Sunday, March 23, 2008

Meet the economist- Timothy F. Geithner

Profile of NY Fed President in FT- a little bit overdone;

Mr Geithner is one of the most powerful economic officials in the world. Yet he still looks more like the gifted young aide of 1997 than an omnipotent central banker. This is partly his youthful appearance - only 46 years old in any event, he looks 10 years younger. But it is also his style, which manages to be casual and driven at the same time.

When he took the stage with Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, in Davos this year, the visual contrast could not have been greater. Mr Trichet sat bolt upright in a crisp suit, polished shoes and chic tie. Mr Geithner was hunched in his chair, jigging his knee - with a pair of dirty walking boots sticking out of his suit.

People have made the error of mistaking his easy manner for a lack of confidence or steel. In reality, although he is widely described as nice, Mr Geithner can be forceful. "Everyone tends to underestimate him," says a former colleague. "If he was a bigger person physically, people might say he was president material, since he has that aura of power. But because he is slight and he looks young, people underestimate him."

Unusually among senior US officials, Mr Geithner has extensive international experience. He spent much of his childhood in Asia and Africa, where his father was a development expert with the Ford Foundation, completing his high school in Bangkok, Thailand. He studied at Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins before joining Kissinger Associates in 1985 as an Asia expert. He married young to Carole Sonnenfeld, a college sweetheart, and has two children, Elise and Benjamin.

Surprisingly little is known about his private life - Mr Geithner prefers to keep it private - but he is a keen tennis player and an enthusiastic, if inexpert, skier.

Mr Geithner joined the Treasury in 1988 and spent time as assistant attache at the US embassy in Tokyo - witnessing the onset of a decade of stagnation in Japan - before joining Mr Summers's international team under Robert Rubin, Treasury secretary. He rose rapidly, playing a big part in shaping the US response to the Asian crisis.

"He is very bright, independently minded, thoughtful, and has an unusual sense of public service - he is a very easy person to get along with," says Mr Rubin. "He is practical, worldly in the sense that he has a feel for things - for the psychology of markets, the politics of what he is doing - and a good sense of humour." For a high-flying public official, Mr Geithner has remarkably few enemies.

He thinks in probabilistic terms - worrying about "fat tail risks" of adverse possible outcomes even in good times. Long before the credit crisis broke, he led an effort to strengthen the infrastructure underlying the over-the-counter derivative market. But he did not spot how rusty the Fed's liquidity support tools had become, or the vulnerability of the banks to the credit woes, until the crisis erupted, and in the past months has been forced to improvise repeatedly to find ways of pumping cash into frozen parts of the financial system. Recently the Fed has innovated at a remarkable pace. Still, most analysts believe it did too little to contain money market strains in the early months of the crisis.

Peers see Mr Geithner as pragmatic - someone who focuses on what can be achieved and will not let the best be the enemy of the good. Some contrast this with other central bankers, such as Mervyn King, Bank of England governor, who stick more firmly to first principles.

Mr Geithner tends to "smell" his way through situations, a senior central banker says. He attributes this to his background as a Treasury official rather than a high-flying economist or banker - something he shares with Mr Trichet. "The key thing about people such as Trichet or Geithner is that they have come from treasuries - they know how politics and power works," the central banker says.

Mr Geithner is not an intellectual force in the way Mr Summers, Mr Bernanke or Mr King - all professional economists - are. But he understands the issues. "He is incredibly sharp and asks penetrating questions," says Mohamed El-Erian, co-chief executive of Pimco, who got to know him in the Asian crisis. "His approach allows him to identify the key issues quickly and get to the roots of a solution."

For someone who has never worked in the private financial sector, he has a subtle sense of markets' psychology. Yet Mr Summers says labelling him simply a pragmatist sells him short: "I would say he was very much an activist and an internationalist - and these were high principles." Friends say Mr Geithner's experience dealing with crises in emerging markets and Japan, and his coolness under pressure, equip him to handle the current crisis. The US must hope so. As one former colleague points out, there is a big difference between this crisis and those of the 1990s.

"When the crises erupted in Asia there was always the US and the International Monetary Fund there to ride to the rescue," he says. "But this time there is no cavalry." Mr Geithner and his colleagues will have to save themselves.

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