Six Banks Control 60% of (US) Gross National Product

Is the U.S. at the Mercy of an Unstoppable Oligarchy?

Linked with Project Syndicate – a world of ideas (via Baseline Scenario). – Published on AlterNet, by Bill Moyers, April 23, 2010.

Moyers and economists James Kwak and Simon Johnson wonder whether the financial powers are more profitable, and more resistant to regulation than ever. The following is a transcript taken from Bill Moyers’ recent interview with Simon Johnson and James Kwak on Bill Moyers Journal.

So even if the Tea Party folks saw the light, what can ordinary Americans do? That’s the question I want to put to my guests, Simon Johnson and James Kwak. They have written this new book, 13 Bankers: The Wall St. Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown. It’s a must read – already a best seller — and it couldn’t have come at a better time. This book could change the debate over financial reform by tipping it in favor of the public … //

… Bill Moyers: And you write that they control 60 percent of our (US) gross national product? 

  • James Kwak: They have assets equivalent to 60 percent of our gross national product. And to put this in perspective, in the mid-1990s, these six banks or their predecessors, since there have been a lot of mergers, had less than 20 percent. Their assets were less than 20 percent of the gross national product.

Bill Moyers: And what’s the threat from an oligarchy of this size and scale?

  • Simon Johnson: They can distort the system, Bill. They can change the rules of the game to favor themselves. And unfortunately, the way it works in modern finance is when the rules favor you, you go out and you take a lot of risk. And you blow up from time to time, because it’s not your problem. When it blows up, it’s the taxpayer and it’s the government that has to sort it out.

Bill Moyers: So, you’re not kidding when you say it’s an oligarchy?

  • James Kwak: Exactly. I think that in particular, we can see how the oligarchy has actually become more powerful in the last since the financial crisis. If we look at the way they’ve behaved in Washington. For example, they’ve been spending more than $1 million per day lobbying Congress and fighting financial reform. I think that’s for some time, the financial sector got its way in Washington through the power of ideology, through the power of persuasion. And in the last year and a half, we’ve seen the gloves come off. They are fighting as hard as they can to stop reform.
  • Simon Johnson: I know people react a little negatively when you use this term for the United States. But it means political power derived from economic power. That’s what we’re looking at here. It’s disproportionate, it’s unfair, it is very unproductive, by the way. Undermines business in this society. And it’s an oligarchy like we see in other countries.

Bill Moyers: And you say they continue to hold the global economy hostage?

  • James Kwak: Exactly. Because what’s happened- what we learned in 2008 were certain institutions are so big and so interconnected that if they were to fail, they would cause systemic shocks throughout the economy. That’s essentially what happened in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed. And what’s remarkable, and I think what essentially proves the point of our book is that almost two years later, nothing has changed.
  • Or the only thing that has changed is that these banks have gotten larger, more powerful, both economically and politically. And they’ve been flexing their muscles in Washington for the last year and a half. So Neal Wolin, the Deputy Treasury Secretary gave a blistering speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he said, look, the financial sector has been spending more than one million dollars per day lobbying against the reforms we need to fix the financial system. Now, Simon and I think those reforms that the Administration has proposed do not go far enough. But we think they’re certainly better than nothing. What Wall Street wants is they want nothing. They want to stop this in its tracks and go back to where we were five years ago.
  • Simon Johnson: It’s amazing, Bill. But this is this is politics and this is money. And you know, there’s a ground game, which is campaign contributions, which are surging in. I’m sure on both sides of the aisle. And there’s also the ideological space. It’s amazing. The Chamber of Commerce that claims to represent the broad cross section of American business is siding with six big banks, who favor policies that are directly contrary to the interests of most of the membership of the Chamber of Commerce. And that’s just not just me saying that. That’s Neal Wolin. That’s Treasury. That’s the White House saying that now. Calling fortunately, they’ve come to the point where they’re willing to call the Chamber of Commerce on that. But I don’t know if that message is getting through to people.James Kwak: You see what the bankers have done is they have taken a basic principle which is more or less true. Which is that free financial markets do enable money to go to the places where people need it. But on top of that, they’ve erected a system that is indescribably complex. And gives many opportunities to make money at the expense of their customers, at the expense of their counterparties. Even at the expense of their own employers. So, one of the things that has happened has been that Wall Street finance has become so complex and the internal systems of Wall Street banks has become so complex that if you are a smart banker, who is out to maximize your own income, you can find the loopholes in the system and you can exploit them, even if it means taking money from your own– from your own company
  • Bill Moyers: You’ve been writing this week on your website– about this hedge fund in Chicago that’s made a lot of money. In effect, betting against the American Dream. What was that? … //
  • … Simon Johnson: Now, a size cap is a good idea. Obviously, the current size makes no sense at all, because that’s how we got into this mess. There will be amendments brought forward to the floor of the Senate, if this process has any integrity at all. For example, Senator Sherrod Brown has a very good draft amendment.

Bill Moyers: Ohio, right?

  • Simon Johnson: Absolutely. And he will, in that amendment, press for a hard cap on the size. And I think also restrictions on the scope. And they’ll give a lot more restrictions in legislation, which regulators will have a hard time getting out to, in terms of what can be allowed in our biggest financial institutions.
  • For me, at least Bill, that is going to be the critical moment. How many people support that amendment or that kind of amendment. Does the Democratic leadership come out in favor of it? Where does the White House stand on this? If the White House steps back and the White House says well, it’s all up to the Senate, we’re staying out of this. I think you know what’s going to happen. You’re going to get mush, right? Nothing really meaningful will come of it.
  • If the President takes the lead, the President takes this one, if the President takes this to the country, takes on the Chamber of Commerce, goes directly to people. And explains why you need to make our biggest banks smaller. As one way, that’s not a sufficient condition for financial stability, but it’s necessary and it gets at the heart of their political power. Take on the big banks. Take them on directly. That’s what Jackson did. That’s what Theodore Roosevelt did. That’s what Franklin Roosevelt did, too.

Bill Moyers: Simon Johnson, James Kwak, thank you for being with me. The book is 13 Bankers: The Wall St. Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown. We will link this conversation with your website, BaselineScenario.com.
(full long interview text).

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