WASHINGTON – President Bush argued Monday that the government's dramatic rescue of Citigroup was necessary to "safeguard the financial system" and help the economy recover, and he said there could be more such moves if other institutions need help.
Bush said he approved the action, recommended by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, while flying back to Washington on Sunday evening from meetings in Peru with Pacific Rim leaders. He spoke with President-elect Barack Obama on Monday morning about the move, part of what he has promised will be "close cooperation" between his administration and the Obama camp until the transfer of power on Jan. 20.
Referring to the Citigroup rescue, Bush said: "We have made these kind of decisions in the past. We made one last night. And if need be we will make these kind of decisions to safeguard our financial system in the future."
Briefing reporters later, White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto would not identify any other firms or institutions that might be next in line for government assistance. "We would never foreshadow any specific actions involving private firms, but I think it's safe to say ... that we take threats to our financial system seriously and we stand ready to take any steps necessary to prevent systemic events in our economy," Fratto said.
He also said that the Treasury Department could rethink its decision last week to leave the final $350 billion of the $700 billion in bailout money approved by Congress for the Obama administration. Fratto said Treasury officials "wouldn't hesitate to go to Congress" for that money if it feels it is needed now.
Bush, who spoke after meeting with Paulson and other Cabinet members at the Treasury Department, said they all realize that Americans are concerned for their jobs and savings.
"We will safeguard the financial system as the first step necessary for economic recovery," the president said. "This is a tough situation. But we will recover from it."
Also while at Treasury, just across a sidewalk from the White House, Bush joined a meeting of top administration officials who are working on greater economic cooperation with China. Bush met on Friday in Peru with Chinese President Hu Jintao for talks focused in part on the global economic turmoil.
The flurry of activity by Bush, which had not been announced in advance, came the morning after the government's agreement to shoulder hundreds of billions of dollars in possible losses at Citigroup and to plow a fresh $20 billion into the troubled company. Bush called the company by its predecessor's name, Citicorp.
The president has repeatedly sought to defend his administration's unprecedented intervention in the financial markets in recent months, arguing against criticism from some fiscal conservatives by saying that the moves go against his free-market instincts but are necessary because of the dire times. He also has said that he was warned that the economy could fall into a slowdown worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s if the government did not act.
Analysts said a Citigroup failure would have seized up still-fragile lending markets and caused untold losses among institutions holding debt and financial products backed by the company.
Fratto said companies like Citigroup are so "systemically large" that they could "bring down not just the entire U.S. financial system but the global financial system."
"What these efforts are doing are to prevent the financial system from failing," he said. "It's never been about any one particular company. We let thousands of companies fail in this economy every year."
The bold move regarding Citigroup is the latest in a string of high-profile government bailout efforts. The Fed in March provided financial backing to JPMorgan Chase's buyout of ailing Bear Stearns. Six months later, the government was forced to take over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and throw a financial lifeline, which was recently expanded, to insurer American International Group.
At the meetings in Lima, Peru, over the weekend, Bush succeeded in getting the nations there to endorse the action plan drafted a week earlier at an international summit Bush hosted in Washington.
That means that both the so-called Group of 20 nations and the Pacific Rim countries are now on record behind overhauling financial regulation and avoiding the temptation to erect new trade barriers during the current downturn.