Author Archives: Simon Johnson

What Is Citigroup Hiding From Its Shareholders Now?

By Simon Johnson

In the early and mid-2000s, Citigroup had compensation practices that can fairly be described as a disaster for shareholders (and for the broader economy). Top executives, such as then-CEO Chuck Prince, received big bonuses and generous stock options. Lower level managers and traders were paid along similar lines. These incentives encouraged Citi employees to take risks and boost profits. Unfortunately for shareholders, the profits proved largely illusory – when the dangers around housing and derivatives materialized fully, the consequences almost destroyed the firm.

The market value of Citigroup’s stock dropped from $277 billion in late 2006 to under $6 billion in early 2009. The shareholders could easily have been wiped out – they were saved from oblivion by a generous series of bailouts provided by the federal government (see Figure 7 in the final report of the Congressional Oversight Panel; direct TARP assistance was $50 billion but “total federal exposure” was close to $500 billion). In the next credit cycle, the experience for Citi shareholders could be even worse. So it is entirely reasonable for shareholders to look carefully at, among other things, the details of how executives and other key employees are paid – and to understand the current incentives for taking and managing risk.

But Citigroup is resisting efforts to disclose fully the structure of relevant compensation contracts. What is Citigroup hiding now? Continue reading

Nominate A Qualified Undersecretary Of Domestic Finance Now

By Simon Johnson

The Obama administration urgently needs to nominate a qualified individual as Undersecretary for Domestic Finance at the Treasury Department. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms are under sustained and determined attack, and the lack of a confirmed Undersecretary is making it significantly harder for Treasury to effectively defend this important legislation. Failing to fill this Undersecretary position would constitute a serious mistake that jeopardizes a signature achievement of this presidency.

In the continuing absence of an Undersecretary for Domestic Finance, the administration has recently displayed an inconsistent – or perhaps even incoherent – policy stance on financial sector issues. On the one hand, in mid-December, the White House agreed to rollback a significant part of Dodd-Frank – the so-called “swaps push-out,” which was shamefully attached at the behest of Citigroup to a must-pass government spending bill. The White House put up little resistance to this tactic and, at the critical moment, lobbied House Democrats to support the repeal of Section 716. Continue reading

Vote in the Democratic Shadow Primary Now: Support Elizabeth Warren

By Simon Johnson

The shadow primary for the Democratic Party is in full swing. What will be the ideas, themes, and messages that win support in 2016 – and will they carry the day in the presidential election?

You can vote now at the Big Ideas project on almost every viable proposal from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Expressions of interest will feed into conversations on Capitol Hill and with presidential candidates. Nearly 1 million votes have already been cast.

Voting ends Friday at noon. Currently, in the section on the Economy & Jobs, the proposal to restore Glass-Steagall is in third place; breaking up Citigroup is close behind. (Vote now for these or for your own priorities.) Continue reading

The Republican Strategy To Repeal Dodd-Frank

By Simon Johnson

On January 7, 2015, Day 2 of the new Congress, the House Republicans put their cards on the table with regard to the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reforms. The Republicans will chip away along all possible dimensions, using a combination of legislation and pressure on regulators – with the ultimate goal of relaxing the restrictions that have been placed on the activities of very large banks (such as Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase).

The initial target is the Volcker Rule, which limits the ability of megabanks to place very large proprietary bets – and their ability to incur massive losses, with big negative consequences for the rest of us. But we should expect the House Republican strategy to be applied more broadly, including all kinds of measures that will reduce capital requirements (i.e., make it easier for the largest banks to fund themselves with relatively more debt and less equity, taking more risk while remaining Too Big To Fail and thus benefiting from larger implicit government subsidies.)

The repeal of Dodd-Frank will not come in one fell swoop. Rather House Republicans are moving in several stages to reduce the scope of the Volcker Rule and to gut its effectiveness.

The first step in this direction came on Wednesday, with a bill brought to the floor of the House supposedly to “make technical corrections” to Dodd-Frank. This legislation was not considered in the House Financial Services Committee, and was rushed to the House floor without allowing the usual debate or potential for amendments (formally, there was a “suspension” of House rules). Continue reading

Elizabeth Warren And The Independent Community Bankers of America Are Right: Antonio Weiss Should Not Become Undersecretary for Domestic Finance

By Simon Johnson

Antonio Weiss has been nominated to become Undersecretary for Domestic Finance at the Treasury Department. A growing number of people and organizations have expressed reservations about this potential appointment, which requires Senate confirmation – including Senator Dick Durbin (D., IL), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D.,NH), Senator Joe Manchin (D., WV), the American Federation of Teachers (in a press release on December 17th), and other groups. And, from another part of the political spectrum, the Independent Community Bankers of America has also come out strongly against Mr. Weiss.

In a speech last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren detailed her concerns about Mr. Weiss’s background:

“He [Mr. Weiss] has focused on international corporate mergers and companies buying and selling each other. It may be interesting, challenging work, but it does not sufficiently qualify him to oversee consumer protection and domestic regulatory functions at the Treasury that are a critical part of the job.”

And Senator Warren made it clear that the Weiss nomination needs to be seen in this broader context:

“Time after time in government, the Wall Street view prevails, and time after time, conflicting views are crowded out.”

A line must be drawn and, as Senator Warren said on Friday evening, with regard to the Wall Street view that what is good for executives at big banks is good for the country,

“Enough is enough.”

The latest round of pushback from Weiss supporters against Senator Warren makes three points. First, this administration is not captured by the Wall Street view. Second, Mr. Weiss is not captured by the Wall Street view. And, third, that Mr. Weiss is so perfectly qualified for the job that all these broader issues are irrelevant or even illegitimate. None of these points has a substantive basis or can withstand scrutiny. The ICBA, AFT, and Senators Durbin, Machin, Shaheen, and Warren are right to continue opposing Mr. Weiss’s appointment. Continue reading

Citigroup Will Be Broken Up

By Simon Johnson

Citigroup is a very large bank that has amassed a huge amount of political power. Its current and former executives consistently push laws and regulations in the direction of allowing Citi and other megabanks to take on more risk, particularly in the form of complex highly leveraged bets. Taking these risks allows the executives and traders to get a lot of upside compensation in the form of bonuses when things go well – while the downside losses, when they materialize, become the taxpayer’s problem.

Citigroup is also, collectively, stupid on a grand scale. The supposedly smart people at the helm of Citi in the mid-2000s ran them hard around – and to the edge of bankruptcy. A series of unprecedented massive government bailouts was required in 2000-09 – and still the collateral damage to the economy has proved enormous. Give enough clever people the wrong incentives and they will destroy anything.

Now the supposedly brilliant people who run Citigroup have, in the space of a single working week, made a series of serious political blunders with long-lasting implications. Their greed has manifestly proved Elizabeth Warren exactly right about the excessive clout of Wall Street, their arrogance has greatly strengthened a growing left-center-right coalition concerned about the power of the megabanks, and their public exercise of raw power has helped this coalition understand what it needs focus on doing – break up Citigroup. Continue reading

Don’t Repeal Swaps Push-Out Requirements (Section 716 of Dodd-Frank)

By Simon Johnson

Section 716 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act requires that some derivative transactions be “pushed-out” from those part of banks that have deposit insurance (run by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) and other forms of backstop (provided by the Federal Reserve). This is a sensible provision that, if properly implemented, would help keep our financial system safer, protect taxpayers and reduce the likely need for bailouts.

Now, at the behest of the biggest Too Big To Fail banks and as part of the House’s spending bill (to be voted on tomorrow or in coming days), this “push out” requirement is on the verge of being repealed. Democrats and Republicans should refuse to vote for the spending bill as long as it contains this requirement.

This is not a left vs. right issue. It is a fundamental systemic risk issue, on which people across the political spectrum who want to lower those risks can agree – Section 716 should not be repealed. In fact, some of the sharpest voices on this issue come from the right. Continue reading