President Obama held his first prime-time press conference last night and many questions focused on banking, including plenty about his plans for revamping efforts to stabilize the industry.
The President deferred on many details to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who he said would provide “very clear and specific plans for how we are going to start loosening up credit once again.” Mr. Geithner is scheduled to unveil the administration’s ideas at 11 a.m. and then testify before the Senate Banking Committee this afternoon.
Here are excerpts from the President’s remarks.
Q: On changes to the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Obama: “It means that we correct some of the mistakes with TARP that were made earlier, the lack of consistency, the lack of clarity in terms of how the program was going to move forward. It means that we condition taxpayer dollars that are being provided to banks on them showing some restraint when it comes to executive compensation, not using the money to charter corporate jets when they're not necessary. It means that we focus on housing and how are we going to help homeowners that are suffering foreclosure or homeowners who are still making their mortgage payments, but are seeing their property values decline.”
Q: If consumer spending contributed to current problems, is it wise to try and stimulate the economy through more consumer spending?
Obama: “Well, first of all, I don't think it's accurate to say that consumer spending got us into this mess. What got us into this mess initially were banks taking exorbitant, wild risks with other people's monies based on shaky assets. And because of the enormous leverage where they had $1 worth of assets and they were betting $30 on that $1, what we had was a crisis in the financial system. That led to a contraction of credit, which in turn meant businesses couldn't make payroll or make inventories, which meant that everybody became uncertain about the future of the economy, so people started making decisions accordingly -- reducing investment, initiated layoffs -- which in turn made things worse.
My immediate task is making sure that the second half of that money, $350 billion, is spent properly. That's my first job. Before I even think about what else I've got to do, my first task is to make sure that my Secretary of the Treasury, Tim Geithner, working with Larry Summers, my National Economic Advisor, and others, are coming up with the best possible plan to use this money wisely -- in a way that's transparent; in a way that provides clear oversight; that we are conditioning any money that we give to banks on them reducing executive compensation to reasonable levels; and to make sure that they're not wasting that money.
We are going to have to work with the banks in an effective way to clean up their balance sheets so that some trust is restored within the marketplace, because right now part of the problem is that nobody really knows what's on the banks' books. Any given bank, they're not sure what kinds of losses are there. We've got to open things up and restore some trust.
We also have to deal with the housing issue in a clear and consistent way. I don't want to preempt my Secretary of the Treasury; he's going to be laying out these principles in great detail tomorrow. But my instruction to him has been, let's get this right, let's create a template in which we're restoring market confidence. And the reason that's so important is because we don't know yet whether we're going to need additional money or how much additional money we'll need until we've seen how successful we are at restoring a sense of confidence in the marketplace, that the federal government and the Federal Reserve Bank and the FDIC, working in concert, know what they're doing. That can make a big difference in terms of whether or not we attract private capital back into the marketplace.
And ultimately, the government cannot substitute for all the private capital that has been withdrawn from the system. We've got to restore confidence so that private capital goes back in.”
Q: How will the public be able to measure the success of his program?
Obama: “I think my initial measure of success is creating or saving 4 million jobs. That's bottom line number one, because if people are working, then they've got enough confidence to make purchases, to make investments. Businesses start seeing that consumers are out there with a little more confidence, and they start making investments, which means they start hiring workers. So step number one, job creation.
“Step number two: Are we seeing the credit markets operate effectively? I can't tell you how many businesses that I talk to that are successful businesses, but just can't get credit. Part of the problem in Elkhart, that I heard about today, was the fact that -- this is the RV capital of America. You've got a bunch of RV companies that have customers who want to purchase RVs, but even though their credit is good, they can't get the loan. Now, the businesses also can't get loans to make payments to their suppliers. But when they have consumers, consumers can't get the loans that they need. So normalizing the credit markets is I think step number two.
“Step number three is going to be housing: Have we stabilized the housing market? Now, the federal government doesn't have complete control over that, but if our plan is effective, working with the Federal Reserve Bank, working with the FDIC, I think what we can do is stem the rate of foreclosure and we can start stabilizing housing values over time. And the most -- the biggest measure of success is whether we stop contracting and shedding jobs, and we start growing again. Now, I don't have a crystal ball, and as I've said, this is an unprecedented crisis. But my hope is that after a difficult year -- and this year is going to be a difficult year -- that businesses start investing again, they start making decisions that, you know, in fact there's money to be made out there, customers or consumers start feeling that their jobs are stable and safe, and they start making purchases again. And if we get things right, then starting next year we can start seeing some significant improvement.”