It was a little noted event when last fall, during the height of the presidential election campaign, the Treasury Department released Timothy Geithner’s phone records. To the extent anyone paid attention at all—and let’s face it, almost no one did—financial reporters were struck that the Treasury secretary’s most frequent contact was Larry Fink of BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager and Geithner’s principal conduit to his many friends on Wall Street. But the even more telling name of Geithner’s regular confidants, as the Financial Times noted, was the second one on the frequent-contact list: Robert Rubin.
That might seem odd; after all, it’s been nearly a decade and a half since Geithner worked for Rubin, who is long retired from public life. But Bob Rubin was no ordinary employer. The former Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton all but created Timothy Geithner as we know him today, raising him from a junior Tokyo Embassy staffer to undersecretary of the Treasury in the mid-to-late-’90s, and later sponsoring the still-boyish bureaucrat as president of the New York Fed in 2003 (against resistance from the head of the search committee, Paul Volcker, who according to The Wall Street Journal barked: “Who’s Geithner?”). As he almost always has, Rubin prevailed, and for nearly four years his former protégé has lorded over America’s financial system.
Rubinomics: It’s the cult that never quits. Now the nation is faced with a potential new acolyte. Is Jacob Lew, who is expected to be named Thursday as the replacement for Geithner, yet another Rubinite who will largely follow the policies of his predecessor? Calm, brilliant, competent at everything he’s tried—from the Office of Management and Budget to deputy secretary of State to chief of staff—Lew has smoothly run the White House in the year since William Daley left. He has a reputation for unimpeachable integrity and total honesty, as well as a mastery of the budget that will be critical over the next four years of fiscal fights. But many critics fear that the picture is different when it comes to Wall Street. On financial reform, Lew is a virtual cipher who, in his few public pronouncements, has appeared to toe the Rubin-Geithner line of minimal interference with America’s giant banks.
And Lew is taking over as Treasury secretary at a critical time. Two and a half years after enactment, the Dodd-Frank financial law is still not fully implemented. Even as the winds of financial turbulence threaten from Europe, financial-industry officials admit the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has not developed the capacity to liquidate banks in the event of a crisis. Although it never became a 2012 campaign issue, financial regulation has lagged well behind schedule (no one even seemed to care, for example, when Mitt Romney failed to propose an alternative to Dodd-Frank, even though he had promised to do so). Wall Street’s lobbyists have managed to delay the “Volcker Rule” —the closest thing we have today to a Glass-Steagall law separating federally insured commercial banking from risky investment banking—by six months. The banks are also engaged in a behind-the-scenes effort to escape U.S. oversight of their derivatives activities overseas.
Into this den of super-sophisticated—and savage—lions of finance will walk the gentle-mannered figure of Jack Lew, who is expected to be easily confirmed. Hopes for change—any real progress in containing the power and systemic size of the banks—are not high. “By going with Jack Lew, Obama is making the decision: ‘I don’t want a fight over Treasury secretary. I want someone who’s going to maintain the status quo.’ That’s what Jack Lew represents,” says Jeff Connaughton, who as a senior Senate staffer fought for financial reform and later, in despair, wrote a book titled Wall Street Always Wins.
A Brief History of Rubinomics
From the very beginning of Obama’s presidency, when Rubin made a cameo appearance at Obama’s first financial crisis meeting—held in September 2008 next to a college gym in Florida—and then kvelled from the sidelines as his two proudest protégés, Geithner and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, took over the new administration, Rubin’s influence has continued to be strong. At the same time, however, the ex-Treasury secretary’s reputation has never recovered from the lingering aftermath of a disaster he and his hands-off approach to Wall Street did so much to create. In her stunningly frank new memoir about her major battles with Geithner over the past four years, Sheila Bair, the widely admired former FDIC director, calls Geithner’s surprise appointment in 2008 “a punch in the gut” that made sense to her for only one reason: Rubin’s shadowy power. “I did not understand how someone who had campaigned on a ‘change’ agenda could appoint a person who had been so involved in contributing to the financial mess that had gotten Obama elected,” Bair writes. “The only explanation I could think of was that Robert Rubin had pushed him.”
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