It was riotous, side-splitting comedy last week when Sanford Weill, the onetime head of Citibank, went on CNBC to announce that he thought it was time to break up the big banks.
Why this was funny: Through his ambitious (and at the time not yet legal) decision to merge Citibank, Travelers, and Salomon Brothers into one giant wrecking ball of greed, self-dealing and global irresponsibility called Citigroup, Weill more or less single-handedly created the Too-Big-To-Fail problem. You know, the one currently casting that thick, black doomlike shadow over all humanity which, if you look out your window, you can see floating over all our heads this very minute.
Nonetheless, Weill came out last week against Too Big to Fail banks. "I’m suggesting," he told astonished reporters on a live CNBC interview, "that they be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk…. What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking."
The interview became an instant YouTube classic. The very funniest part, I thought, was the response of Squawk Box host Andrew Ross Sorkin, the single most credulously slobbering financial reporter on the planet this side of Maria Bartiromo. Even he was so shocked by Weill’s comments that he lost his voice – "I’m speechless," he said.
At about the 1:20 mark of the clip, just after Weill offered his incredible opinion about the need to break up the banks, any sensible reporter would have pounced. Some version of, "Dude, are you high? You invented Too Big To Fail!" would have been the proper response – followed hopefully by a spirited lunge across the set to beat Weill repeatedly about the neck and head with a Swingline stapler, until he screeched out a tearful apology to every last living soul on earth.
Instead, Sorkin took another tack:
"Okay, so then the question becomes – Glass-Steagall," Sorkin said. "You’re almost referring to bringing back Glass-Steagall, in some respects."
Now, what Sorkin actually meant to say here was, "Hey, asshole, we had to repeal Glass-Steagall just to make your Citigroup merger legal, remember? And now you’re pontificating, telling us we need to bring it back? Are you joking?"
Instead, Sorkin triple-qualified the question, first by not bringing up Weill’s role in the repeal of Glass-Steagall directly, then by saying that Weill had merely "almost" and "in some respects" uttered probably the most obnoxious and enraging comments made on television by a Wall Street executive in the years since the crisis.
The rest of the tape was similarly incredible. Particularly amazing was that Weill seemed genuinely surprised by the idea that Too-Big-To-Fail had anything to do with him, like it had never occurred to him that he might be criticized for what he was saying.
Anyway, what happened after Weill's outburst was similarly fascinating. The significance of Weill’s comments, of course, is that even a man such as Sandy Weill now says the Too-Big-To-Fail model is unsustainable. If even Sandy Weill knows it by now, who else needs convincing?
This should have been a debate-ender, a signal that we can all move past the arguing phase and get to the more daunting logistical task of breaking up mega-firms like Citigroup, Bank of America, and J.P. Morgan Chase.
But it didn’t turn out that way. The dug-in stalwarts in the major financial outlets, much like Japanese soldiers still swearing allegiance to the emperor from Pacific island bunkers years after Hiroshima, came out blasting Weill for, in essence, kowtowing to (probably communist) popular opinion. The Wall Street Journal put it this way:
Mr. Weill finds himself suddenly welcome in the company of editorialists who, since the Libor scandal, have been renewing their clamor for bankers to be imprisoned, if not executed. He's become their new hero.
The inherent Stalinism of those who crave to put bankers in jail for things that aren't crimes is not unlike that of the original Stalinist – who understood that nothing of substance has to change if you've got enough scapegoats.
How the Wall Street Journal can bring up the LIBOR scandal – both a textbook case of antitrust crime and more or less the ultimate example of insider trading, with banks trading against their own secret, non-disclosed manipulations of interest rates – and lump it in with things that supposedly "aren't crimes" is beyond mind-boggling. People can and do go to jail in America for smoking marijuana or selling food stamps for rent money, but apparently it reeks of Stalinism to even suggest that even one person should go to jail for manipulating an $800 trillion market. Moreover Weill, far from simply being one of the last people on earth to admit the obvious truth about Too-Big-To-Fail banks, has instead just crossed over into the Stalinist camp.
But the Wall Street Journal didn’t even win the prize for most preposterous response to the Weill episode. That award went to former Treasury advisor and semi-disgraced financier Steve Rattner, who wrote a truly incredible piece in the New York Times editorial page about why Weill is wrong.
Rattner’s piece, entitled, "Regulate, Don’t Split Up, the Big Banks," admitted that Weill’s comments "shook the New York-Washington axis."
"It was as if John D. Rockefeller had proposed the breakup of Standard Oil," Rattner wrote.
But he went on to say that Weill’s musings were "an ill-advised distraction." The reasons he gave for believing this are astounding. And what's astounding is not just that he has these opinions, but that his "reasons" got past the Times editors, who should have blanched at publishing such gross inaccuracies.
Here is the crux of Rattner’s argument:
A bit of recent history: none of the institutions that toppled like dominoes in 2008 — the investment banks Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, the mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the insurance company American International Group — were commercial banks.
So the bank merger frenzy that Mr. Weill set off in the late 1990s was not the proximate cause of the financial crisis.
There are so many things wrong with this passage, it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s take the most obvious problem: He’s lying!
Not just some, but many of the institutions that "toppled like dominoes" in 2008 were giant commercial banks of the TBTF type. Does Rattner remember Washington Mutual, which was only the sixth-largest commercial bank in America when it collapsed in 2008? How about Wachovia, the fourth-largest?
More to the point, does he not remember all of the other commercial banks that required massive federal bailouts to avoid "toppling like dominoes" that year?
Weill’s entire argument, remember, isthat these big banks should be broken up so that the taxpayer doesn’t have to rescue them. And Weill should know, because his Frankensteinian creation, Citigroup, required a $45 billion federal bailout and hundreds of billions more in federal guarantees.
Actually the total outlay for Citigroup was $476 billion in cash and guarantees – they were the biggest single bailout recipient, if you’re counting, with another classic post-Glass-Steagall creation, Bank of America, bringing up the rear with $336 billion in cash and guarantees.
All of the major commercial banking giants received massive amounts of federal aid. Chase, depending on how you look at things, either received just $25 billion or about twice that, if you include tax breaks and inducements to buy Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns. The story is similar with Wells Fargo, which took $25 billion in TARP money and also accepted enormous tax breaks in return for its "help" in buying Wachovia.
Rattner wrote some other crazy things. He said, "it is wrong to think we can shrink [banks] to a size that eliminates the 'too big to fail' problem without emasculating one of our most successful industries."
One could go on at length in answering this ludicrous passage, pointing out for instance how insane it is for Rattner to call TBTF banking "one of our most successful industries" when the business is now known all over the world to be so totally corrupt that nobody was even surprised when they found out that global interest rates were being manipulated. Or when basically the entire banking industry has been downgraded to near-junk status thanks to the widespread perception that their balance sheets are a travesty of phony accounting and unrealized losses.
But this would just be beating a dead horse. These arguments have been made over and over again. Even Sandy Weill is making them now. But everybody knowing the truth and everybody doing something about it are two different things, as we’ll likely spend the next years, or even decades, finding out.