Timothy Geithner

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Gross

Obama's Treasury secretary will help define the new global financial system.

Confidential sources have passed on to me a January to-do list apparently penned by Timothy Geithner, the New York Fed chief tapped to serve as President-elect Barack Obama's Treasury secretary:

1. Find new house in D.C.

2. Fix unholy mess that is Wall Street.

3. Ditto for Securities and Exchange Commission.

4. Restore faith in global finance system.

5. Housing?

For the past 30-odd years, Treasury secretaries have generally focused on G7 conferences and international crises like emerging-market meltdowns. But in the past several months, the scope of the Treasury secretary's job has been redefined in historic ways. Geithner will be responsible not just for putting out fires, but for rebuilding from the ashes of the world financial system.

Geithner is neither a household name nor a typical pick for a Treasury secretary. He's a career technocrat, with stints at Treasury, the International Monetary Fund and the New York Fed. And for what is usually an AARP job--the average age of the last eight incoming Treasury secretaries has been 59--the 47-year-old is a mere whippersnapper.

He'll also have substantially more institutional authority than any of his predecessors. In the past year, the United States has effectively nationalized the financial sector. Thanks to Henry Paulson's and Ben Bernanke's occasionally frantic efforts to fend off systemic collapse, the government now largely owns AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and chunks of several banks, as well as oodles of dodgy assets pledged as collateral for loans. "Geithner's predecessor at Treasury and his former boss at the Fed have spent, promised, loaned, guaran-teed or assumed in liabilities amounts that are now approaching $14 trillion," says Barry Ritholtz, a New York money manager and author of the forthcoming "Bailout Nation." "That's an astronomical amount of money, even by Washington standards."

To recoup those funds, Geithner will have to function partly as a money manager. He'll have to decide what to do with the portfolio of nonvoting shares Treasury now holds in big banks like Citi. …