CONAN: And Sebastian Mallaby - Art, thanks very much for the call. It was a good question. Let me ask you. President Bush said today, look, there may have to be other of these actions before he leaves office. Is there really a floor, has something been established and is this interregnum period contributing to the problems at this point?
Mr. MALLABY: The problem that you see with the Citigroup bailout is that it is a one institution bailout. It's designed for just one bank. And when we had earlier on the rescue of AIG, that's when the Treasury said, look, we can't just go from institution to institution doing it in an ad hoc fashion. We need something more systematic and that's where they came up with this TARP, $700 billion authorized by Congress to try and stabilize the whole system in a more kind of methodical manner. Well, now, we've had some of that TARP spending. It didn't prevent Citi from getting into total trouble. So we're back to the ad hoc methodology which we already admitted is a mistake. So yes, there's a high degree of danger that other institutions will go the same way as Citi because they are no more protected than Citi was before the weekend.
CONAN: Sebastian Mallaby, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. MALLABY: Good to be with you.
CONAN: Sebastian Mallaby, the columnist for the Washington Post, director of the Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations joined us here in Studio 3A. Peter Wallison, thank you for your time today.
Mr. WALLISON: Thank you.
CONAN: Peter Wallison, the former general counsel at the U.S. Treasury Department in the 1980s, now, the Arthur F. Burns' fellow in financial policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, with us from our bureau in New York. Up next, a group of retired military leaders argue it's time to get rid of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' We'll talk with one of them about why he changed his mind on the opinion page. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.