When I took an editing job at Bloomberg News in March 2000, my arrival coincided with the bursting of the Internet bubble. As once-hot IPOs tanked and the Nasdaq crashed. I would joke to other editors that what the U.S. economy needed was “to build a better bubble.”
Then, to my amazement that was pretty much what happened, except that the bubble moved from the peripheral world of dot.com startups to a cornerstone of the economy, the real-estate sector. Low interest rates, exotic financial instruments and speculation pumped up the economy again, with Wall Street operatives enriching themselves as never before.
Now, as the housing bubble has burst and taken with it trillions of dollars in wealth, President Barack Obama may be right that the future U.S. economy cannot be built on another bubble, that America must get back to manufacturing products that people need.
However, that goal is endangered not only by Republicans, who seem determined to sink whatever Obama proposes, but by the fact that speculative bubbles are what make possible the obscene levels of compensation – and Wall Street is not about to give up on the golden payday.
Without bubbles, Wall Street bankers and their many cohorts could make solid salaries – as they have historically – but not bonuses in the millions of dollars a year. So, there is a powerful incentive for Wall Street to push for a continuation of the bubble economy. Perhaps the new slogan could be, “One more bubble!”
The corrupting influence of the bubble economy also is not confined to Wall Street. While it’s true that Wall Street bigwigs have sipped at this giant champagne glass of riches the most, some wealth has trickled down – not to the average Americans, of course, but to other insiders from the worlds of politics and media.
In that way, former President Bill Clinton could leave office in 2001 – having overseen the expansion of “free trade” agreements and banking deregulation – and then make millions of dollars from speaking to corporate and leadership groups, plus millions more for serving as a front man for billionaire investor Ronald Burkle and other super-rich financiers.
Wall Street analysts for CNBC and other news outlets also can duck in and out of the banking and hedge fund worlds, a la Jim Cramer, sometimes leveraging their on-air advice to the benefit of their investments or their clients. CNBC often behaves more like a booster of Wall Street interests (and a defender of lucrative compensation) than a public watchdog.
This insider world of the big bonuses, fat salaries and hot stock tips has other corrosive effects, as financial regulators and political advisers are tempted by the princely sums that might become available to them if they play their cards the right way.
Much like Pentagon bureaucrats who sign off on unnecessary weapons systems waiting for retirement day and a seat on the corporate board of a grateful military contractor, government overseers of the financial industry have similar – and arguably greater – temptations.
In recent weeks, for instance, the public has learned that key figures in devising Obama’s strategy for combating the financial crisis have been offered – or have received – enticements from this grand world of big money.
Chief economic adviser Lawrence Summers, who as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary helped implement key deregulation of the banks, made $5.2 million in 2008 for a one-day-a-week job at the D.E. Shaw hedge fund, while also pulling in $2.7 million in speaking fees from Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street titans.
Even more shocking to some observers, Summers strayed from his fulltime job as president of Harvard University to do moonlighting from 2004 to 2006 as a consultant for another hedge fund, Taconic Capital Advisers.
The case of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is a bit different, since he has spent his career in government-related agencies as a “public servant,” including Clinton’s Treasury Department, the International Monetary Fund, and the New York Federal Reserve.
But Geithner appears to have had his head turned by the pleasant luxuries of the super-rich, too.
According to a New York Times article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, his calendars from 2007 and 2008 were chocked full of professional and private contacts with executives of banks – Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley – whose activities were regulated by Geithner’s New York Fed.
The article reported that Geithner was especially tight with executives of Citigroup and that he met frequently with Sanford Weill, a major shareholder and former chairman.
“As the bank was entering a financial tailspin, Mr. Weill approached Mr. Geithner about taking over as Citi’s chief executive,” the Times said, adding:
“But for all his ties to Citi, Mr. Geithner repeatedly missed or overlooked signs that the bank – along with the rest of the financial system – was falling apart. When he did spot trouble, analysts say, his responses [as head of the New York Fed] were too measured, or too late.”
Given the magnitude of compensation available to top executives, Weill was not just offering Geithner a job as CEO, but rather was dangling the keys to the jewelry vault at the castle, assuming that Citi did not collapse first.
Now, as Treasury secretary, Geithner is the point man for arranging massive infusions of taxpayer dollars into Citi and other major Wall Street banks to ensure that they don’t go under, that the old financial system survives.
Throwing off the TARP
Geithner’s strategy for salvaging the banks has been criticized by some economists and many citizens as too generous with the taxpayers’ money and too lenient toward the chief culprits of the financial debacle.
But – combined with the Federal Reserve’s decision to lend the banks money at nearly zero percent interest and other emergency measures – the bailouts have put some banks in a strong enough position that they already are chafing under the federal government’s demand that they cut their compensation.
Some banks are offering to pay back the direct federal bailout money to evade the compensation constraints, while their media allies – from CNBC and Fox to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post’s editorial page – have complained about excessive government interference in the private sector.
By escaping from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the bankers could return to the party-on days when they viewed themselves as “masters of the universe” who could buy pretty much anything or anyone they wanted.
The pressing question about Geithner is whether his personal contacts with Weill and other banking executives – and the prospect of landing a future job as CEO of Citi or some other major bank – influenced his policy decisions.
Given the staggering sums of money, it’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t have.
After four years as a Bloomberg News editor reading proxy filings that disclose executive compensation, I came away with a profound sense that the sums had gotten so crazy that almost everyone who could grab a piece would do whatever it took to get one.
Another one of my sayings became: “The closer you are to the money, the more you get to keep.”
The balance between integrity and compensation had gotten so far out of whack that it would require a saint to put doing the right thing over taking oodles of dough, so much money that it would mean you’d never have to worry about your personal finances again.
That’s why I disagree with some analysts – such as the editorial-page editors of the Washington Post–who keep insisting that compensation is only a small part of the problem and that the public is foolish to be so outraged about bailed-out companies like AIG continuing to dole out bonuses.
It’s true that the bonuses pale when viewed next to the total scope of the financial meltdown, but the compensation is the principal motive for the extraordinary risk-taking that started the meltdown.
The compensation also influences the policymakers and regulators whose job it is to stop the high-rollers from putting the economy in jeopardy. If some government bureaucrat sees the chance for a mammoth payday in the future, who’d be surprised if the money didn’t limit acts on the people’s behalf?
And there are also the campaign checks that financial industry PACs write to helpful legislators of both parties.
In short, the multi-million-dollar bonuses and all the other fat compensation packages have distorted the American system in big ways and small.
All that Wall Street money also has left many Americans wondering if anyone – in business, politics or media – cares about the larger fate of the nation or if the primary goal right now is to inflate “one more bubble.”