Economic Outlook: Thank you, Mr. Geithner

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Jan. 11, 2012 at 9:31 AM
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When U.S Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner returns from Asia, it would be nice if someone took him out to dinner.

It used to be the vice president was the taskmaster of choice for everything thankless. Now, it seems to be Geithner's role.

Remember, it was Geithner who was given the primary role in selling the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a $900 billion stewpot of policy dispute that was handed to the Obama administration by former President George W. Bush and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. This was a last-minute, face-saving bailout for an outgoing administration literally blindsided by the financial crisis.

This left Geithner the Ed McMahon role of pitchman for the most unpopular, yet successful program in memory. Republicans later backed away from supporting the bill while Democrats found it a mixed blessing. Even the banks that benefited enormously by the bailout took it as an insult.

Geithner's new thankless role is to travel to China to try to convince Beijing that the source of 11 percent of China's oil, Iran, should be sanctioned for work on an alleged nuclear weapons program. Before he even arrived in China on Tuesday, officials were spelling out the futility of that concept. Playing it daft, China said there was no connection between sanctions and nuclear weapons programs, alleged or otherwise.

Problems with Iran "cannot be resolved by sanctions alone," said Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai. He also said, "We should not mix issues with different natures," referring to nuclear weapons and "regular economic and trade relations."

So, that's a scratch.

Next on Geithner's priority list was to make an effort convincing China to disconnect the yuan from the U.S. dollar and allow the market to figure out the value of China's currency. As it is, economists have said the yuan is 20 percent to 40 percent undervalued, which gives Chinese exports that much of a price advantage and U.S. goods sold in China that much of a disadvantage.

And, wouldn't you know it, on Tuesday, China's General Administration of Customs said the country's trade surplus shrank to its lowest level in five years, falling from $183 billion in 2010 to $155 billion in 2011.

China has also maintained that Beijing alone will decide when and how much its currency will appreciate and that a stronger yuan has not made a noticeable difference in the past.

Pure and simple: It is also crystal clear that China is not about to change its currency policy while its trade surplus is declining.

On top of that, Geithner was assigned the job of explaining to Beijing that President Obama approved a new committee that would investigate China's trade practices.

Given the administration's track record, no one could blame Geithner for dropping hints that this committee, with unhappy U.S. trade groups behind it, is a gesture that has no teeth. Just as the administration has failed to declare China a currency manipulator, but sent Geithner to beg for cooperation on exchange rates, there is little expectation that anything will move forward.

How thankless is that?

In international markets Wednesday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan rose 0.3 percent and the Shanghai composite index in China fell 0.42 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong added 0.78 percent and the Sensex in India rose 0.07 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 index in Australia gained 0.85 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain lost 0.57 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany fell 0.26 percent. The CAC 40 in France fell 0.25 percent and the Stoxx Europe 600 dropped 0.44 percent.

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