After J.P. Morgan was questioned by Congressional investigator Ferdinand Pecora during a 1930s investigation of the causes of the Great Crash, the legendary financier complained that Pecora (photo) had “the manners of a prosecuting attorney who is trying to convict a horse thief.” Morgan was also embarrassed when a Ringling Bros. publicity agent placed a diminutive circus performer on his lap in the middle of the proceedings.
At this week’s public hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the nation’s most powerful bankers were, unfortunately, treated with a lot more deference. Sure, there was one satisfying exchange between FCIC Chairman Phil Angelides and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein in which Angelides likened the firm’s practice of betting against the very securities it was peddling to clients to that of selling someone a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer.
But those moments were rare. For the most part, the bankers came away unscathed. Most of the ten commissioners treated them not as suspected criminals whose misdeeds needed to be probed, but rather as experts whose opinions on the causes of the crisis were being solicited. This gave the bankers abundant opportunities to pontificate about industry and regulatory practices while avoiding any incriminating admissions about their own firm’s behavior.
For example, Commissioner Heather Murren, CEO of the Nevada Cancer Institute, asked Blankfein whether there should be “more supervision of the kinds of activities that are undertaken by investment banks?” This allowed him to babble on about the “sociology…of our regulation before and after becoming a bank holding company.”
The bankers seemed to have expected tougher questioning. Their opening statements sought to soften the interrogation by conceding some general culpability, though it was done in a mostly generic way. Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase admitted that “new and poorly underwritten mortgage products helped fuel housing price appreciation, excessive speculation and core higher credit losses.” John Mack of Morgan Stanley acknowledged that “there is no doubt that we as an industry made mistakes.” And Brian Moynihan, the new CEO of Bank of America, noted: “Over the course of the crisis, we, as an industry, caused a lot of damage.”
But much too little time was spent by the commissioners exploring how the giant firms represented on the panel contributed to that damage. A search of the transcript of the hearing produced by CQ Transcriptions and posted on the database service Factiva indicates that the word “predatory” was not used once during the time the four top bankers were testifying.
The commissioners failed to challenge most of the self-serving statements made by the bankers to give the impression that, despite whatever vague transgressions were going on in the industry, their own firms were squeaky clean. Even Angelides failed to pin them down. When he asked Blankfein to state “the two most significant instances of negligent, improper and bad behavior in which your firm engaged and for which you would apologize” the Goldman CEO admitted only to contributing to “elements of froth in the market.” Angelides asked whether that included anything “negligent or improper.” Blankfein again evaded the question and the Chairman gave up.
The bankers also went unchallenged in making statements that were incomplete if not outright erroneous. When Blankfein, for example, claimed that Goldman deals only with institutional investors and “high-net-worth individuals,” no one pointed out the firm’s ties to Litton Loan Servicing, which has handled large numbers of subprime and often predatory home mortgages.
The Goldman chief also made much of the fact that he and other top executives of the firm took no bonuses in 2008. That’s true, but he failed to mention that, according to Goldman’s proxy statement, he alone became more than $25 million richer that year when previously granted stock awards vested.
The bankers were at their slipperiest when it came to the few questions about the issue of being too big to fail. They would not, of course, admit to being too big, but in spite of every indication that the federal government would never allow another Lehman Brothers-type collapse to occur, they labored mightily to argue that they could conceivably go under. This notwithstanding the fact that a couple of them had just thanked U.S. taxpayers for the financial assistance their firms had received.
I suppose it’s possible that the Commission is saving its best shots for later stages of the investigation and its final report, but its handling of the banker hearing deprived the public of a chance to see some of the prime villains of the current crisis get a much-deserved tongue-lashing.