Today's Sydney Morning Herald reports comments made by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating about Tim Geithner at a recent speech in Sydney ("Obama's economic saviour savaged as Keating lets rip"). Excerpts:
When Barack Obama announced his champion to rescue the world from economic ruin, it was the first time most Americans had ever heard the name Tim Geithner.
The initial impression was good. The stockmarket surged and the pundits swooned.
If anyone in the US media had thought to ask a former Australian prime minister for his assessment, they would have heard a different view. And they would not have been so surprised at Geithner's performance since.
In a speech to a closed gathering at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on Thursday, Paul Keating gave a starkly different account of Geithner's record in handling the Asian crisis: "Tim Geithner was the Treasury line officer who wrote the IMF [International Monetary Fund] program for Indonesia in 1997-98, which was to apply current account solutions to a capital account crisis."
In other words, Geithner fundamentally misdiagnosed the problem. And his misdiagnosis led to a dreadfully wrong prescription.
Geithner thought Asia's problem was the same as the ones that had shattered Latin America in the 1980s and Mexico in 1994, a classic current account crisis.
But the Asian crisis was completely different.
But Geithner, through his influence on the IMF, imposed the same cure the IMF had imposed on Latin America and Mexico. It was the wrong cure. Indeed, it only aggravated the problem.
Keating continued: "[former Indonesian leader] Soeharto's government delivered 21 years of 7 per cent compound growth. It takes a gigantic fool to mess that up. But the IMF messed it up. The end result was the biggest fall in GDP in the 20th century. That dubious distinction went to Indonesia. And, of course, Soeharto lost power."
Exactly who was the "gigantic fool"? It was, obviously, the man who wrote the program, Geithner, although Keating is prepared to put the then managing director of the IMF, the Frenchman Michel Camdessus, in the same category.
Worse, Keating argued, Geithner's misjudgment had done terminal damage to the credibility of the IMF, with seismic geoeconomic consequences: "The IMF is the gun that can't shoot straight. They've been making a mess of things for the last 20-odd years, and the greatest mess they made was in east Asia in 1997-98, so much so that no east Asian state will put its head in the IMF noose."
China, in particular, drew hard conclusions from the IMF's mishandling of the Asian crisis. It decided that it would never allow itself to be dependent on the IMF, or the US, or the West generally, for its international solvency. Instead, it would build the biggest war chest the world had ever seen.
"These reserves are so large at $US2 trillion as to equal $US2000 for every Chinese person, and when your consider that the average income of Chinese people is $US4000 to $US5000, it's 50 per cent of their annual income. It's a huge thing for a developing country to not spend its wealth on its own development."
Keating went on to argue that, by frightening the Chinese into building their vast $US2 trillion foreign reserves, Geithner was responsible for the build-up of tremendous imbalance in the world financial system. This imbalance, in turn, according to Keating, contributed to the global financial crisis which has since devastated the world economy.
Hat tip to a couple of commenters in the comment thread of a post ("Should Geithner Go?") on Megan McCardle's Atlantic blog.
The photo above, of Tim Geithner, is from the Affordable Housing Institute.