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Bill Moyers | John Reed on Big Banks' Power and Influence

Wednesday, 01 February 2012 04:01 By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Co. | Interview & Video

Bill Moyers talks with former Citigroup Chairman John Reed to explore a momentous instance: how the mid-90’s merger of Citicorp and Travelers Group – and a friendly Presidential pen — brought down the Glass-Steagall Act, a crucial firewall between banks and investment firms which had protected consumers from financial calamity since the aftermath of the Great Depression. In effect, says Moyers, they put the watchdog to sleep.

There’s no clearer example of the collusion between government and corporate finance than the Citicorp-Travelers merger, which — thanks to the removal of Glass-Steagall — enabled the formation of the financial behemoth known as Citigroup. But even behemoths are vulnerable; when the meltdown hit, the bank cut more than 50,000 jobs, and the taxpayers shelled out more than $45 billion to save it.

Now, John Reed regrets his role in the affair, and says lifting the Glass Steagall protections was a mistake. Given the 2008 meltdown, he’s surprised Wall Street still has so much power over Washington lawmakers.

“I’m quite surprised the political establishment would listen to groups that have been so discredited,” Reed tells Moyers. “It wasn’t that there was one or two or institutions that, you know, got carried away and did stupid things. It was, we all did… And then the whole system came down.”

TRANSCRIPT:

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to our third episode about the powerful players in high places who rewrote the rules of American politics and the economy. You can read all about it in this book: Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.

If you missed the first two programs, you can see them on our new website, BillMoyers.com. The first is with Winner-Take-All authors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson; the second with David Stockman and Gretchen Morgenson on “crony capitalism.”

In this edition, we’ll look at a seminal moment when Wall Street and Washington stacked the deck against the rest of us.

Remember, this is the political equivalent of a crime story, a mystery. How is it that our economy stopped working for the broad majority of Americans? How did our political and financial class shift the benefits of the economy to the very top, while saddling us with greater debt and tearing new holes in the safety net? In other words, how did politics create a winner-take-all economy?

Well it didn’t happen by accident. This was an inside job, politically engineered by Wall Street and Washington working hand-in-hand, sticky fingers with sticky fingers, to turn the legend of Robin Hood on its head: giving to the rich and taking from everybody else. It’s all on the record.

The richest of the rich was Citigroup, at one time the world’s largest financial institution. When the 2008 meltdown hit, the bank cut more than 50 thousand jobs, and taxpayers shelled out more than $45 billion to save it. So how are Citigroup executives doing these days?

Nicely, thank you. Last year, its CEO, Vikram Pandit, took home almost two million dollars in salary, almost four million dollars in deferred stock, stock options that may be worth as much as six and a half million dollars, and a $16 million retention bonus.

There’s no clearer example of the collusion between government and finance than the deal that created Citigroup in the first place.

At a standing room only press conference in April 1998, Sandy Weill, head of the investment bank and insurance company Travelers group, and John Reed, the longtime CEO of the commercial bank Citicorp, announced a gigantic, $140 billion merger.

Just one problem: the merger flew in the face of this law.

You’re looking at the Banking Act of 1933, also known as Glass-Steagall. Glass Steagall was enacted during the Great Depression to prevent investment banks from ever again gambling with people’s life savings, as they had before the market crash of 1929. Glass-Steagall protected us against a repeat of that calamity for seventy years. It’s a little bitty thing -- just 37 pages -- for the big job it did for us.

Glass-Steagall was still in force when Travelers and Citicorp went ahead with their merger. What made them think they could get away with it? Well, they had friends in high places. Friends who helped them exploit a loophole giving them two years to get rid of Glass-Steagall.

Among those friends, the laissez-faire, libertarian chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan; the right-wing Republican Senator from Texas, Phil Gramm, who once called Wall Street “a holy place,” and later would become a high priest at the global banking giant, UBS; and the democratic Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, former co-chair of Goldman Sachs and tireless advocate of taking down Glass-Steagall. In the weeks before its repeal Rubin left government to join, are you ready for this, Citigroup’s board, the very financial giant made possible by Glass-Steagall’s elimination.

And so it was – the fix was in, the path was cleared all the way to the top.

JOHN REED: Sandy called his friend the President last night and invited me to join in on the conversation and we had a good talk. So the President was in fact told last evening about what was going to happen.

BILL MOYERS: You got that, I’m sure. Wall Street was telling the President of the United States what was going to happen.

Within two years, Glass-Steagall was deader than a doornail. With the stroke of a pen, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that eliminated its protections and gave Citigroup the green light.

John Reed retired from Citigroup a year later, after losing out in a power struggle with Sandy Weill. He went on to serve as interim CEO of the New York Stock Exchange and now chairs the board at MIT. As Wall Street collapsed in 2008, Reed watched in disbelief, and began to have second thoughts about it all including the wisdom of repealing Glass-Steagall.

You were a key player when Traveler’s and Citicorp merged. How big was this to you at that time?

JOHN REED: It was not that big. You know, it clearly was an important transaction from our point of view. And it was hopefully -- it turned incorrectly -- but it was hopefully going to transform sort of the opportunity space in which the bank operated from a business point of view.

Our customers were saying, "Hey, we don't want to come to you for loans. They're too expensive. We can sell our paper into the capital markets more cheaply. We can finance ourselves more cheaply."

BILL MOYERS: Your customers being?

JOHN REED: Being large companies. And these customers were saying, "We want you to intermediate the capital markets.” Now that is the traditional business of what we then called investment banks. And Glass-Steagall had separated out those who were principally engaged, which is a very important phrase, in the capital markets which were then the investment banks and the brokers and so forth from the commercial banks.

BILL MOYERS: Glass-Steagall was the act passed during the New Deal back in the 1930s that was designed to put a firewall between the investment firm and the traditional banking firm. So you couldn't take my deposits or grandma's deposit and take risk with it, right?

JOHN REED: Well, that and even more importantly, or equally importantly, since the FDIC came into existence at approximately a similar time where the government was guaranteeing deposits so that people didn't lose if a bank got into trouble-- people didn't lose their lifetime savings. My father lost his lifetime savings during the Depression. And it was quite a family event. And if he had ever known I worked in a bank he would have died yet again.

But not only did they want to keep the banks from the business for reasons of not risking the money. They didn't want them to use the guarantee that the government provided for those deposits to leverage their position. Because, you know, if you have a deposit base that's guaranteed by the government, it sure puts you at a great advantage in terms of going into the market and playing around.

BILL MOYERS: The government's going to pick up your losses, right?

JOHN REED: Yeah. And you don't have a funding problem.

BILL MOYERS: That was what the FDI--

JOHN REED: Because you have guaranteed deposits.

BILL MOYERS: That was Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was designed to protect my --

JOHN REED: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: My deposit in your bank.

JOHN REED: That's right. And they wanted to make sure that it was used for that purpose and not as a basis for doing other things in the capital markets.

BILL MOYERS: So this is why the financial community wanted to repeal or eliminate the Glass-Steagall Act. They wanted to get rid of this firewall?

JOHN REED: Yes. And the reason was our customers increasingly said, "Look, we can't use you banks for finance because there are opportunities in the capital market that are much cheaper. And if you can't help us go there then we're going to go to the investment banks. And so all of a sudden we saw our customers migrating out towards the investment banking community to do the business that we would have preferred to have done. So from Citibank's point of view, our point of view, this merger gave us access to the capital markets. And so we were in a position to offer our customers the services that they wanted.

NEWS REPORT: They plan to attract new customers with one stop shopping: Stocks, bonds property and life insurance and banking. Federal Regulators must approve the deal. Most banks are now prohibited from selling stocks and insurance.

JOHN REED: When Sandy approached me on the merger I knew that it was right on the forefront of the legal thing. But there’s a technicality Citibank could not have bought Travelers because that was out and out illegal. Travelers on the other hand could buy Citi because they were buying a bank and they had two years in which to correct for the deviation from the law. And what we basically were told was, "If you all want to do this within the two years we'll get the law changed."

BILL MOYERS: Because if in that two-year period as I understand it, Glass-Steagall had not been changed, this merger -- which had already taken place -- would have been illegal.

JOHN REED: We would have to take it apart. And we took steps to make sure that was possible.

BILL MOYERS: But you got the blessing in this two-year period of President Clinton, of the Fed, of--

JOHN REED: We had that blessing prior to. In other words—

BILL MOYERS: What? They assured you that this—

JOHN REED: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Glass-Steagall would be--

JOHN REED: Yes. In other words, I went with Sandy to call on Chairman Greenspan. We told him we were contemplating this merger. But that it would required that the Fed would be prepared to grant us permission. And we were assured that they would.

We went and saw the Chairman of the House Banking Committee, the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. And we said we're talking about this merger but it could not take place if we were not assured that it would be approved at the Congressional level. We talked to the Secretary of the Treasury, I don't recall--

BILL MOYERS: Robert Rubin? He was the Secretary of the Treasury at the time.

JOHN REED: Yeah, we would've spoken to him, I'm sure. And had Bob Rubin said, "No, the Treasury feels this is wrong," we would've been careful. Because obviously, the Treasury recommends to the President on an issue of this sort. And there was no argument. No one said, “We’ll have to think about it.” And so a consensus built up. I don’t think it started in the Fed. I would guess it started in the industry, it certainly got into the Congress.

SENATOR TIM JOHNSON: (Speaking on Senate Floor) By eliminating the Glass-Steagall restrictions we free our financial services industry to maintain its place as the world leader…

SENATOR PHIL GRAMM: (Speaking on Senate Floor) We dominate the world financial market, and we’ve done it with one hand tied behind us because we have the greatest economic system in the history of the world. But we can untie that hand that we have had tied behind us. And we do it in this bill by repealing Glass-Steagall.

JOHN REED: Lawmakers inevitably learn as lobbyists tell them things. It’s sort of like a doctor being sold new medicines, they can’t stay on the forefront of the pharmaceutical technology, they rely on being educated to some extent.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: (Speaking on Senate Floor) This bill is vital for the future of our country. If we didn’t pass this bill, we could find London or Frankfurt or years down the road, Shanghai, becoming the financial capital of the world.

JOHN REED: There was no one in the press who said, “Oh no, that’s wrong.” There was a celebration. And the industry, including myself, didn't recognize the danger.

BILLMOYERS: The danger being?

JOHN REED: That we could make a mistake that would then be transmitted in a much more drastic way throughout the system.

BILL MOYERS: Which happened later.

JOHN REED: Which happened, yeah. I mean if you had asked me under oath, what probability I would have given that you would have gotten the whole group of Wall Street participants to get it wrong so to speak, I would have said zero.

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN: (Speaking on Senate Floor) We are with this piece of legislation moving towards greater risk. We are almost certainly moving towards substantial new concentration and mergers in the financial services industry, that is almost certainly not in the interest of consumers, and we are deliberately…

BILLMOYERS: A handful of politicians who tried to sound the alarm. Among them was Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN: (Speaking on Senate Floor) What does it mean if we have all this concentration and merger activity? Well, the bigger they are, the less likely this government can allow them to fail.

BILL MOYERS: Were you aware of the few senators who raised real concerns about removing Glass-Steagall, about what would happen?

JOHN REED: No one that I’m aware of it saw it clearly. You point out to some Senators and Congressmen who did, but somehow we described them peripheral. And I simply said, “They’re wrong.” Turned out they weren’t.

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN: (Speaking on Senate Floor) I think we will in ten years’ time look back and say, “We should not have done that, because we forgot the lessons of the past.”

BILL MOYERS: Senator Dorgan predicted disaster. Disaster's what we got in 2008.

JOHN REED: Yeah, no, they -- and disaster-- it wasn't solely Glass-Steagall, because much of the disaster of 2008 would've occurred independently of it, I believe. But certainly the propagation of the problem throughout the economy was greatly aided by the absence of Glass-Steagall. You know, we would've hit the iceberg anyway, I believe.

But the ship would've had compartments which would've been flooded. And question is, would the whole ship have gone down? Because had it been compartmentalized, we still would’ve had a disaster. It still would've involved very important institutions. But it might not have spread throughout the whole ship. That's the real issue.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think they saw that Wall Street didn't see?

JOHN REED: They simply didn't participate in the exuberance.

But I do think that, you know, this setting up the deck of cards so that we could produce what we currently are trying to withdraw from. Turns out to have been something that the word disaster is maybe not strong enough.

BILL MOYERS: Well, some people now say the deck was stacked, that the game was rigged against the broad interest of the public.

JOHN REED: No, I definitely agree. And, I mean, the proof is there. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that we'd been wrong.

BILL MOYERS: But it takes somebody principled to admit that, "I was wrong."

JOHN REED: No, no. It's not something you'd like to end your career with. That is for sure. No, look. We got carried away. It wasn't any small group, it was a consensus that reached the press, it reached the political world. It certainly had reached the intellectual world. I'm now, as you know, at MIT, and I say to some of my academic friends that the intellectual underpinnings of this was created at MIT and places like that, I mean—

BILL MOYERS: With the technology of the computers?

JOHN REED: Well, no. It's all of this mathematics of finance and the presumption in much of this mathematics that you can capture risk by looking at historical volatility and so forth and so on. As soon as you say something appears not to be risky, you get an over investment in it, because the capital requirements are less. And then if something does go wrong, the hurt is all the more because you don't have the capital to take the risks. And you know, if somebody says, "Walk across that sheet of ice, there's no danger whatsoever you're going to fall in," you know, you're fine. As long as you don't fall in.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying, suggesting that -- the chairman of the board of MIT's suggesting --that human intelligence no longer runs our financial system?

JOHN REED: Well, it's a little wisdom balance that judgment wouldn't hurt.

BILL MOYERS: So how, when you look back on it, how did so many people, including yourself, get it wrong?

JOHN REED: We were carried away by the enthusiasm. And like everything else, you know, once you start you probably go a little further than you should have.

We started out lending mortgages to customers and putting them on our balance sheet. Then in the '90s, when the mortgage-backed securities came in to being, we found that you couldn't economically do that, so we would package our mortgages and we'd sell them to a Wall Street firm, who would then pass them on to their customers. Pretty soon, we were in the business ourselves, after the merger.

And so all of a sudden, these mortgage-backed securities could be distributed throughout our own company. And pretty soon people said, "Well, why only package the securities that your customers create? Why don't we go out to mortgage brokers and start buying some of their securities? And we'll package those and we'll sell them."

And then, I was retired at the time, but you read in the press and you may even have seen on television, no doc and low doc. Now, no doc/low doc means no documentation or low documentation. Low meaning less than the regulators would require of you.

BILL MOYERS: You didn't ask the person, the homeowner who was buying the house, "Show me proof of your wages. Show me proof of your savings."

JOHN REED: That's right. But can you imagine that you publicly acknowledge that you were creating products and selling them into the market that had no documentation or less than normal required documentation? And this was -- it's sort of like taking a product and putting a skull and crossbones on it and saying, "This might be poison," and putting it on the supermarket shelves.

BILL MOYERS: You know, I hear you talk. And I think, "Well, human beings certainly can go insane. So can systems, right?"

JOHN REED: Yeah, and so can groups of human beings. In the 90s, the investors took over. And they basically said to management, "We don't care what you do. We don't care how many private jets, houses, golf courses, swimming pools, whatever you have, as long as you keep the share price going up. If share price goes down, we're going to get rid of you even if you're good.”

And managers started being scared of their stockholders and this idea of shareholder value came into being. I never heard the word "shareholder value" until the '90s. It was customers, customers, customers. How are the customers? Are we doing well? Are we losing place with the customers? But all of a sudden -- and Sandy was a total proponent.

BILL MOYERS: Sandy Weill?

JOHN REED: Sandy Weill. I mean, his whole life was to accumulate money. And he said, "John, we could be so rich." Being rich never crossed my mind as an objective value. I almost was embarrassed that somebody would say out loud. It might be happening but you wouldn't want to say it.

But you know, the biggest bonus I had ever received when I was at Citi was three million dollars. The first year I worked with Sandy it was 15. I said to the board, "I'm the same guy doing the same job, same company. There are two of us. The company's bigger but there're two of us. What's going on?" "Oh, you don't understand." And it was just totally different culture. And see, Wall Street developed that culture.

BILL MOYERS: That's what happened, isn't it, in the --

JOHN REED: Yeah. No, and it happened. It happened in Wall Street and there's a subset of the world, that self-selects, for whom money is an overriding value. And being personally rich somehow is something they aspire to. And you know, it's a minority of the population. Bill Gates certainly did not start Microsoft to become rich. Nor do I think Steve Jobs went back to Apple because he wanted to be rich.

These were byproducts. They became rich, but as a byproduct. But there is a subset of the population that self-selects and they go to Wall Street because that's where it's somewhat legitimate. You could do the same thing illegally. And there are people who do that. I mean, there is a drug cartel and so forth and so on. But the thing that has amazed me is, A, it's fairly large and, two, it's sort of been accepted.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?

JOHN REED: That's one of these mind changes. I don't know. When I joined the bank, they said, "Never put on the bank's balance sheet something you wouldn't sell your mother.”

BILL MOYERS: Is this an accurate thumbnail sketch of what happened over this period of time? Banks took too many risks, right?

JOHN REED: Yes, they did. But there are worse things, but they certainly did.

BILL MOYERS: What were the worse things?

JOHN REED: Well, they originated and sold into the marketplace things that should never have been originated.

BILL MOYERS: Derivatives, unregulated derivatives?

JOHN REED: Well, it was the excess mortgages, the no-doc, low-doc mortgages. And then the derivatives were a byproduct. Once you had those, then you could chop 'em up and so forth. And of course they had changed their mindset. They were in the business to make money, period.

BILL MOYERS: The exuberance, you said, took over. Isn't it democracy supposed to be a brake, B-R-A-K-E, on greed and power in the private sector? To keep the balance-- to keep the exuberance from going too far, as it did in this case?

JOHN REED: It should. But you're a better historian than I am. I don't know, but I would guess the democratic systems tend to go back and forth.

BILL MOYERS: Like a seesaw.

JOHN REED: Like a seesaw.

BILL MOYERS: But when you take the watchdog off the beat, as happened in the 1990s, when you lift Glass-Steagall and throw it into the dustbin of history, you're removing any check in behalf of the public on the exuberance of the private sector.

JOHN REED: You're-- I mean, a consensus developed. The fact that we took it out was a byproduct of this mistaken belief in this modern financial system that was, quote, "more efficient," was very lucrative for the United States and the U.S. economy in global terms. And which was supposed to handle risk better. In fact, it handled risk worse. I mean, this is what the facts are because there was a much greater concentration of risk created. And so we got it wrong. But the restraint of the government and it's agencies disappeared in the enthusiasm. And so it was this combination of the participants getting carried away, the normal checks and balances that should exist against participants. And the thing that is astounding, frankly, and there's a lesson here that we probably haven't yet learned, is that the system can get it so wrong. It wasn't--

BILL MOYERS: So wrong?

JOHN REED: It wasn't that there was one or two or institutions that, you know, got carried away and did stupid things. It was, we all did. And then the whole system came down. You know, it became illiquid, the government stepped in. Had the government not stepped in, it really would have come to an end.

BILL MOYERS: Should the government have spent billions of dollars of taxpayer money in bailing out the banks?

JOHN REED: I think they had no choice. I think they had to do it, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

JOHN REED: The alternative was worse. Letting the banks all collapse, which would have spread across the world, because banks lend to banks. So the interconnections were such that they just couldn't allow a meltdown of that scale. And we see in the Lehman bankruptcy that we're -- I don't know how many years since but it must be three or four. And they're still unraveling the bits and pieces.

And had it been the whole system, it simply would have been a calamity that from a societal point of view would have been worse. So I think they had no choice. They did have to bail them out. And they did do it. And it did succeed.

BILL MOYERS: But they left in place the very people who had driven the ship into the iceberg.

JOHN REED: I'm quite surprised at that. It clearly has not been a clean sweep. In other words, those of us who made mistakes, and so forth and so on, are still floating around the system. And--

BILL MOYERS: Floating it? You're running it.

JOHN REED: Well, I am not, but --

BILL MOYERS: You're not running it, they're running it.

JOHN REED: But there are many who are. I wasn't involved, obviously. I had retired in the year 2000. We're now talking 2008. So I was a knowledgeable spectator, but certainly not a participant. I was quite surprised because, frankly, the worst thing that can happen to a businessman is to go bankrupt. That's the sign of ultimate failure. You ran a business and it was unable to succeed under the terms and conditions of private capital. Namely, you went bankrupt.

It's not a crime. But it certainly is a mistake. And these companies, even though they didn't have to file for bankruptcy, de facto went bankrupt. And so the managements and the boards and the regulators should have, in my mind stepped aside.

BILL MOYERS: How hard was it for you to go before Congress in 2010 and say, "I was wrong. I made a mistake." In fact, you said, "We created a monster."

JOHN REED: No, we -- look. You don't like saying this. The hard part probably preceded my testimony by two or three years, where I came to recognize and feel, and I still feel bad. And I feel bad for the people at CitiBank who lost jobs and so forth and so on. Not to mention our stockholders. But I am a realist. I try very hard to be honest with myself, and honest in what I say. And facts are facts. I've seen Sandy a couple times. Not --

BILL MOYERS: Sandy Weil.

JOHN REED: Yeah, Sandy Weil. And I sort of say, "Sandy, you know, we didn't do very well." And he's not comfortable with that conversation at all. I think he would still defend that it was a good merger, it just went off the tracks afterwards. I --

BILL MOYERS: When it went off the tracks, John, you know, millions of people lost their jobs. Millions of people lost their homes. Millions of people saw their savings --

JOHN REED: If you look at the lost product in the United States, in other words, the difference between our current economic trajectory and the potential economic trajectory, you're talking about trillions of dollars. And those dollars are jobs and output and so forth and on so. I mean we over leveraged. And that was because we were creating mortgages so as to sell them into the market. And we're creating them from customers who probably should not have been borrowing. They didn't know what they were originating, didn't know who was buying it, and they didn't care. They were getting paid commissions along the way.

And that's a fundamentally flawed system. If you say to a businessman, "What is your objective?" and he says, "My objective is to make money," there are no boundaries on that. I mean, it's only the law as to what you do in the middle. It would be better if you said, "I'm in business to serve my customers,” or “to create a product like an iPad or what have you." But something that has intrinsic value. And all of a sudden, we changed to, "Hey, I'm not totally sure what we're doing here. Maybe it's not right. But you know what, I'm getting paid my commission." And that mindset took over. And a lot of that money did flow into the political coffers. There's no question--

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

JOHN REED: Donations. You know, if you're rolling in money in a business, it's very easy for you to have a PAC and to contribute to campaigns and so forth and so on. And we went through a period of time when there was an immense amount of money. I don’t mean small. I mean, we took-- this is the biggest economy in the world. And we went from 15 to 25 percent of the economy.

BILL MOYERS: The financial community did?

JOHN REED: The financial--

BILL MOYERS: Industry.

JOHN REED: The financial sector, yeah. But the point is our government is designed fundamentally to be dumb but to listen. In other words, no one is elected to the government because of their personal expertise in the various issues that they're going to have to deal with. We have a system that is designed to listen.

BILL MOYERS: But if money gets you greater access--

JOHN REED: But unfortunately the talk of what you're listening to gets distorted by the money issue. They're not randomly listening to the population at large. They're listening to people who have a strong voice, because they're strong contributors and so forth and so on.

BILL MOYERS: I think you've taken us to a very fundamental issue that's roiling the country at the moment. And it is that this is an-- democracy is no longer a level playing field or even approximately a level playing field. The big institutions have so much money that they can flood into the system. There's one study I saw just the other day that reports the number of people lobbying today on behalf of the financial industry to try to weaken Dodd-Frank, the bill passed after the disaster, outnumbers consumer, union, and other groups by a ratio of 25 to one. The financial industry outspending everybody else 25 to one to try to weaken Dodd-Frank.

JOHN REED: I'm quite surprised that the political establishment would listen to groups that have been so discredited.

BILL MOYERS: You're saying despite what happened in 2008, Wall Street still has too much power?

JOHN REED: They have too much voice. They certainly are being listened to. I find it incredible. I would have guessed that society, at large, would have said, "Hey, we made a mistake. Let's get some rules." You know? I used to tell my kids, "Why do you think a car has brakes?" And they all would say, "To stop." And I'd say, "No, a car has brakes so that you can drive fast. If you got into a car that had no brakes and you knew it, how fast do you think you would drive? You wouldn't drive very fast at all." And that's the same reason we have rules. You want the private sector to be free to be creative and exuberant and whatever, within a framework, okay?

BILL MOYERS: You testified in front of the Senate Banking Committee, you came out in support of what we call the Volcker Rule. For the layman, what is the Volcker Rule and why do you support it?

JOHN REED: The rule simply says, "If you have a customer who wants to issue a bond, you could help him. But you can't trade in the bond market for your own account."

And so what the rule does is it basically puts the banks back into the customer business and allows the Wall Street community to be in the pure trading and the business of speculation and hedge funds and so forth. And it separates those.

BILL MOYERS: Sounds to me like you're calling the Glass-Steagall Act back from the grave.

JOHN REED: I think I am.

BILL MOYERS: Because?

JOHN REED: I just think it’s better that we have that barrier than not. It makes sure that the FDIC guarantee doesn't provide a funding base for proprietary trading activities. Remember, the government guarantees your savings account and mine in the local bank. And, correctly, we don’t want the government's guarantee for those accounts to act as a funding base for somebody who's speculating in the market. And so it’s that kind of separation.

It's a prudent barrier. And I'm astounded that anybody would be against it. And mind you, I'm a private sector guy. I'm not suggesting over government intervention. But you need rules. I would never let you or a friend or my kids drive a car without brakes.

BILL MOYERS But when the financial community can buy the rules they want --

JOHN REED: Then you've got an unstable situation. That's an intolerable situation. I mean, obviously.

BILL MOYERS: So do you have any sympathy for Occupy Wall Street, the movement that has in a very inchoate, but nonetheless, persistent way, been out across the country, trying to get us to pay attention?

JOHN REED: Yeah, no, I definitely do. I mean, I think it's symptomatic of the disconnect that exists in our discourse now. Where you have a set of folks who seem not to understand fully what went on and the implications of it. And a political establishment that doesn't seem to respond very well. They know a lot about the concerns, but they seem not to be able to do anything about them.

And the folks in the financial system are not listening. They're not saying, you know what, there's some correctness in these views. And so I think these people are giving voice to a frustration. And I am quite understanding of it. I hope the political establishment has some ears. I understand the political divisions. But they've got to start understanding that at some point you have got to come together

BILL MOYERS: John, thank you very much.

JOHN REED: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.

To see other items by Bill Moyers click here.

Bill Moyers

A broadcast journalist for more than four decades, Bill Moyers has been recognized as one of the unique voices of our times, one that resonates with multiple generations. In 2012, at the age of 77, Moyers begins his latest media venture with the launch of "Moyers & Company." With his wife and creative partner, Judith Davidson Moyers, Bill Moyers has produced such groundbreaking public affairs series as "NOW with Bill Moyers" (2002-2005) and "Bill Moyers Journal" (2007-2010). 

For his work, Moyers has received more than 30 Emmys, two prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, nine Peabodys, and three George Polk Awards. Moyers' most recent book, "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues," was published in May 2011. He currently serves as president of the Schumann Media Center, a nonprofit organization that supports independent journalism.


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Bill Moyers | John Reed on Big Banks' Power and Influence

Wednesday, 01 February 2012 04:01 By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Co. | Interview & Video

Bill Moyers talks with former Citigroup Chairman John Reed to explore a momentous instance: how the mid-90’s merger of Citicorp and Travelers Group – and a friendly Presidential pen — brought down the Glass-Steagall Act, a crucial firewall between banks and investment firms which had protected consumers from financial calamity since the aftermath of the Great Depression. In effect, says Moyers, they put the watchdog to sleep.

There’s no clearer example of the collusion between government and corporate finance than the Citicorp-Travelers merger, which — thanks to the removal of Glass-Steagall — enabled the formation of the financial behemoth known as Citigroup. But even behemoths are vulnerable; when the meltdown hit, the bank cut more than 50,000 jobs, and the taxpayers shelled out more than $45 billion to save it.

Now, John Reed regrets his role in the affair, and says lifting the Glass Steagall protections was a mistake. Given the 2008 meltdown, he’s surprised Wall Street still has so much power over Washington lawmakers.

“I’m quite surprised the political establishment would listen to groups that have been so discredited,” Reed tells Moyers. “It wasn’t that there was one or two or institutions that, you know, got carried away and did stupid things. It was, we all did… And then the whole system came down.”

TRANSCRIPT:

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to our third episode about the powerful players in high places who rewrote the rules of American politics and the economy. You can read all about it in this book: Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.

If you missed the first two programs, you can see them on our new website, BillMoyers.com. The first is with Winner-Take-All authors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson; the second with David Stockman and Gretchen Morgenson on “crony capitalism.”

In this edition, we’ll look at a seminal moment when Wall Street and Washington stacked the deck against the rest of us.

Remember, this is the political equivalent of a crime story, a mystery. How is it that our economy stopped working for the broad majority of Americans? How did our political and financial class shift the benefits of the economy to the very top, while saddling us with greater debt and tearing new holes in the safety net? In other words, how did politics create a winner-take-all economy?

Well it didn’t happen by accident. This was an inside job, politically engineered by Wall Street and Washington working hand-in-hand, sticky fingers with sticky fingers, to turn the legend of Robin Hood on its head: giving to the rich and taking from everybody else. It’s all on the record.

The richest of the rich was Citigroup, at one time the world’s largest financial institution. When the 2008 meltdown hit, the bank cut more than 50 thousand jobs, and taxpayers shelled out more than $45 billion to save it. So how are Citigroup executives doing these days?

Nicely, thank you. Last year, its CEO, Vikram Pandit, took home almost two million dollars in salary, almost four million dollars in deferred stock, stock options that may be worth as much as six and a half million dollars, and a $16 million retention bonus.

There’s no clearer example of the collusion between government and finance than the deal that created Citigroup in the first place.

At a standing room only press conference in April 1998, Sandy Weill, head of the investment bank and insurance company Travelers group, and John Reed, the longtime CEO of the commercial bank Citicorp, announced a gigantic, $140 billion merger.

Just one problem: the merger flew in the face of this law.

You’re looking at the Banking Act of 1933, also known as Glass-Steagall. Glass Steagall was enacted during the Great Depression to prevent investment banks from ever again gambling with people’s life savings, as they had before the market crash of 1929. Glass-Steagall protected us against a repeat of that calamity for seventy years. It’s a little bitty thing -- just 37 pages -- for the big job it did for us.

Glass-Steagall was still in force when Travelers and Citicorp went ahead with their merger. What made them think they could get away with it? Well, they had friends in high places. Friends who helped them exploit a loophole giving them two years to get rid of Glass-Steagall.

Among those friends, the laissez-faire, libertarian chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan; the right-wing Republican Senator from Texas, Phil Gramm, who once called Wall Street “a holy place,” and later would become a high priest at the global banking giant, UBS; and the democratic Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, former co-chair of Goldman Sachs and tireless advocate of taking down Glass-Steagall. In the weeks before its repeal Rubin left government to join, are you ready for this, Citigroup’s board, the very financial giant made possible by Glass-Steagall’s elimination.

And so it was – the fix was in, the path was cleared all the way to the top.

JOHN REED: Sandy called his friend the President last night and invited me to join in on the conversation and we had a good talk. So the President was in fact told last evening about what was going to happen.

BILL MOYERS: You got that, I’m sure. Wall Street was telling the President of the United States what was going to happen.

Within two years, Glass-Steagall was deader than a doornail. With the stroke of a pen, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that eliminated its protections and gave Citigroup the green light.

John Reed retired from Citigroup a year later, after losing out in a power struggle with Sandy Weill. He went on to serve as interim CEO of the New York Stock Exchange and now chairs the board at MIT. As Wall Street collapsed in 2008, Reed watched in disbelief, and began to have second thoughts about it all including the wisdom of repealing Glass-Steagall.

You were a key player when Traveler’s and Citicorp merged. How big was this to you at that time?

JOHN REED: It was not that big. You know, it clearly was an important transaction from our point of view. And it was hopefully -- it turned incorrectly -- but it was hopefully going to transform sort of the opportunity space in which the bank operated from a business point of view.

Our customers were saying, "Hey, we don't want to come to you for loans. They're too expensive. We can sell our paper into the capital markets more cheaply. We can finance ourselves more cheaply."

BILL MOYERS: Your customers being?

JOHN REED: Being large companies. And these customers were saying, "We want you to intermediate the capital markets.” Now that is the traditional business of what we then called investment banks. And Glass-Steagall had separated out those who were principally engaged, which is a very important phrase, in the capital markets which were then the investment banks and the brokers and so forth from the commercial banks.

BILL MOYERS: Glass-Steagall was the act passed during the New Deal back in the 1930s that was designed to put a firewall between the investment firm and the traditional banking firm. So you couldn't take my deposits or grandma's deposit and take risk with it, right?

JOHN REED: Well, that and even more importantly, or equally importantly, since the FDIC came into existence at approximately a similar time where the government was guaranteeing deposits so that people didn't lose if a bank got into trouble-- people didn't lose their lifetime savings. My father lost his lifetime savings during the Depression. And it was quite a family event. And if he had ever known I worked in a bank he would have died yet again.

But not only did they want to keep the banks from the business for reasons of not risking the money. They didn't want them to use the guarantee that the government provided for those deposits to leverage their position. Because, you know, if you have a deposit base that's guaranteed by the government, it sure puts you at a great advantage in terms of going into the market and playing around.

BILL MOYERS: The government's going to pick up your losses, right?

JOHN REED: Yeah. And you don't have a funding problem.

BILL MOYERS: That was what the FDI--

JOHN REED: Because you have guaranteed deposits.

BILL MOYERS: That was Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was designed to protect my --

JOHN REED: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: My deposit in your bank.

JOHN REED: That's right. And they wanted to make sure that it was used for that purpose and not as a basis for doing other things in the capital markets.

BILL MOYERS: So this is why the financial community wanted to repeal or eliminate the Glass-Steagall Act. They wanted to get rid of this firewall?

JOHN REED: Yes. And the reason was our customers increasingly said, "Look, we can't use you banks for finance because there are opportunities in the capital market that are much cheaper. And if you can't help us go there then we're going to go to the investment banks. And so all of a sudden we saw our customers migrating out towards the investment banking community to do the business that we would have preferred to have done. So from Citibank's point of view, our point of view, this merger gave us access to the capital markets. And so we were in a position to offer our customers the services that they wanted.

NEWS REPORT: They plan to attract new customers with one stop shopping: Stocks, bonds property and life insurance and banking. Federal Regulators must approve the deal. Most banks are now prohibited from selling stocks and insurance.

JOHN REED: When Sandy approached me on the merger I knew that it was right on the forefront of the legal thing. But there’s a technicality Citibank could not have bought Travelers because that was out and out illegal. Travelers on the other hand could buy Citi because they were buying a bank and they had two years in which to correct for the deviation from the law. And what we basically were told was, "If you all want to do this within the two years we'll get the law changed."

BILL MOYERS: Because if in that two-year period as I understand it, Glass-Steagall had not been changed, this merger -- which had already taken place -- would have been illegal.

JOHN REED: We would have to take it apart. And we took steps to make sure that was possible.

BILL MOYERS: But you got the blessing in this two-year period of President Clinton, of the Fed, of--

JOHN REED: We had that blessing prior to. In other words—

BILL MOYERS: What? They assured you that this—

JOHN REED: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Glass-Steagall would be--

JOHN REED: Yes. In other words, I went with Sandy to call on Chairman Greenspan. We told him we were contemplating this merger. But that it would required that the Fed would be prepared to grant us permission. And we were assured that they would.

We went and saw the Chairman of the House Banking Committee, the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. And we said we're talking about this merger but it could not take place if we were not assured that it would be approved at the Congressional level. We talked to the Secretary of the Treasury, I don't recall--

BILL MOYERS: Robert Rubin? He was the Secretary of the Treasury at the time.

JOHN REED: Yeah, we would've spoken to him, I'm sure. And had Bob Rubin said, "No, the Treasury feels this is wrong," we would've been careful. Because obviously, the Treasury recommends to the President on an issue of this sort. And there was no argument. No one said, “We’ll have to think about it.” And so a consensus built up. I don’t think it started in the Fed. I would guess it started in the industry, it certainly got into the Congress.

SENATOR TIM JOHNSON: (Speaking on Senate Floor) By eliminating the Glass-Steagall restrictions we free our financial services industry to maintain its place as the world leader…

SENATOR PHIL GRAMM: (Speaking on Senate Floor) We dominate the world financial market, and we’ve done it with one hand tied behind us because we have the greatest economic system in the history of the world. But we can untie that hand that we have had tied behind us. And we do it in this bill by repealing Glass-Steagall.

JOHN REED: Lawmakers inevitably learn as lobbyists tell them things. It’s sort of like a doctor being sold new medicines, they can’t stay on the forefront of the pharmaceutical technology, they rely on being educated to some extent.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: (Speaking on Senate Floor) This bill is vital for the future of our country. If we didn’t pass this bill, we could find London or Frankfurt or years down the road, Shanghai, becoming the financial capital of the world.

JOHN REED: There was no one in the press who said, “Oh no, that’s wrong.” There was a celebration. And the industry, including myself, didn't recognize the danger.

BILLMOYERS: The danger being?

JOHN REED: That we could make a mistake that would then be transmitted in a much more drastic way throughout the system.

BILL MOYERS: Which happened later.

JOHN REED: Which happened, yeah. I mean if you had asked me under oath, what probability I would have given that you would have gotten the whole group of Wall Street participants to get it wrong so to speak, I would have said zero.

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN: (Speaking on Senate Floor) We are with this piece of legislation moving towards greater risk. We are almost certainly moving towards substantial new concentration and mergers in the financial services industry, that is almost certainly not in the interest of consumers, and we are deliberately…

BILLMOYERS: A handful of politicians who tried to sound the alarm. Among them was Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN: (Speaking on Senate Floor) What does it mean if we have all this concentration and merger activity? Well, the bigger they are, the less likely this government can allow them to fail.

BILL MOYERS: Were you aware of the few senators who raised real concerns about removing Glass-Steagall, about what would happen?

JOHN REED: No one that I’m aware of it saw it clearly. You point out to some Senators and Congressmen who did, but somehow we described them peripheral. And I simply said, “They’re wrong.” Turned out they weren’t.

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN: (Speaking on Senate Floor) I think we will in ten years’ time look back and say, “We should not have done that, because we forgot the lessons of the past.”

BILL MOYERS: Senator Dorgan predicted disaster. Disaster's what we got in 2008.

JOHN REED: Yeah, no, they -- and disaster-- it wasn't solely Glass-Steagall, because much of the disaster of 2008 would've occurred independently of it, I believe. But certainly the propagation of the problem throughout the economy was greatly aided by the absence of Glass-Steagall. You know, we would've hit the iceberg anyway, I believe.

But the ship would've had compartments which would've been flooded. And question is, would the whole ship have gone down? Because had it been compartmentalized, we still would’ve had a disaster. It still would've involved very important institutions. But it might not have spread throughout the whole ship. That's the real issue.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think they saw that Wall Street didn't see?

JOHN REED: They simply didn't participate in the exuberance.

But I do think that, you know, this setting up the deck of cards so that we could produce what we currently are trying to withdraw from. Turns out to have been something that the word disaster is maybe not strong enough.

BILL MOYERS: Well, some people now say the deck was stacked, that the game was rigged against the broad interest of the public.

JOHN REED: No, I definitely agree. And, I mean, the proof is there. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that we'd been wrong.

BILL MOYERS: But it takes somebody principled to admit that, "I was wrong."

JOHN REED: No, no. It's not something you'd like to end your career with. That is for sure. No, look. We got carried away. It wasn't any small group, it was a consensus that reached the press, it reached the political world. It certainly had reached the intellectual world. I'm now, as you know, at MIT, and I say to some of my academic friends that the intellectual underpinnings of this was created at MIT and places like that, I mean—

BILL MOYERS: With the technology of the computers?

JOHN REED: Well, no. It's all of this mathematics of finance and the presumption in much of this mathematics that you can capture risk by looking at historical volatility and so forth and so on. As soon as you say something appears not to be risky, you get an over investment in it, because the capital requirements are less. And then if something does go wrong, the hurt is all the more because you don't have the capital to take the risks. And you know, if somebody says, "Walk across that sheet of ice, there's no danger whatsoever you're going to fall in," you know, you're fine. As long as you don't fall in.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying, suggesting that -- the chairman of the board of MIT's suggesting --that human intelligence no longer runs our financial system?

JOHN REED: Well, it's a little wisdom balance that judgment wouldn't hurt.

BILL MOYERS: So how, when you look back on it, how did so many people, including yourself, get it wrong?

JOHN REED: We were carried away by the enthusiasm. And like everything else, you know, once you start you probably go a little further than you should have.

We started out lending mortgages to customers and putting them on our balance sheet. Then in the '90s, when the mortgage-backed securities came in to being, we found that you couldn't economically do that, so we would package our mortgages and we'd sell them to a Wall Street firm, who would then pass them on to their customers. Pretty soon, we were in the business ourselves, after the merger.

And so all of a sudden, these mortgage-backed securities could be distributed throughout our own company. And pretty soon people said, "Well, why only package the securities that your customers create? Why don't we go out to mortgage brokers and start buying some of their securities? And we'll package those and we'll sell them."

And then, I was retired at the time, but you read in the press and you may even have seen on television, no doc and low doc. Now, no doc/low doc means no documentation or low documentation. Low meaning less than the regulators would require of you.

BILL MOYERS: You didn't ask the person, the homeowner who was buying the house, "Show me proof of your wages. Show me proof of your savings."

JOHN REED: That's right. But can you imagine that you publicly acknowledge that you were creating products and selling them into the market that had no documentation or less than normal required documentation? And this was -- it's sort of like taking a product and putting a skull and crossbones on it and saying, "This might be poison," and putting it on the supermarket shelves.

BILL MOYERS: You know, I hear you talk. And I think, "Well, human beings certainly can go insane. So can systems, right?"

JOHN REED: Yeah, and so can groups of human beings. In the 90s, the investors took over. And they basically said to management, "We don't care what you do. We don't care how many private jets, houses, golf courses, swimming pools, whatever you have, as long as you keep the share price going up. If share price goes down, we're going to get rid of you even if you're good.”

And managers started being scared of their stockholders and this idea of shareholder value came into being. I never heard the word "shareholder value" until the '90s. It was customers, customers, customers. How are the customers? Are we doing well? Are we losing place with the customers? But all of a sudden -- and Sandy was a total proponent.

BILL MOYERS: Sandy Weill?

JOHN REED: Sandy Weill. I mean, his whole life was to accumulate money. And he said, "John, we could be so rich." Being rich never crossed my mind as an objective value. I almost was embarrassed that somebody would say out loud. It might be happening but you wouldn't want to say it.

But you know, the biggest bonus I had ever received when I was at Citi was three million dollars. The first year I worked with Sandy it was 15. I said to the board, "I'm the same guy doing the same job, same company. There are two of us. The company's bigger but there're two of us. What's going on?" "Oh, you don't understand." And it was just totally different culture. And see, Wall Street developed that culture.

BILL MOYERS: That's what happened, isn't it, in the --

JOHN REED: Yeah. No, and it happened. It happened in Wall Street and there's a subset of the world, that self-selects, for whom money is an overriding value. And being personally rich somehow is something they aspire to. And you know, it's a minority of the population. Bill Gates certainly did not start Microsoft to become rich. Nor do I think Steve Jobs went back to Apple because he wanted to be rich.

These were byproducts. They became rich, but as a byproduct. But there is a subset of the population that self-selects and they go to Wall Street because that's where it's somewhat legitimate. You could do the same thing illegally. And there are people who do that. I mean, there is a drug cartel and so forth and so on. But the thing that has amazed me is, A, it's fairly large and, two, it's sort of been accepted.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?

JOHN REED: That's one of these mind changes. I don't know. When I joined the bank, they said, "Never put on the bank's balance sheet something you wouldn't sell your mother.”

BILL MOYERS: Is this an accurate thumbnail sketch of what happened over this period of time? Banks took too many risks, right?

JOHN REED: Yes, they did. But there are worse things, but they certainly did.

BILL MOYERS: What were the worse things?

JOHN REED: Well, they originated and sold into the marketplace things that should never have been originated.

BILL MOYERS: Derivatives, unregulated derivatives?

JOHN REED: Well, it was the excess mortgages, the no-doc, low-doc mortgages. And then the derivatives were a byproduct. Once you had those, then you could chop 'em up and so forth. And of course they had changed their mindset. They were in the business to make money, period.

BILL MOYERS: The exuberance, you said, took over. Isn't it democracy supposed to be a brake, B-R-A-K-E, on greed and power in the private sector? To keep the balance-- to keep the exuberance from going too far, as it did in this case?

JOHN REED: It should. But you're a better historian than I am. I don't know, but I would guess the democratic systems tend to go back and forth.

BILL MOYERS: Like a seesaw.

JOHN REED: Like a seesaw.

BILL MOYERS: But when you take the watchdog off the beat, as happened in the 1990s, when you lift Glass-Steagall and throw it into the dustbin of history, you're removing any check in behalf of the public on the exuberance of the private sector.

JOHN REED: You're-- I mean, a consensus developed. The fact that we took it out was a byproduct of this mistaken belief in this modern financial system that was, quote, "more efficient," was very lucrative for the United States and the U.S. economy in global terms. And which was supposed to handle risk better. In fact, it handled risk worse. I mean, this is what the facts are because there was a much greater concentration of risk created. And so we got it wrong. But the restraint of the government and it's agencies disappeared in the enthusiasm. And so it was this combination of the participants getting carried away, the normal checks and balances that should exist against participants. And the thing that is astounding, frankly, and there's a lesson here that we probably haven't yet learned, is that the system can get it so wrong. It wasn't--

BILL MOYERS: So wrong?

JOHN REED: It wasn't that there was one or two or institutions that, you know, got carried away and did stupid things. It was, we all did. And then the whole system came down. You know, it became illiquid, the government stepped in. Had the government not stepped in, it really would have come to an end.

BILL MOYERS: Should the government have spent billions of dollars of taxpayer money in bailing out the banks?

JOHN REED: I think they had no choice. I think they had to do it, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

JOHN REED: The alternative was worse. Letting the banks all collapse, which would have spread across the world, because banks lend to banks. So the interconnections were such that they just couldn't allow a meltdown of that scale. And we see in the Lehman bankruptcy that we're -- I don't know how many years since but it must be three or four. And they're still unraveling the bits and pieces.

And had it been the whole system, it simply would have been a calamity that from a societal point of view would have been worse. So I think they had no choice. They did have to bail them out. And they did do it. And it did succeed.

BILL MOYERS: But they left in place the very people who had driven the ship into the iceberg.

JOHN REED: I'm quite surprised at that. It clearly has not been a clean sweep. In other words, those of us who made mistakes, and so forth and so on, are still floating around the system. And--

BILL MOYERS: Floating it? You're running it.

JOHN REED: Well, I am not, but --

BILL MOYERS: You're not running it, they're running it.

JOHN REED: But there are many who are. I wasn't involved, obviously. I had retired in the year 2000. We're now talking 2008. So I was a knowledgeable spectator, but certainly not a participant. I was quite surprised because, frankly, the worst thing that can happen to a businessman is to go bankrupt. That's the sign of ultimate failure. You ran a business and it was unable to succeed under the terms and conditions of private capital. Namely, you went bankrupt.

It's not a crime. But it certainly is a mistake. And these companies, even though they didn't have to file for bankruptcy, de facto went bankrupt. And so the managements and the boards and the regulators should have, in my mind stepped aside.

BILL MOYERS: How hard was it for you to go before Congress in 2010 and say, "I was wrong. I made a mistake." In fact, you said, "We created a monster."

JOHN REED: No, we -- look. You don't like saying this. The hard part probably preceded my testimony by two or three years, where I came to recognize and feel, and I still feel bad. And I feel bad for the people at CitiBank who lost jobs and so forth and so on. Not to mention our stockholders. But I am a realist. I try very hard to be honest with myself, and honest in what I say. And facts are facts. I've seen Sandy a couple times. Not --

BILL MOYERS: Sandy Weil.

JOHN REED: Yeah, Sandy Weil. And I sort of say, "Sandy, you know, we didn't do very well." And he's not comfortable with that conversation at all. I think he would still defend that it was a good merger, it just went off the tracks afterwards. I --

BILL MOYERS: When it went off the tracks, John, you know, millions of people lost their jobs. Millions of people lost their homes. Millions of people saw their savings --

JOHN REED: If you look at the lost product in the United States, in other words, the difference between our current economic trajectory and the potential economic trajectory, you're talking about trillions of dollars. And those dollars are jobs and output and so forth and on so. I mean we over leveraged. And that was because we were creating mortgages so as to sell them into the market. And we're creating them from customers who probably should not have been borrowing. They didn't know what they were originating, didn't know who was buying it, and they didn't care. They were getting paid commissions along the way.

And that's a fundamentally flawed system. If you say to a businessman, "What is your objective?" and he says, "My objective is to make money," there are no boundaries on that. I mean, it's only the law as to what you do in the middle. It would be better if you said, "I'm in business to serve my customers,” or “to create a product like an iPad or what have you." But something that has intrinsic value. And all of a sudden, we changed to, "Hey, I'm not totally sure what we're doing here. Maybe it's not right. But you know what, I'm getting paid my commission." And that mindset took over. And a lot of that money did flow into the political coffers. There's no question--

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

JOHN REED: Donations. You know, if you're rolling in money in a business, it's very easy for you to have a PAC and to contribute to campaigns and so forth and so on. And we went through a period of time when there was an immense amount of money. I don’t mean small. I mean, we took-- this is the biggest economy in the world. And we went from 15 to 25 percent of the economy.

BILL MOYERS: The financial community did?

JOHN REED: The financial--

BILL MOYERS: Industry.

JOHN REED: The financial sector, yeah. But the point is our government is designed fundamentally to be dumb but to listen. In other words, no one is elected to the government because of their personal expertise in the various issues that they're going to have to deal with. We have a system that is designed to listen.

BILL MOYERS: But if money gets you greater access--

JOHN REED: But unfortunately the talk of what you're listening to gets distorted by the money issue. They're not randomly listening to the population at large. They're listening to people who have a strong voice, because they're strong contributors and so forth and so on.

BILL MOYERS: I think you've taken us to a very fundamental issue that's roiling the country at the moment. And it is that this is an-- democracy is no longer a level playing field or even approximately a level playing field. The big institutions have so much money that they can flood into the system. There's one study I saw just the other day that reports the number of people lobbying today on behalf of the financial industry to try to weaken Dodd-Frank, the bill passed after the disaster, outnumbers consumer, union, and other groups by a ratio of 25 to one. The financial industry outspending everybody else 25 to one to try to weaken Dodd-Frank.

JOHN REED: I'm quite surprised that the political establishment would listen to groups that have been so discredited.

BILL MOYERS: You're saying despite what happened in 2008, Wall Street still has too much power?

JOHN REED: They have too much voice. They certainly are being listened to. I find it incredible. I would have guessed that society, at large, would have said, "Hey, we made a mistake. Let's get some rules." You know? I used to tell my kids, "Why do you think a car has brakes?" And they all would say, "To stop." And I'd say, "No, a car has brakes so that you can drive fast. If you got into a car that had no brakes and you knew it, how fast do you think you would drive? You wouldn't drive very fast at all." And that's the same reason we have rules. You want the private sector to be free to be creative and exuberant and whatever, within a framework, okay?

BILL MOYERS: You testified in front of the Senate Banking Committee, you came out in support of what we call the Volcker Rule. For the layman, what is the Volcker Rule and why do you support it?

JOHN REED: The rule simply says, "If you have a customer who wants to issue a bond, you could help him. But you can't trade in the bond market for your own account."

And so what the rule does is it basically puts the banks back into the customer business and allows the Wall Street community to be in the pure trading and the business of speculation and hedge funds and so forth. And it separates those.

BILL MOYERS: Sounds to me like you're calling the Glass-Steagall Act back from the grave.

JOHN REED: I think I am.

BILL MOYERS: Because?

JOHN REED: I just think it’s better that we have that barrier than not. It makes sure that the FDIC guarantee doesn't provide a funding base for proprietary trading activities. Remember, the government guarantees your savings account and mine in the local bank. And, correctly, we don’t want the government's guarantee for those accounts to act as a funding base for somebody who's speculating in the market. And so it’s that kind of separation.

It's a prudent barrier. And I'm astounded that anybody would be against it. And mind you, I'm a private sector guy. I'm not suggesting over government intervention. But you need rules. I would never let you or a friend or my kids drive a car without brakes.

BILL MOYERS But when the financial community can buy the rules they want --

JOHN REED: Then you've got an unstable situation. That's an intolerable situation. I mean, obviously.

BILL MOYERS: So do you have any sympathy for Occupy Wall Street, the movement that has in a very inchoate, but nonetheless, persistent way, been out across the country, trying to get us to pay attention?

JOHN REED: Yeah, no, I definitely do. I mean, I think it's symptomatic of the disconnect that exists in our discourse now. Where you have a set of folks who seem not to understand fully what went on and the implications of it. And a political establishment that doesn't seem to respond very well. They know a lot about the concerns, but they seem not to be able to do anything about them.

And the folks in the financial system are not listening. They're not saying, you know what, there's some correctness in these views. And so I think these people are giving voice to a frustration. And I am quite understanding of it. I hope the political establishment has some ears. I understand the political divisions. But they've got to start understanding that at some point you have got to come together

BILL MOYERS: John, thank you very much.

JOHN REED: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.

To see other items by Bill Moyers click here.

Bill Moyers

A broadcast journalist for more than four decades, Bill Moyers has been recognized as one of the unique voices of our times, one that resonates with multiple generations. In 2012, at the age of 77, Moyers begins his latest media venture with the launch of "Moyers & Company." With his wife and creative partner, Judith Davidson Moyers, Bill Moyers has produced such groundbreaking public affairs series as "NOW with Bill Moyers" (2002-2005) and "Bill Moyers Journal" (2007-2010). 

For his work, Moyers has received more than 30 Emmys, two prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, nine Peabodys, and three George Polk Awards. Moyers' most recent book, "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues," was published in May 2011. He currently serves as president of the Schumann Media Center, a nonprofit organization that supports independent journalism.


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