America is short on czars. The ones in charge of energy, the war on drugs, intellectual property, and, perhaps, cars are not enough.
The one segment of the economy that has needed a czar more than any other is the financial sector. The pretenders have been the chiefs and Treasury, the Fed, the FDIC, and, god help us, the SEC.
The alleged purpose of a czar is to cut across government agencies and political interests to drive one forceful set of plans to save time in solving a major crisis facing the US. A quick look at the banking and brokerage businesses shows that attempts to rescue the system and the companies has been discordant and complex.
AIG (AIG) got a special deal all its own. The arrangements for Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) may be at odds with other goals the government has for the broader financial system. The program to save Citigroup (C) does not appear like the capital infusions for other big banks. Bear Stearns, Lehman, Wachovia, Countrywide, and Washington Mutual were all driven into shotgun weddings of shuttered altogether.
One of the most pronounced difficulties with saving the financial system is that so far it has been ad hoc. The excuse for this is usually that things happened so fast that a coordinated attack on the problem has been impossible. There is some tragedy in that, but it is probably true.
The troubles among Wall St. firms may get worse as housing, credit defaults, corporate loans, and commercial real estate all fall on harder time. But, the system has gotten some stability as the government has pumped it full of capital. There is probably time for a more deliberate approach.
The issues of turf wars are not going away. The many government agencies who claim power over pieces of the banking system is still large. Their goals are not always aligned.
Czaring up the financial industry might solve much of the trouble that multiple-agency regulation presents. The war on drugs never worked, but at least one person could cut across government departments to make a go of it.
A financial czar would need to have two plenary powers. The first would be to determine which financial companies get government cash and on what basis. Hopefully each foot in the system would not require a custom set of shoes as had been the practice up until now. The second, and equally important authority the czar would have is the ability to merge troubled financial firms into more healthy ones. This would go a long way toward keeping companies like Citigroup (C) from bleeding the system dry of both money and precious government resources.
A chicken in every pot, a czar in every garage.
Douglas A. McIntyre