Petting The Fat Cats

Julianna Goldman and Ian Katz at Bloomberg:

President Barack Obama said he doesn’t “begrudge” the $17 million bonus awarded to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon or the $9 million issued to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein, noting that some athletes take home more pay.

The president, speaking in an interview, said in response to a question that while $17 million is “an extraordinary amount of money” for Main Street, “there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don’t get to the World Series either, so I’m shocked by that as well.”

“I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen,” Obama said in the interview yesterday in the Oval Office with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands Friday. “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free- market system.”

Obama sought to combat perceptions that his administration is anti-business and trumpeted the influence corporate leaders have had on his economic policies. He plans to reiterate that message when he speaks to the Business Roundtable, which represents the heads of many of the biggest U.S. companies, on Feb. 24 in Washington.

Greg Sargent:

The White House is making a transcript of the interview available to anyone who asks, and the comments seem a bit more nuanced than the headlines suggest:

QUESTION: Let’s talk bonuses for a minute: Lloyd Blankfein, $9 million; Jamie Dimon, $17 million. Now, granted, those were in stock and less than what some had expected. But are those numbers okay?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, first of all, I know both those guys. They’re very savvy businessmen. And I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That’s part of the free market system. I do think that the compensation packages that we’ve seen over the last decade at least have not matched up always to performance. I think that shareholders oftentimes have not had any significant say in the pay structures for CEOs.

QUESTION: Seventeen million dollars is a lot for Main Street to stomach.

THE PRESIDENT: Listen, $17 million is an extraordinary amount of money. Of course, there are some baseball players who are making more than that who don’t get to the World Series either. So I’m shocked by that as well. I guess the main principle we want to promote is a simple principle of “say on pay,” that shareholders have a chance to actually scrutinize what CEOs are getting paid. And I think that serves as a restraint and helps align performance with pay.

The other thing we do think is the more that pay comes in the form of stock that requires proven performance over a certain period of time as opposed to quarterly earnings is a fairer way of measuring CEOs’ success and ultimately will make the performance of American businesses better.

It seems like there’s a bit more of an emphasis here than the initial story suggested on his support for specific measures to check the long-term trend of inflated bonuses, and the thrust of his comments seem aimed at combating the perception that such policies are anti-business.

That said, that substance was bound to be overshadowed by Obama’s praise for the businessmen as “savvy,” his general unwillingness to “begrudge” wealth, and his discussion of their outsized bonuses in the context of the “free market system,” which seems off key, given the massive taxpayer bailouts of the financial industry.

Simon Johnson at Baseline Scenario:

Does the president truly not understand that Dimon and Blankfein run banks that are regarded by policymakers and hence by credit markets as “too big to fail”?

This is the antithesis of a free-market system.  Not only were their banks saved by government action in 2008-09 but the overly generous nature of this bailout (details here) means that the playing field is now massively tilted in favor of these banks.  (I put this to Gerry Corrigan of Goldman and Barry Zubrow of JP Morgan when we appeared before the Senate Banking Committee last week; there was no effective rejoinder.)

Not only that, but the incentives for the people running these megabanks is now to take on reckless amounts of risk.  They get the upside (for example, in these compensation packages) and – when the downside materializes – this is belongs to taxpayers and everyone who loses a job.  (See my testimony to the Senate Budget Committee yesterday; there was no disagreement among the witnesses or even across the aisle between Senators on this point.)

Being nice to the biggest banks will not save the midterm elections for the Democrats.  The banks’ campaign contributions will flow increasingly to the Republicans and against any Democrats (and there are precious few) who have fought for real reform.

The president’s only political chance is to take on the too big to fail banks directly and clearly.  He needs to explain where they came from (answer: the Reagan Revolution, gone wrong), how the problem became much worse during the last administration, and how – in credible detail – he will end their reign.

James Kwak at Baseline Scenario:

More generally, Obama is trying to strike a balance: put pressure on Wall Street while not appearing to be wielding a pitchfork himself. This is why he felt compelled to say, “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free- market system.” At the same time he feels compelled to advocate for relatively mild reforms, such as paying bonuses in stock instead of cash, which is at best a partial solution. (Top Wall Street executives were already paid overwhelmingly in stock rather than cash before the financial crisis.)

I’m not sure why he needs to strike that balance. CEOs are overpaid, bankers are overpaid, and bank CEOs are overpaid.  Why not just say it plainly?

Paul Krugman:

Oh. My. God.

We’re doomed.

First of all, to my knowledge, irresponsible behavior by baseball players hasn’t brought the world economy to the brink of collapse and cost millions of innocent Americans their jobs and/or houses.

And more specifically, not only has the financial industry has been bailed out with taxpayer commitments; it continues to rely on a taxpayer backstop for its stability. Don’t take it from me, take it from the rating agencies:

The planned overhaul of US financial rules prompted Standard & Poor’s to warn on Tuesday it might downgrade the credit ratings of Citigroup and Bank of America on concerns that the shake-up would make it less likely that the banks would be bailed out by US taxpayers if they ran into trouble again.

The point is that these bank executives are not free agents who are earning big bucks in fair competition; they run companies that are essentially wards of the state. There’s good reason to feel outraged at the growing appearance that we’re running a system of lemon socialism, in which losses are public but gains are private. And at the very least, you would think that Obama would understand the importance of acknowledging public anger over what’s happening.

But no. If the Bloomberg story is to be believed, Obama thinks his key to electoral success is to trumpet “the influence corporate leaders have had on his economic policies.”

Michael Scherer at Swampland at Time


He’s not a stupid man. The only thing you can conclude is that this is a matter of principle for him and that he truly believes that these people are worth that kind of money despite the fact that they nearly destroyed the world financial system and are benefiting from its chaos and failure.

And it clarifies once and for all that he doesn’t understand the very real angst out in the country and the desperate need to hold someone, somewhere, accountable for what’s gone wrong. Evidently, he’s perfectly content to allow the government to take the blame for the whole sorry mess.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

On the subject of the latest round of Wall Street bonuses, President Obama recently told Business Week that he, “like most of the American people, [doesn’t] begrudge people success or wealth.”

“That is part of the free-market system,” the president said.

Perhaps the president’s softening toward capitalism has something to do with the fact that fewer Wall Street CEOs are flocking to his $30,000-a-head steak and lobster dinners ever since the phrase “fat cat” gained currency in Washington. But in any event, the president’s praise of the free market is about as bland and uncontroversial as it gets, and even so, the White House is already starting to walk them back.

But the ever-understated Paul Krugman, responding to the Obama interview on his blog, is not pleased. Borrowing the mantle of our own John Derbyshire, he says: “Oh. My. God. . . . We’re doomed.”


1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Political Figures, The Crisis

One response to “Petting The Fat Cats

  1. Well, the banks are spending only money they have. Where do they have it from? Irresponsiblee govrnments and central banks. He can’t begrudge something he’s fueled himself.

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