Monday, April 27, 2009

Simon Johnson: "...They have won"

Johnson & Perino on Bill Moyers Journal

SIMON JOHNSON: I would add on a proactive, going forward basis, ask the following question: Do we really need a banking industry that takes these kinds of risks? Professor Joe Stiglitz of Columbia, for example--

BILL MOYERS: Nobel Laureate.

SIMON JOHNSON: Nobel Laureate is proposing- proposed to the Joint Economic Committee in his testimony on Tuesday think about splitting financial services into two parts: a public utility model, which is where you put your money and where-- that's what handles payments. That doesn't take any risks. It runs like a utility. It's low risk, low return from an investor point of view. It's boring.

In fact Paul Krugman has a great line on this. Make banking boring again. And they're talking about that part of banking. But, at the same time, both Professor Stiglitz and Professor Krugman would emphasize, and I would absolutely want to second, that you need some risk takers. And you need some people to provide money to risk takers. And the good news is we have a very strong entrepreneurial sector in this economy. We have venture capital in this economy. And they've got a great attitude and maybe sometimes things go wrong. We have bubbles there. But, the dot com bubble and the bursting of that didn't do anything like the kind of damage that this debt finance bubble has done. Venture capital is about equity. Wall Street has been much more about debt.

And we need to be able to-- we need those entrepreneurs also to be able to go public. So, we need ability to raise capital, bring in investors, go public and sell your shares to people. That doesn't have to be part of the banking system. Boring banks and risk taking with the risk full disclosed. And maybe we have to work, you know, and that was the core idea as I understand it of the 1930's. A lot more disclosure around what are you selling exactly. And what are the problems-- potential problems and what are the conflicts of interest at stake.

More disclosure I would guess on the securities side. That's where you take the risk. We want the risks, this is an economy based and society based on risk taking. But, our banks don't have to be risk takers. In fact, it turns out, they don't understand the first thing about risk.


SIMON JOHNSON: I think there's an arrogance of power. They think they won, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: Even now--

SIMON JOHNSON: And actually they're pretty confident they won. And I think probably at this point, they have won. They got the bailout. They got the money they needed to stay in business. They got a vast line of credit from the taxpayer, both the top money, which gets a lot of attention. But, also the guarantees they have on their debts from the FDIC, which really helps them borrow more cheaply. And the money that they get that they can borrow from the Federal Reserve when they need it, all right?

So, they got everything they wanted. They came-- a couple of players got knocked out. The guys who remain are more powerful, okay? And their position is, "Look, if you want a recovery, if you want get your economy back, you've got to be nice to us." And I'm afraid that the government has blinked and then--

BILL MOYERS: So, they're not hearing any of this clamor? This rage? They're not hearing this--

MICHAEL PERINO: I think they are hearing it. I don't think it's reached the level that it reached, anywhere the level it reached in that period that we've been talking about in the 1930's. So, maybe it isn't quite strong enough yet.


SIMON JOHNSON: Another thing we've learned about Wall Street and the way it works is they didn't understand that their own risks. David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times where he criticized me. And he said that, you know, thinking of these people as all-powerful oligarchs is wrong. The issue is not their power, the issue was just they were stupid, right? They didn't understand what they were doing to ruin their own business.

Now, that's kind of an interesting defense to use. But I think if you apply it to this and you take the point, take with Michael's earlier point about how Wall Street has become more complex, right? What if it's become too complex for the Wall Street titans themselves to control even within their own organizations? Maybe these banks, seriously, became too big to manage and that's why they failed.


MICHAEL PERINO: You can't help but hear the echoes from back then, now. It's certainly the case. I want to go back to a point you made before and Simon's point about criminal enforcement.

There's no question that when we find criminal wrongdoing we need to vigorously prosecute it. There's absolutely no doubt about that. Criminal enforcement gets people's attention. If you want to create deterrents for that kind of activity, then that's the way to do it.

On the other hand, we need to recognize that not everything that-- not every behavior that was inappropriate, that was excessive risk taking, that was imprudent amounts to criminal conduct. And we have to recognize, have some humility for, the role that those kinds of criminal statutes can play in preventing these kinds of excesses.

SIMON JOHNSON: I think that's exactly right. And what I would say, Bill, is having a commission, having independent investigation, really drilling down is going to show you perhaps some things that were criminal. I'm not saying very many. But a lot of things that, you know, when you shine this light on them, a very, very bright light, they look inappropriate, unethical, or at least things we're not comfortable with going forward.

And then there's another set of issues which may be totally ethical. Perhaps you don't have a problem with them from a legal, moral point of view. But as an economist I'm going to come in and say, you know, this creates danger for the system. This is where the origin of "you're too big to fail" is.

And you got to remember the dynamics. Maybe we'll be-- maybe we can, you know, rejigger things a little bit so they'll be okay, two or three years, we'll be comfortable. But remember where this goes. Remember Mr. Hoenig's point. Anything that's too big to fail is going to lead to oligarchs. Right? Maybe they're not oligarchs right away. But they're going to become too powerful because a big difference from the '20s is what happened in the '30s.

We create an FDIC. There is a government guarantee implicitly available to many aspects of banking. And we've actually extended that massively in the past two years under severe duress. So that makes the "too big to fail" and "too connected with government to fail" even more of a problem going forward.


MICHAEL PERINO: We have to be humble about what law can and cannot accomplish. There is no magic bullet out there. We could have the most intensive hearings in the world find out the precise causes of all of the problems, enact whatever reforms that we see are the ones to enact, it's not going to prevent the next bubble. You can't legislate against those kinds of-- Keynes called it the animals spirits in the marketplace. But you can lessen them.


This segment is really great on shedding light on the historical context of our current problems. Solutions from the past can point to future solutions. Well worth watching...