U.S. must live within its means: Geithner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States must live within its means once its economy recovers if it is to preserve global confidence in the U.S. dollar’s status, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said on Friday.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner speaks with Editor of "The Economist" John Micklethwait at Pace University in New York October 15, 2009. REUTERS/Nicholas Roberts

The comments came as the Obama administration reported a record U.S. budget deficit for the fiscal year ended September of $1.4 trillion. At 10 percent of gross domestic product, it was the biggest U.S. fiscal shortfall since World War Two.

Rescuing the economy and some of the country’s biggest banks from the worst recession since the Great Depression took a toll on U.S. finances, and the White House has forecast deficits of more than $1 trillion through fiscal 2011.

“Future deficits are too high, and the president is committed to working with Congress to bring them down to a sustainable level as the economy recovers,” Geithner said in a statement accompanying the fiscal data.

Separately, White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers said financial firms that helped precipitate two years of economic crisis are going to have to bow to stiffer oversight of their activities to prevent it happening again.

Geithner and other policymakers will discuss the U.S. economic and budget outlook, and prospects for financial regulatory reform, at the Reuters Washington Summit on October 19-21.


On Friday, Geithner said the U.S. dollar’s status as a key reserve currency carries special responsibilities that include keeping spending under control, Geithner said earlier on Friday in an interview on CNBC television.

“It is very important that Americans understand that we need to do everything possible to sustain confidence in our ability to keep inflation low and stable over time and to make sure we’re getting our fiscal house in order,” Geithner said.

Developments over the past year, when many investors put their money into U.S. Treasury securities and the dollar rose at times, showed there was still a great deal of confidence in U.S. economic management.

“The world wanted to be in Treasuries, in the safest and most liquid markets, and you saw the dollar rose when people were most concerned about the future of the world,” he said.

“That is a very important thing. It’s not something you can count on. It’s something we can understand, and we can continue to foster, and we’re going to do that,” Geithner added.

The administration has to be careful not to withdraw economic stimulus too fast though, Geithner added. But he denied that the administration was ready to consider a second economic stimulus program.

Geithner said access to credit in the overall economy has improved dramatically but many small businesses that typically create many jobs still face borrowing constraints.

The Obama administration is working on measures to help small businesses get easier access to credit -- possibly by diverting some bank bailout funds to them -- but hasn’t yet announced a program to do so.


Summers also argued for change to the banking system.

After two years of economic crisis and government rescue efforts, he said the banks at the center of the credit debacle had a moral imperative to be part of the solution.

“Financial institutions that have benefited from government support can, should, and must use this moment to think about what they can do for their country -- by accepting the necessary regulation to protect the American people,” Summers told an audience of financial market participants. “Wall Street was no small part of the cause of the crisis and Wall Street needs to be part of the solution.”

Summers, chairman of the National Economic Council, suggested banks had little choice in the matter.

“There is no financial institution that exists today that is not the direct or indirect beneficiary of trillions of dollars of taxpayer support,” he said. “This has direct relevance on the changing nature of the social compact between the financial sector and the broader economy.”

The Obama administration has been pressing for wide-ranging reforms in U.S. financial regulations. It scored a victory on Thursday when a House of Representatives’ panel passed a bill to tighten regulation of financial derivatives -- contracts derived from existing securities or transactions that are blamed for amplifying the 2008 crisis.

New, tighter regulation doesn’t mean, however, that financial firms will never go bust again. In fact, Summers said that such firms must be able to fail for market discipline to work.

In addition to that, though, profitability and prudence should be reconciled under any framework of financial regulation.

“The financial system has to be safe for failure,” said Summers.

Summers also said officials need to avoid prematurely withdrawing measures meant to stimulate the economy after the worst recession in decades, noting discussion of any “exit strategy” would be different on Main Street than it would on Wall Street.

Reporting by Glenn Somerville, Walter Brandimarte and Burton Frierson; Editing by Andrew Hay