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Geithner's Plan to Come Up with a Plan

In unveiling the Obama administration's latest assault against the demons threatening the U.S. financial system, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's underlying message on Tuesday: trust me.

In unveiling the Obama administration's latest assault against the demons threatening the U.S. financial system, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's underlying message on Tuesday: trust me. The markets were not amused. Stocks dropped 200 points as soon as he began speaking about how he plans to revamp the bank rescue plan that he and predecessor Henry Paulson shaped last fall.

With thefirst half of the initial $700 billion authorized by Congress spent, Geithner has promised improvements to how the rest of the money -- and probably billions more -- gets used in the effort to spur new lending for consumers and businesses. Except that Geithner didn't really offer up much in the way of details.

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Well, they did come up with a nifty new name for the program formerlyknown as TARP, the Troubled Assets Relief Program. This time it's theFinancial Stability Plan. (Wonder how long it took to come up with thatone?)  Transparency, clarity and reliability will be coming soon...just not yet.

Instead of the specifics that reporters, traders and economists were looking for, Geithner sketched out a four-part outline of what the future rescue effort would involve: reviving a  variation on the "bad bank" idea, foreclosure relief, a consumer lending facility, and buying up shares of banks that pass a stress test. Banks would be subject to even more strings with limits on executive pay and more disclosure of their balance sheets. There's even a new website: www.financialstability.gov. In the end, Geithner's lack of details and vagueness about costs led to confusing and conflicting reports and estimates of new spending that ranged from $1 trillion on the low side to more than $2 trillion on the high side. Geithner, Obama and other plan architects admit they aren't quite sure how much money it will take to jumpstart credit markets.

The crux of the new plan actually closely mirrors the intent of the vague three page plan Paulson handed Congress last September: Find a way to take toxic assets off of the balance sheets of banks to get them lending again. But the same problems remain -- how to arrive at a value for the assets that won't overburden banks, but still give taxpayers a chance to eventually recover a good bit of the investment, or even turn a profit. Geithner has opted for what he calls a public-private investment fund run along with the Federal Reserve with financing from private investors to buy up souring loans from ailing banks. That alone could cost anywhere from $500 billion to $1 trillion, not exactly a precise estimate. And private money may want nothing to do with program. It all depends on how the administration decides to answer the key question of valuation.

It could be a rousing success... or not. On Tuesday skepticism abounded. In New York the Dow dropped close to 400 points by the end of the day. On Capitol Hill lawmakers grilled him in a hearing and suggested that giving the Fed so much power -- and thus avoiding the need to have Congress directly involved -- would be a very tough sell.

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