Sadly, Bill Moyers Journal is going off the air at the end of the month. This was one of Moyers' better segments to finish off his return to PBS after some time in exile, which started with his documentary that is a must see from back in April of 2007, Buying the War. If you've never seen it, go watch it on line at Moyers' site here.
Bill sat down with Simon Johnson and James Kwak to talk about Wall Street and their dirty dealings that have yet to be reformed, why we need to get rid of "too big to fail", whether the reforms being considered by the Congress now are strong enough and what we need to do to keep from having another collapse of our financial system.
Sadly there's a huge hole that is about to be left in what's left of real journalism in our country with Moyers leaving the airways. Mr. Moyers, you will be missed. He did say that he's not going away all together thankfully.
The JOURNAL on-air will be coming to an end on April 30th but the conversation continues online and on our blog. We'll be posting commentary, features and selections from the Moyers Digital Archive. Stay in touch even after we're off the air at this address and through RSS feeds, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and our newsletter. Sign up below. We look forward to hearing from you.
In the mean time, Bill was still taking on the establishment here and talking about solutions for some meaningful reform to our financial systems. The panel agreed that what the Democrats are doing now is watered down, but better than nothing. Of course the Republicans just want to obstruct for political gain. I think this is one issue that as Bill noted in the beginning of the segment that there should be some agreement on from all sides of the aisle.
I really don't understand and this is not just from watching this segment, why more businesses aren't yelling bloody murder about Wall Street's tactics since they really seem to have no one's best interest at heart besides their own and the short term gain of a few who are placing their bets against the American dream, the American people, and American businesses. These people are nothing but leaches drawing blood from the rest of society, and something needs to be done to stop them and yesterday would not be too soon.
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.