Time for Tim Geithner to go

geithner_100127b.gi.top.jpgTreasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has spent a lot of time defending his role in the AIG bailout to Congress. That may make him a liability to the Obama administration.By Paul R. La Monica, editor at large


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The shelf life for a Treasury secretary is often pretty short. Timothy Geithner may be nearing his expiration date.

Geithner, who appeared to be the perfect man for the job when President Obama tapped him for the position in November 2008, has failed to live up to expectations.

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Of course, in trying to resurrect the nation's economy following the Great Recession, Geithner was dealt a difficult hand. But as the president explained in the State of the Union, the economy still has a way to go before it returns to health.

People are angry about that fact, and that probably means someone needs to be the fall guy. With Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke now looking like he will get reconfirmed by the Senate, Geithner's head looms large on the chopping block.

To be blunt, Geithner is becoming an embarrassment for the Obama administration.

It's getting harder to watch Geithner on Capitol Hill these days. You can hardly blame him for looking so weary. Who wouldn't grow tired of all the constant attacks from blowhard politicians? It's almost as if every time he sits down in front of Congress, someone loads up a shotgun and shouts, "Pull!"

Still, it's become obvious that his part in helping to bail out AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) in September 2008 at the peak of the financial crisis will forever haunt him.

Geithner once again claimed on Wednesday that he had no role in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's decision to tell AIG to withhold information about so-called counterparty payments to big banks such as Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500), Deutsche Bank (DB) and the now Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500)-owned Merrill Lynch. But his repeated denials don't pass the proverbial smell test.

For one, Geithner was the president of the New York Fed at the time of AIG's near-collapse. He had to know back in September 2008 just how much Goldman and others stood to lose because of their AIG counterparty risk.

What's more, he'd have to be tone-deaf to not have realized the uproar that would follow once the public found out how much the big financial firms were being paid.

And even though Geithner said he recused himself from AIG discussions once he was asked to be Treasury secretary, subpoenaed New York Fed documents show that AIG began preparing a filing to the SEC that lacked the key counter-party information just one day after Geithner was nominated.

Add all that up and it's hard not to think of the famous line from Hamlet every time Geithner claims innocence. "The lady doth protest too much, me thinks."

As long as the AIG issue hangs over Geithner's job, his credibility will be in question. And that will make it difficult for him to carry out the White House's ambitious plans to reform the financial sector.

But AIG is just one of several missteps made by Geithner. From the start, he has simply looked uncomfortable in the job. And as Andre Agassi once famously said, image is everything.

Geithner's mini-scandal regarding back taxes that came up during his confirmation hearing wouldn't have been that big of an issue if not for the fact that he seemed genuinely surprised by why people were making such a big issue over what he dubbed "honest mistakes."

That may have been true. But considering that one of the roles of the Treasury secretary is to oversee the IRS, his tax blunder hardly inspired confidence in his ability to steer the nation's economy.

And Geithner, when not being forced to defend himself in the face of lawmakers constantly calling for his head, hasn't exactly done a great job of communicating the White House's economic message.

Most notably, Geithner stumbled badly when he first explained how the new administration planned to fix the banking system last February. The stock market tanked the day of his announcement and many thought that this was due to Geithner's inability to provide concrete details about the proposal.

Since then, Geithner's speech-making skills have gotten only marginally better. Simply put, somebody needs to pull a Walter from "The Big Lebowski" and scream to him, "You're out of your element!"

It's a shame. At the time of his nomination, investors were excited about the fact that Obama was choosing someone who was respected for helping to prevent the financial system from completely melting down in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

And to be fair, Geithner still has fans. I also think that the criticism of him for bailing out AIG has gone too far. Pushing AIG to hide details was undeniably dumb, but it was not a mistake to keep AIG alive and insure that other important financial firms did not get dragged deeper into its mess.

"Geithner was in a fox hole during a nuclear war. You have to give him a break. I think he's qualified and has done as good a job as he could given the situation," said Keith Springer, president of Capital Financial Advisory Services, a Sacramento, Calif.-based investment advisory firm.

But here's the biggest problem. Geithner seemed to be the polar opposite of the three controversial Treasury secretaries from the Bush 43 administration. All of them were corporate CEOs and Geithner's direct predecessor, Henry Paulson, had uncomfortably close ties to Wall Street since he used to be the head of Goldman Sachs.

Geithner is now being branded as just as big of a friend to Wall Street as Paulson was. Even those who support him concede that's probably not going to change.

"I think he's done a good job, but he may be the designated scapegoat and there's a significant chance he might not be there too long. He's identified with Wall Street even though he didn't work there," said David Wyss, chief economist with Standard & Poor's.

So if the president intends to stick with the strategy of bashing big banks in order to win political points, Geithner has to go. Soon.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica.

Twitter reminder. Need a bigger dose of snarky market comments and silly pop culture references? Follow me @LaMonicaBuzz to get your fill!  To top of page

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