Bill Moyers With Simon Johnson & James Kwak (The 13 Bankers Who Control Washington -- Video & Transcript)
PBS Video: Simon Johnson & James Kwak with Bill Moyers -- April 16, 2010
For those who haven't seen it already, set aside some time. Outstanding discussion and congressional footage. Dimon, Blankfein, Goldman, both Morgans, Citigroup, Geithner and Bernanke all get thrashed about.
Transcript is below the 2nd video.
The White House and Democrats in Congress have begun pushing in earnest for a package of financial reforms. But will it be enough to stop Wall Street from causing another meltdown?
To find out what real financial reform needs to look like, Bill Moyers turns to Simon Johnson and James Kwak, the co-authors of 13 BANKERS: THE WALL STREET TAKEOVER AND THE NEXT FINANCIAL MELTDOWN.
The problem, according to Kwak, is that the legislation currently doesn't address the central problem of the crisis, that America's banks have grown 'too big to fail.' In fact, the problem has gotten worse, with just six banks holding assets in excess of 63% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Kwak explains that the crisis actually made the surviving banks more powerful, "I think what's remarkable is that it used to be maybe eight or nine banks. But what's happened over the last two years, as Simon is saying, is that these banks have gotten bigger, because they've bought each other. They've become more powerful. And they have an even stronger market position in some key markets like credit cards, mortgages, equity underwriting, and derivatives."
Johnson argues that for reform to work, policy makers and regulators must reject the belief that Wall Street knows what's its doing, that its interests are always aligned with the nation as a whole, "The idea that we need Wall Street with its current structure — and a disproportionate economic power that implies — to somehow make this economy work and drive entrepreneurship, that idea is nonsense. This is why we wrote the book, all right? There's plenty of evidence on this issue. We go through it. If you want a faith based economy in this regard, you can disregard the evidence."
Johnson and Kwak believe Congress should pass a law capping the size of the banks, to keep them from becoming so large that their failure threatens the world economy. This approach has been dubbed the 'Volcker Rule,' after Paul Volcker, the well-respected former Federal Reserve chairman who has pushed hard for its inclusion. Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio has introduced an amendment to the bill that would do just that, reading in part that, "No bank holding company may possess non-deposit liabilities exceeding 3 percent of the annual gross domestic product of the United States."
The names of the six banking behemoths are no doubt familiar to most Americans. The four largest by assets — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup — hold 39 percent of American's deposits.
The six biggest commercial banks by deposit:
- Bank of America, $817.9 billion
- JPMorgan Chase Bank $618.1 billion
- Wachovia Bank $394.2 billion
- Wells Fargo Bank $325.4 billion
- Citibank $265.9 billion
- U.S. Bank $151.9 billion
Video: Part 2
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. With all due respect, we can only wish those tea party activists who gathered this week were not so single-minded about just who's responsible for their troubles, real and imagined. They're up in arms, so to speak, against big government, especially the Obama administration.
But if they thought this through, they'd be joining forces with other grassroots Americans who will soon be demonstrating in Washington and elsewhere against high finance, taking on Wall Street and the country's biggest banks.
The original Tea Party, remember, wasn't directed just against the British redcoats. Colonial patriots also took aim at the East India Company. That was the joint-stock enterprise originally chartered by the first Queen Elizabeth. Over the years, the government granted them special rights and privileges, which the owners turned into a monopoly over trade, including tea.
It may seem a stretch from tea to credit default swaps, but the principle is the same: when enormous private wealth goes unchecked, regular folks get hurt - badly. That's what happened in 2008 when the monied interests led us up the garden path to the great collapse.
Suppose the Tea Party folk had dropped by those Senate hearings this week looking into the failure of Washington Mutual. That's the bank that went belly up during the meltdown in September 2008. It was the largest such failure in American history.
WaMu, as we were reminded this week, made sub-prime loans that its executives knew were rotten, then packaged them as mortgage securities, and pawned them off on unsuspecting investors.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: And that was your responsibility to make sure that the securities which went out to the investors were following notice to the investors of everything that they needed to know in order that the information be complete and truthful. That's what your testimony was, under oath.
DAVID BECK: It's a very real possibility that the loans that went out were better quality than Mr. Shaw laid out.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: And you don't -
DAVID BECK: A very real possibility.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: And there's a very good possibility that they were exactly the quality that he laid out, right? Is that right?
DAVID BECK: That's right.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Okay. And you don't know, and apparently you don't care. And the trouble is, you should have cared.
BILL MOYERS: Then there's Lehman Brothers. During those black September days a year and a half ago, the Feds decided to let Lehman go. This led to America's biggest bankruptcy ever. In an admirable work of journalism this week, the New York Times reported that Lehman secretly controlled a company called Hudson Castle and used it to borrow money as well as to hide bad investments in commercial real estate and sub-prime mortgages.
But the week's award for sheer gall goes to a Chicago-area hedge fund called Magnetar, named after a kind of neutron star that spews deadly radiation across the galaxies. Thanks to the teamwork of the investigative reporting website "ProPublica," NPR's "Planet Money" project and "This American Life," we learned Magnetar worked with investment banks to create toxic CDO's - collateralized debt obligations - securities backed by sub-prime mortgages the management knew were bad. And then Magnetar took that knowledge and bet against the very same investments they had recommended to buyers. Selling short and making a fortune.
And late this week the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the godfather of Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, with fraud in earning a fifteen million dollar fee involving those complex CDO's, a hedge fund, and the housing market.
But, since we know all this, why is it so hard to hold Wall Street accountable? Even as we speak the banking industry and corporate America are fighting against financial reform with all the money and influence at their disposal Their effort is to preserve a system that would enable them to ransack the country once again.
So even if the Tea Party folks saw the light, what can ordinary Americans do?
That's the question I want to put to my guests, Simon Johnson and James Kwak. They have written this new book, 13 BANKERS: THE WALL STREET TAKEOVER AND THE NEXT FINANCIAL MELTDOWN. It's a must read - already a best seller -- and it couldn't have come at a better time. This book could change the debate over financial reform by tipping it in favor of the public.
Simon Johnson is a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. He now teaches at MIT's Sloan School of Management and is a Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
James Kwak is studying law at Yale Law School - a career he decided to pursue after working as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company and co-founding the successful software company, Guidewire. Together James Kwak and Simon Johnson run the indispensable economic website BaselineScenario.com
Welcome to you both.
Let me get to the blunt conclusion you reach in your book. You say that two years after the devastating financial crisis of '08 our country is still at the mercy of an oligarchy that is bigger, more profitable, and more resistant to regulation than ever. Correct?
SIMON JOHNSON: Absolutely correct, Bill. The big banks became stronger as a result of the bailout. That may seem extraordinary, but it's really true. They're turning that increased economic clout into more political power. And they're using that political power to go out and take the same sort of risks that got us into disaster in September 2008.
BILL MOYERS: And your definition of oligarchy is?
SIMON JOHNSON: Oligarchy is just- it's a very simple, straightforward idea from Aristotle. It's political power based on economic power. And it's the rise of the banks in economic terms, which we document at length, that it'd turn into political power. And they then feed that back into more deregulation, more opportunities to go out and take reckless risks and-- and capture huge amounts of money.
BILL MOYERS: And you say that these this oligarchy consists of six megabanks. What are the six banks?
JAMES KWAK: They are Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.
BILL MOYERS: And you write that they control 60 percent of our gross national product?
JAMES KWAK: They have assets equivalent to 60 percent of our gross national product. And to put this in perspective, in the mid-1990s, these six banks or their predecessors, since there have been a lot of mergers, had less than 20 percent. Their assets were less than 20 percent of the gross national product.
BILL MOYERS: And what's the threat from an oligarchy of this size and scale?
SIMON JOHNSON: They can distort the system, Bill. They can change the rules of the game to favor themselves. And unfortunately, the way it works in modern finance is when the rules favor you, you go out and you take a lot of risk. And you blow up from time to time, because it's not your problem. When it blows up, it's the taxpayer and it's the government that has to sort it out.
BILL MOYERS: So, you're not kidding when you say it's an oligarchy?
JAMES KWAK: Exactly. I think that in particular, we can see how the oligarchy has actually become more powerful in the last since the financial crisis. If we look at the way they've behaved in Washington. For example, they've been spending more than $1 million per day lobbying Congress and fighting financial reform. I think that's for some time, the financial sector got its way in Washington through the power of ideology, through the power of persuasion. And in the last year and a half, we've seen the gloves come off. They are fighting as hard as they can to stop reform.
SIMON JOHNSON: I know people react a little negatively when you use this term for the United States. But it means political power derived from economic power. That's what we're looking at here. It's disproportionate, it's unfair, it is very unproductive, by the way. Undermines business in this society. And it's an oligarchy like we see in other countries.
BILL MOYERS: And you say they continue to hold the global economy hostage?
JAMES KWAK: Exactly. Because what's happened- what we learned in 2008 were certain institutions are so big and so interconnected that if they were to fail, they would cause systemic shocks throughout the economy. That's essentially what happened in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed. And what's remarkable, and I think what essentially proves the point of our book is that almost two years later, nothing has changed.
Or the only thing that has changed is that these banks have gotten larger, more powerful, both economically and politically. And they've been flexing their muscles in Washington for the last year and a half. So Neal Wolin, the Deputy Treasury Secretary gave a blistering speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he said, look, the financial sector has been spending more than one million dollars per day lobbying against the reforms we need to fix the financial system. Now, Simon and I think those reforms that the Administration has proposed do not go far enough. But we think they're certainly better than nothing. What Wall Street wants is they want nothing. They want to stop this in its tracks and go back to where we were five years ago.
SIMON JOHNSON: It's amazing, Bill. But this is this is politics and this is money. And you know, there's a ground game, which is campaign contributions, which are surging in. I'm sure on both sides of the aisle. And there's also the ideological space. It's amazing. The Chamber of Commerce that claims to represent the broad cross section of American business is siding with six big banks, who favor policies that are directly contrary to the interests of most of the membership of the Chamber of Commerce. And that's just not just me saying that. That's Neal Wolin. That's Treasury. That's the White House saying that now. Calling fortunately, they've come to the point where they're willing to call the Chamber of Commerce on that. But I don't know if that message is getting through to people.
JAMES KWAK: You see what the bankers have done is they have taken a basic principle which is more or less true. Which is that free financial markets do enable money to go to the places where people need it. But on top of that, they've erected a system that is indescribably complex. And gives many opportunities to make money at the expense of their customers, at the expense of their counterparties. Even at the expense of their own employers. So, one of the things that has happened has been that Wall Street finance has become so complex and the internal systems of Wall Street banks has become so complex that if you are a smart banker, who is out to maximize your own income, you can find the loopholes in the system and you can exploit them, even if it means taking money from your own-- from your own company
BILL MOYERS: You've been writing this week on your website-- about this hedge fund in Chicago that's made a lot of money. In effect, betting against the American Dream. What was that?
JAMES KWAK: Magnetar is a hedge fund which means that other people gave them money to invest. And their job is to make as much money as possible. And these were the smart guys in the room. They saw that the system was broken. And they found a specific way to exploit it. And they knew that they could go for example, they could go to Wall Street banks and the banks would collaborate in making these extremely toxic securities. Because they knew what the bankers incentives were. They knew that the banker's incentives were to do the deal, to do the transaction, to get the fees up front. And they knew that there was nobody watching out for the investors. There was nobody watching out to make sure that securities they manufactured were actually good securities. But essentially what they were doing is they wanted to short the housing market. And they shorted the market in such a way that they actually made the problem worse, because what they did is they encouraged they tried to create these very toxic securities explicitly so that they could then short those securities. And that's why in a sense, they were they were shorting the American Dream. But what the real story of Magnetar, I think, is that they were exploiting a system that was deeply broken.
So, we like to think that the financial system we have in Wall Street are set up so that as people try to make lots of money they are they are indirectly helping the economy by making sure their capital goes where it's needed most. What the Magnetar story shows us that this is a casino, where you can make money you can make money exploiting the weaknesses in the casino. And it has nothing to do with the American Dream. It has nothing to do with making sure that capital goes to the places where it's needed most. I have to say that we owe a great to debt to "ProPublica" and "Planet Money" and "This American Life" for uncovering this story
BILL MOYERS: Public radio's excellent program, "This American Life", did a terrific broadcast on this subject, based upon the ProPublica investigation that you talked about. And there's a song in it that I have to play for the two of you and for my audience. Take a listen.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Step one. You write a check for 10 million dollars. Hand the check to a Wall Street bank, and ask them to make us a CDO. Step two: they create the CDO, using risky stuff, very risky stuff, extremely risky stuff. Step three: other investors commit hundreds of millions of dollars to the CDO. Step four: we bet against the CDO, using a credit default swap. Step five: the housing market crashes. The CDO's value goes to zero, our bet pays off and we make hundreds of millions of dollars and before you can say step six, we're rich! We're going to bet against the American Dream, we're going to be on the winning team, purchase risky debt on a massive scale. Then place a bet that the debt will fail. Hundreds of millions for Magnetar, the economy collapsing like a dying star. No one will know till it's on NPR, and who cares? It's time to hit the town, this sucker could go down. The housing market's losing steam. And all we got to do to make our dreams come true is bet against the American Dream!
BILL MOYERS: You're smiling, James, but is it really that funny?
JAMES KWAK: Well for decades, we've been told that Wall Street and financial innovation were promoting the American Dream. And what they've I think what the show and the song have really hit the hit the nail on is that in fact, you can make even more money betting against the American Dream. And that's the kind of system we have today.
SIMON JOHNSON: My bumper sticker from this and I hope it does become a bumper sticker is, "Trust me, I'm a banker."
I mean, you need to break through there's a level of progress here, Bill. Which is when people can laugh about it. When people can break it down into pieces. When you've got the 60-second version. And you can hammer that. And people understand it. Then you're starting to fight back. This is about ideology. This is about belief. This is about these guys are smart. These guys are well paid. So they must know what they're doing. And that's wrong.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote on your website this week about how JPMorgan Chase lost $880 million on one of these kind of whacky obscure deals? But the executives still paid themselves millions of dollars in up front fees. And you conclude that bankers placed a ticking bomb on their own bank balance sheet. It exploded and personally they still made money.
JAMES KWAK: Exactly. Because this is an example so, this is from the "ProPublica" investigation of Magnetar. essentially the bankers at JPMorgan Chase involved in the transaction created a new CDO. A new collateralized debt obligation. Which was very, very toxic. And either they knew at the time that it was toxic, or they should have known, I have no way of knowing. JPMorgan decided to hold onto most of this toxic product they-- they had built. A billion dollars worth of toxic product. And then when the market collapsed, it turned out they lost $880 million on that position.
So, if we think about it, there are really two possibilities here. The bankers involved in the transaction either really thought that this was a good product and a good investment, in which case they're incompetent. Or they had- they may have doubts, they may have thought it was toxic, but they knew that the way the internal systems at JPMorgan Chase worked, they could get the fees front, they could get bonuses based on those fees, and leave the bomb for later.
BILL MOYERS: Somebody wrote on your blog this week, "If I were to buy an old house. Make some cosmetic improvements that mask an underlying rot. Got my insurance company to write an exorbitant homeowners policy exceeding any leans against the property. Then burned it down, wouldn't that be fraud?" Did you answer this guy?
JAMES KWAK: I haven't. That would
BILL MOYERS: Would you?
JAMES KWAK: That would be fraud.
BILL MOYERS: That would be fraud. So, explain to me how you manage to lose $880 million on your own company's money to make a quick buck for yourself and you get away with it?
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