Excellent Simon Johnson Interview

Here, as usual, are my favorite passages:

BILL MOYERS: Oligarchy is an un-American term, as you know. It means a government by a small number of people. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way.

SIMON JOHNSON: It’s a way of governing. As you said. It comes from, you know, a system they tried out in Greece and Athens from time to time. And it was actually an antithesis to democracy in that context.

But, exactly what you said, it’s a small group with a lot of power. A lot of wealth. They don’t necessarily – they’re not necessarily always the names, the household names that spring to mind, in this kind of context. But they are the people who could pull the strings. Who have the influence. Who call the shots.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that the banking industry trumps the president, the Congress and the American government when it comes to this issue so crucial to the survival of American democracy?

SIMON JOHNSON: I don’t know. I hope they don’t trump it. But the signs that I see this week, the body language, the words, the op-eds, the testimony, the way they’re treated by certain Congressional committees, it makes me feel very worried.

BILL MOYERS: Both the “Wall Street Journal” and “The New York Times” reported this week that Obama’s top two political aides, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, have pushed for tougher action against the banks. But they didn’t prevail. Obama apparently sided with Geithner and the Treasury Department in using a velvet glove.

SIMON JOHNSON: What I read from that is that there is an unnecessary and excessive deference to the experts, or the supposed experts.

And I think the view that a lot of people have in Washington – I live in Washington, I follow this very closely – the view is that you need to rely on the technocrats. And the technocrats are saying, “This is the way to go, and you mustn’t be too tough on because banks, because that will have adverse consequences for credits, and for the economy, and for unemployment,” and so on and so forth. Those technocrats, if that’s what they’re saying, are wrong. That is not the right way to deal with this crisis.

There are many fine professionals at Treasury with great experience, who have spent their lives working on important issues related to the United States. What we face right now is not a typical U.S. issue. We face a crisis, and the president said this on Monday night, the president said, President Obama said, “We’ve never seen anything like this since the Great Depression.”

Therefore, nobody working now, you know, has any firsthand experience. And he also said, “We may face what we call a lost decade.” We’ve never seen that anywhere other than Japan in the 1990s, right?

And something for Treasury officials to really understand, and to really understand the alternatives – they’re not, I mean, with all due respect to them, they’re not the ultimate authority. I don’t think they’re the right people.

The correct people you should be asking this question to are people at the IMF. And I can tell you what they’re saying is the policy that we seem to be perusing, of being nice to the banks, is a mistake.

BILL MOYERS: Why wouldn’t they believe that? I mean, when I watched the eight CEOs testify before Congress at the House Financial Services Committee earlier this week, I had just finished reading a report that almost every member of that Committee had received contributions from those banks last year. I mean in a way that’s like paying the cop on the beat not to arrest you, right?

SIMON JOHNSON: I called up one of my friends on Capitol Hill after that testimony, and that session. I said, “What happened? This was your moment. Why did they pull their punches like that?” And my friend said, “They, the Committee members, know the bankers too well.”

BILL MOYERS: Last year, the securities and investment industry made $146 million in campaign contributions. Commercial banks, another $34 million. I mean, American taxpayers don’t have a flea’s chance on a dog like that, do they?

SIMON JOHNSON: It a massive problem, obviously. And I do think, though, the good news there are people in the White House – I think the president himself, is aware of this broader issue. And, obviously, the campaign, the Obama campaign was very good at getting small contributions, and trying to minimize the impact of major donors like that.

BILL MOYERS: When Tim Geithner said, earlier in the week, that the American people have lost faith in some financial institutions and the government, did it occur to you that this was the same man who was president of the New York Fed through much of this debacle?

SIMON JOHNSON: I have no problem with poachers turning gamekeeper, right? So if you know where the bodies are buried maybe you can help us sort out the problem. And I did think the first three or four minutes of what Mr. Geithner said were very good.

As a definition of a problem, and pointing the finger clearly at the bankers, and saying that the government had been slow to react, and, of course, that included himself. I liked that. And then he started to talk about the specifics. And he said, “The compensation caps we’ve put in place, for the executives of these banks, are strong.” And at that point I just fell out of my chair. That is not true. That is factually inaccurate, in my opinion.

BILL MOYERS: That?

SIMON JOHNSON: That this $500,000 limit, and deferred stock, is some kind of restriction on what they do? It’s deferred stock, Bill. It’s not restricted. You can get as much stock as you want, as soon as you pay back the government, you can cash out of that. That’s one.

Second, you can, sorry to get technical, but reset the strike price. This is something you and your and your viewers, you need to hear this one out. Just look for these words, okay, follow them through the press. When you get into trouble, when your company goes down, and you have massive amounts of stock options that aren’t worth much anymore, because the stock price has gone down, you say, “Oh, well, we’re going to reset our option prices.”

And, basically, it means that, at the end of the day, these people are going to walk away with tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars paid for by basically, insurance policy that you and I are providing.

Think of it like this, our taxpayer money is ensuring their bonuses. We’re making sure that companies, that banks survive. And eventually, of course, the economy will turn around. Things will get better. The banks will be worth a lot of money. And they will cash out. And we will be paying higher taxes, we and our children, will be paying higher taxes so those people could have those bonuses. That’s not fair. It’s not acceptable. It’s not even good economics.

BILL MOYERS: Are we chumps?

SIMON JOHNSON: We’ll find out. Yes, we may be. Okay. It depends on how we play this politically. It depends on what our political system does. It depends, I think, on the level of reaction. The financial system is playing us for chumps, okay? The bankers think we’re chumps. We’ll find out. We have leadership that can handle this. We’ll find out what they do. 

BILL MOYERS: Geithner says that’s something “his” board of directors, the board of Goldman Sachs, will have to decide. But aren’t we all ipso facto stock holders now?

SIMON JOHNSON: We should certainly have a big say over critical matters like this. Like the CEO. Because, two things. First of all, it’s our money that kept these banks in business. Not just the treasury recapitalization money, that’s relatively small.

It’s the financial support provided by the Federal Reserve. Make no mistake about it, if the Federal Reserve hadn’t stepped in late September, in dramatic fashion, to prop up organizations like Goldman Sachs, they would be out of business, okay?

It was our money that did that. The Federal Reserve acting on behalf of the American taxpayer. And secondly, Senator Sanders is exactly right. That a CEO, like Lloyd Blankfein, made mistakes, and led his company into deep trouble.

Now, other companies are in deeper trouble. His company was in deep trouble and had to be rescued at that moment. It’s absolutely the right way to pose the question. And the answer to Senator Sanders’ question is, in my opinion, yes. We should change the leadership of these major banks.

BILL MOYERS: And, yet, Secretary Geithner’s chief-of-staff is the former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs. How – serious question – how do they make a dispassionate judgment about how to deal with Goldman Sachs when they’re so intertwined with Goldman Sachs’ mindset?

SIMON JOHNSON: I have no idea. Of course, the administration, the new administration, has a lot of rules about lobbying. And they have rules that basically say, I think, as understood the rules, when they were first presented, I was very impressed. They basically said, “We’re not going to hire lobbyists into the administration. There has to be some sort of cooling off period.”

BILL MOYERS: And the next day Obama exempted a number of people from that very rule that he had just proclaimed.

SIMON JOHNSON: Yes. It’s a problem. It’s a huge problem.

BILL MOYERS: So here’s the trillion dollar question that I take from your blog, that I read at the beginning, quote, “Can this person,” your new economic strategist, in this case Geithner, “really break with the vested elite that got you into this much trouble?” Have you seen any evidence this week that he’s going to be tough with these guys?

SIMON JOHNSON: I’m trying to be positive. I’m trying to be supportive. I like the administration. I voted for the president. The answer to your question is, no, I haven’t seen anything. But you know, perhaps next week I will. But right now, as we speak, I have a bad feeling in my stomach.

My intuition, from crises, from situations that have improved, the situations that got worse, my intuition is that this is going to get a lot worse. It’s going to cost us a lot more money. And we are going down a long, dark, blind alley.”

And finally, the recommendation:

SIMON JOHNSON: “We have no problem in this country shutting down small banks. In fact, the FDIC is world class at shutting down and managing the handover of deposits, for example, from small banks. They managed IndyMac, the closure of IndyMac, beautifully. People didn’t lose touch with their money for even a moment. But they can’t do it to big banks, because they don’t have the political power. Nobody has the political will to do it.

So you need to take an FDIC-type process. You scale it up. You say, “You haven’t raised the capital privately. The government is taking over your bank. You guys are out of business. Your bonuses are wiped out. Your golden parachutes are gone.” Okay? Because the bank has failed.

This is a government-supervised bankruptcy process. It’s called, in the terminology of the business, it’s called an intervention. The bank is intervened. You don’t go into Chapter 11 because in that’s too messy. Too complicated. There’s an intervention, you lose the right to operate as a bank. The FDIC takes you over. I think we agree, everyone agrees, we don’t want the government to run banks in this country.

That’s not what we’re going to do. That’s not what the Swedes did. That’s not the state of the art – it’s not what the real banking experts are going to tell you to do. They’re going to say, you set it up, you set up the government intervention, and there’s various technical ways to do this, so that you re-privatize very quickly.

Now, it might take three months, it might take six months. It’ll depend on the overall macro economy turning around. But there’s a lot of private money out there. Let’s call it private equity.

These people would like to come in and buy these re-privatized banks. You would attach antitrust provisions to this, so the banks are broken up as part of this transaction. Senator Sanders has a great saying. He says, “Any bank that is too big to fail is too big to exist.”

 

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~ by eboro on February 15, 2009.

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