In several different venues Friday morning, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner defended the administration's decision not to offer a full-fledged plan for the future of the housing market, insisting that Congress had only asked for an array of options.Within minutes of the administration's release of a 31-page white paper on reform options, which did not endorse a single approach and left vague some key details on how to proceed, critics accused President Obama of shirking his responsibility on the issue. But Geithner said that the administration wants more Congressional input before it proceeds.
"Congress asked us to lay options, not to give them a final plan," Geithner said on CNBC. "We think it's important for the people in Congress that ultimately have to legislate to get more deeply in the relative merits of those choices and what we do in the report is to narrow those options."
In a conference call with reporters, Geithner largely repeated that line, arguing the administration had at least ruled out some options, including full privatization and nationalization.
"Congress asked us in Dodd-Frank to lay out options and a set of pros and cons for those options," Geithner said. "To be clear … we did rule out certain options. We are recommending a deeper exploration of the three options."
Speaking later at the Brookings Institute, Geithner said the administration is attempting to gain some general consensus on the direction of reform before laying out the details.
"We describe this as we'll drive them West and everyone wants to go West, so we know where we are going to go, but somewhere around Salt Lake City make a choice about what makes the ultimate options," he said during a question and answer session.
During the same discussion, Geithner acknowledged the administration — and the mortgage market — needed more time.
"Just realistically, we need a little bit of time," he said. "I mean again we're three years into the process of adjustment in the housing market. We probably have three more years left. And we're still pretty close to a deeply damaging financial panic. We spend a little more time with that uncertainty about the future to be reduced a little bit. I think those things require a little bit of time."
He also said banks could use extra time as regulators finalize rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act.
"Until that is in place and we see those final rules, people can see it's going to be harder for banks to decide how much capital to put against this and for investors to decide what role they want to play in this," Geithner said. "So that's a necessary pre-condition."
Geithner also said the options paper is not the final word from the administration, saying they may support some combination of ideas.
"You can't think of them in isolation," he said. "It's possible in the end what we decide on is a mix of those options."
He added that the administration was not trying to put off the creation of a concrete plan indefinitely.
"Although we are starting with this white paper we don't legislation to be too far deferred," he said. "We can do this transition thing in stages without legislation but ultimately we are going to have to explain to the market what the endgame is going to be and we don't want to wait too long to do that."