Fresh Air With Terry Gross: Interview On Bank Bailout Plan

Today’s show has already aired in some markets; the audio will be available on-line at around 3pm Eastern.

Terry asks great questions and really forces you to think.  Tell me what I missed or what needs further clarification.

45 thoughts on “Fresh Air With Terry Gross: Interview On Bank Bailout Plan

  1. Mr Johnson,

    I listened to parts of your interview on “Fresh Air” today. I have a question on something you said. Ms Gross asked you why other countries felt Treasuries were a good investiment, given our current economic state. You repled that this trust goes back to Alexander Hamilton, who insisted that government debts from the Revolutionary War be paid. You did mention that these debts were acquired from veterans, but I don’t think you gave the full story. It is my understanding that speculators acquired these debts from veterans at a discount. The veterans didn’t think they would get much. The speculators, because of Mr. Hamilton, made a killing because they got the full value. Mr. Hamiltion took care of his own. It seems to me that giving this additional information certainly would have cast a pale on your story, but it certainly should have been mentioned. Thank you.

  2. Mr. Johnson, thanks for the good job on this interview. I was pleased to hear you address the idea of an institution being “too big to fail”, since this concept is almost never examined in the mainstream media. The public — and government officials — need to understand that “too big to fail” means “too big, period”. If a company gets that big, it puts the system at risk to an extent that outweighs any claimed economic efficiencies. The system should never allow any of its parts to get this big.

    Imagine if the Internet (or any vital global system) had a small number of operators who were “too big to fail”. Would such a fragile system be acceptable to anyone other than those few dangerous operators? Of course not, and it is conceptually no different for the banking system.

  3. Capital markets are unstable. In the past there was no way to make them stable. But today we have computer power that can be used to make them stable. By using the greater computer power of today we can have a much higher turn over of capital in the capital market. This higher turnover will make the market harder to game or control and the market will no longer have the unstable run ups or declines. Who can change or control the market when say 20% of the capital is trading each day? So now that we have the compute power to provide for all these transactions that will smooth out the market how do we force people to turn over at a rate of 20% a day? Easy, put a cap gains tax of 0% (zero) on all gains of 7 days or less and put a cap gains tax of 90% of all gains of more than 7 days. The likes of Yahoo, Micosoft and/or Sun Micro Systems will give us the systems that will provide automated software agents to support turning over one’s investments every 7 days (based on the specs you give the agent). A system like this will make the financial markets work as smoothly as the local fruit market.

  4. There is also the idea of “capital being invested for too long a period of time” see the following:

    Capital markets are unstable. In the past there was no way to make them stable. But today we have computer power that can be used to make them stable. By using the greater computer power of today we can have a much higher turn over of capital in the capital market. This higher turnover will make the market harder to game or control and the market will no longer have the unstable run ups or declines. Who can change or control the market when say 20% of the capital is trading each day? So now that we have the compute power to provide for all these transactions that will smooth out the market how do we force people to turn over at a rate of 20% a day? Easy, put a cap gains tax of 0% (zero) on all gains of 7 days or less and put a cap gains tax of 90% of all gains of more than 7 days. The likes of Yahoo, Micosoft and/or Sun Micro Systems will give us the systems that will provide automated software agents to support turning over one’s investments every 7 days (based on the specs you give the agent). A system like this will make the financial markets work as smoothly as the local fruit market.

    If we put the above in place there will be no more real estate run ups.

  5. mr. johnson,
    i wonder why you didn’t mention japan’s great savings rate at the time of their lost decade, and the usa’s lousy one, as well as, our terrible personal debt, during our present crisis? i would think that these factors weigh in, also, in determining how successful or misguided the bailout and stimulus package may be? can you address this?
    thank-you for your contribution to making these issues understandable to folks like myself.

  6. Professor Johnson,

    During your interview this afternoon with Terry Gross you mentioned that a Russian who recently passed away said that during a crisis assets had a way of disappearing. Who was that person?

    Also, would it be possible for you to give an example of an asset that disappeared during the Russian crisis and an example of how that might be playing out during our own financial crisis?

  7. A very compelling interview. I learned much. My only quibble is your gratuitous swipe at “government”. Why not nationalize banks? Using the DMV as the hallmark of government efficiency and effectiveness is too much of a straw man. A serious reply to this question is very important, in my view. If government can barely be trusted to renew your driver’s license, why can it be trusted to rescue banks and hopefully offset the worst of the faltering economy? I’d rather stand in a long line waiting for a dullard to let me drive my car again, than have a CEO in an Armani make sure all roads lead over a cliff.

  8. Re Mr. Johnson’s interview today with Terry Gross:
    Regarding the proposal to temporarily nationalize the banks, separate good and bad assets, break up large banks, and reprivatize, as was done in Sweden and here during the savings and loan crisis, a concern seems to be that, given the size of the problem (much larger than in Sweden), there may not be buyers for the reorganized banks. The nationalization proposal certainly seems cleaner and a necessary stop to the continual bailout drain which has resolved nothing except erode confidence further in the financial system and the ability of the government. I’m not sure I agree that the reason nationalization has not been undertaken is purely political, given the acknowledged power of the banking system. One would think and hope, given the severity of the crisis, that the government would now be ready to undertake any means possible to to “rescue” the system as Mr. Johnson and others suggest. I would welcome his response to the concern over finding buyers/investors for “cleaned-up reformed banks.”

  9. A very informative interview, and the best presentation of your case I have encountered so far.

    The really hilarious part was imagining Terry Gross’ reaction when you explained to her how most Americans’ experience with publicly provided services like drivers’ license renewal has convinced them that government provision of even something that simple is unlikely ever to be convenient or efficient, and should therefore be avoided. I don’t think you could find many people at NPR, or among Terry Gross’ friends, willing to believe that.

    There was another wonderful moment when Terry asked you ‘where does the money go when it’s lost in a crisis like this – does it somehow simply vanish into the ether?’ That was a breathtakingly stark example of the way in which many educated liberals have no idea at all how valuations in a modern economy are built on confidence in payment flows and therefore attitudes to risk and liquidity. Yes, Terry, if it looks as though a modern market economy is about to get severely disrupted and sty that way for quite some time, much of the value of money and just about everything else which can be valued in monetary terms can disappear in an instant. One could wish that fact might make same people more cautious about loading fresh policy objectives onto a faltering economy.

  10. That was an excellent interview.

    I was hoping Terry would have asked you: “What would happen to the US economy if China suddenly cashed in all their Treasury bonds?”

  11. Mr. Johnson,
    in this interview you laid bare your impeccable political sensibilities, much like John Bolton of the UN, in your sensitivity in going along with the US in all matters. Congratulations. long live the imf.

  12. A great interview in which I found nothing to disagree with. But to build on “where did all the (AIG) money go?” and the related question as to where future payments will go: Is there any reason to allow credit default swap contracts to continue in force? If there is good reason to allow them to continue, could there be a limit imposed of one CDS per debt, with priority given to the debt holder? Any presently effective CDS could be nullified with unearned premiums returned to the buyers. And is there any reason why CDSs should be allowed to be issued in the future? As a matter of public policy, it seems to me that CDSs are too dangerous to the stability of the world economy to allow.

    Regarding the retention of current bank management, it seems to me that banking should be a pretty mundane business. We don’t really need the smartest guys in the country to run banks. In fact, there should be IQ tests given to applicants, with the top 10% disqualified, as they will be tempted to engage in financial engineering.

  13. Great questions and explanations.
    Two additional points that I would like to ask you about.

    1) Even if all this gov’t borrowing does not eventually trigger an overt run on U.S. treasuries or the U.S. dollar, what can we still expect with respect to inflation a few years out?

    2) Is it possible that, in addition to the difficulties in taking on the bankers lobby, the Obama administration is dragging its feet on the financial rescue strategies due to the implications for foreign investors in banks like Citigroup. For example, if existing shareholders get wiped out, this may become a foreign policy debacle as well? (Since several SWF and arab princes invested money early in the crisis and would face substantial losses if existing shareholders are wiped out)

  14. Mr. Johnson,
    one of the arguments against bank nationalization is that it would encourage short-sellers to begin an effort to drive down the share price of the next weakest bank in the system, thus forcing more nationalization followed by short-sellers laying seige to the next weakest bank etc.
    If this can happen,then the SEC may need to put trading regulations in place before any nationalization begins.

  15. Thank you Mr. Johnson for your clarity and reasoned thought. I am learning much – still listening to the 7pm re-broadcast and my hands are still wet from doing the dinner dishes! But when she mentioned your site, I wanted to quickly type in a thank you.

  16. It is not a small problem that you claim the government can’t be trusted to manage drivers’ licenses. It’s an old canard. I have renewed mine in 2 states and both were fast and easy. I also paid taxes in person -also fast and easy.

  17. Mr. Johnson, thank you for the clarity of thought you provided. It raises the question of whether we in the US have the political will to “face down the bankers.” I am sure that you are correct that we will not call it “nationalization” of the banks when we finally get around to it, but instead use the term “temporary management by FDIC” or some such politically acceptable term. One of President Obama’s great strengths is his pragmatism, so hopefully he and his team will be using this time to build the “political firewall” you spoke of in describing the Swedish situation. Terry Gross is a skilled interviewer and it was marvelous to listen to you both explore this issue. Thank you. I hope that we will be able to hear a follow up in a few months.

  18. I just finished listening to your interview with Terry Gross regarding the Bank Bailout plan. Because of your time at IMF, I was hoping you might relate to what appears to be standard IMF procedure, when a country gets into financial difficulties, and how that strategy seems to be turned upside down for the US. As I understand it, IMF normally tells the ailing country “you VILL increase interest rates, increase taxes, and reduce gov. spending”. None of this “tough love” appears to apply to the U.S. We seem to address the issue of red ink (debt) with more and more green ink (printed/borrowed $). From my “Crayola Days”, mixing red with green produced a third color- and does that color really pass the “sniff” test?

  19. Listened to interview on KNPR Las Vagas. It was the most cogent explanation of not only the current crisis moreover you presented solutions. The best interview ever on Fresh Air. I can’t wait to review your site for future valuable info. Bully for You!

    PS. Obama should have chosen you as Sec. of the Treasury or Head of his economic advisors.

  20. Great job in NPR interview.

    We have had a massive loss of asset prices $25-50 trillion so far & wealth deflation effect that could take 10 years to rebuild asset prices world wide. This would overtake any policy responses we have at a national level as global current accounts fall/prices fall & assets fall it becomes a negative feedback loop.

    The fall in assets across the globe is a very underreported story. My estimates are that US has lost $25 trillion in assets (Homes- $8T, Equities 12T, Corporate debt/plant & stock $5T)

    We have another $10T at risk in the next year in the US. The EU has just started losing on the US scale. BRIC & Japan & rest of G20 is also falling. We could lose $50-75Trillion total during the 2007-11 period. That is massive wealth loss that could take a decade or more to reflate & have strong global GDP growth.

    I think we need to start talking about the plan Z scenario. Where we get G20 central banks, finance min, political leaders & top 100 bank leaders to get a monster $50 Trillion plan ready. This is our insurance policy. When we look at the available capital between Private Equity/Hedge/sovereign wealth funds thats $5-10Trillion. G20 National budgets US/Japan/China/EU could add $5trillion. G20 Central banks could have $10 trillion added to their balance sheets. Global 10000 corporates have $2Trillion+ in working capital/cash. The G20 banks have $20 trillion in deposits

    together we could coordinate the reflation of global balance sheets. If we had Plan Z ready and kicked it into action with a global weekly coordination on Friday & a media communications blitz over a year we would drive confidence and drive demand IS-LM style and get price levels stable.

    If we don’t start discussing this at a global level this could overtake any other policy responses we have.

  21. Neville, while I was equally amused by this question, I thought it was quite valid. I have endeavored to keep myself educated on this very complex issue. I can tell you from conversations with both liberal and conservative friends that here is a great lack of understanding. If the problems were better understood, we wouldn’t have economist from all over the political map scratching their collective heads.

    I think Ms. Gross’ question is valid in light of a story on “This American Life” that attempts to explain our current economic woes. When the economist begins explaining the rate of growth of the WORLD economy in the past decade (compared to historical rates of growth), one does wonder how “real” this growth could have actually been.

  22. Simon,
    It was delightful to hear your laugh when Terry asked you questions – like a professor delighted to find his student is pretty smart. Hope you are as fun for the Sloan students.
    I do wonder what on earth we do with the CDS’s and CDOs, synthetic or not. At some point, they’ve got to be unplugged, but the AIG case seems to show that we don’t know the first thing about how to do this. Any thoughts on this?

  23. I sincerely belive that anyone wondering about where the money went and how we got here should read the introduction to The Ascent of Money, by Nigall Ferguson. The book was a birthday gift from my sister. It compares the “measured economic output” of the entire world at $47 trillion to the amount of derivatives outstanding at $473 trillion, with other ecominc measurements in support of those two unbelieveable facts. This is only a small fraction of what went wrong, but is an illustration of the gross ignorance of the regulatory bodies of a exploding problem that did not get the proper attention until too late.

    I commend Mr Johnson on one of the most informative discussions on this very dangerous crisis.

  24. @Aaron.

    Plan Z. Nice. From now on, that’s how I’m going to refer to coordinated global quantitative easing, which I’ve been advocating since October.

    As I understand it, the French proposed this at the last G20. Too bad this got shot down so quickly by Bushco and the Germans.

    I do not condone assassination, but if the almighty saw fit to strike down Angela Merkel, the entirety of humanity might be better off.

    Actually, even if the almighty were to temporarily incapacitate her long enough for someone with half a brain and a sliver of heart to sign a few forms, we’d still be better off.

    But I do like ‘PLAN Z’. It’s like the ultimate zecret weapon in an anime movie.

  25. It was refreshing to hear someone less than totally confused and/or pessimistic about the current economic debacle. It wasn’t clear to me why we should not be concerned about the national debt until it gets large in terms of GDP. If this is some measure of our ability to service the debt then the followup puzzle is why should we run up the debt even if we can pay the price/interest. It seems like all debt results in people with money getting more money for no other reason than that they already have money. Clearly debt/lending moves the contemporary economy, but maybe we have moved too far beyond our means. Maybe we need to think up some other financial world view that is not fueled by debt/lending/banking. Maybe banks should be regulated utilities (in the traditional sense – stable, predictable, modest returns) instead of gambling playgrounds. Maybe beggars should be given horses – wait a minute isn’t that what’s happening.

  26. Simon, when Terry asked if people buying Treasuries how they can be confident of being repaid, given the magnitude of the borrowing, you talked about Alexander Hamilton and implied that the US is committed to repaying its debts straighforwardly and honestly.

    We all know the Treasury wouldn’t legally default. It’s an inefficient way to fail to repudiate debt. The most efficient way for the US Treasury to repudiate debt is to encourage and increase inflation. This was done in the 1970’s. Given Bernanke’s and others’ predilection for this ‘solution’ to the current reversion of asset prices closer to their mean, isn’t repudiation of the debt through inflation (for domestic savers) and currency devaluation (for foreigners holding our debt) the most likely outcome over the next, say, 10 years?

  27. bjs-
    Thanks for questioning the folklore that government programs are always poorly run. I find it easy to renew my drivers license and auto registration in Pennsylvania. Also, EZ Pass is a very well executed innovation run by the DOT.


    Listening to you folks is like stepping through the ‘looking glass’.

    After the Terry Gross interview, looked up Baseline Scenario, 2/9/09, and started reading… after the a few pages I progressed to skimming.

    But, I skimmed with care ~ looking for one place where the basic physical reality of earth’s productivity, and/or health was mentioned as a critical factor in your equations let along examined. I didn’t spot anything.

    Nothing! What are you people thinking?
    allow for some thoughts beyond, what I see as, your blinders:

    The most troubling thing about listening to the politicians & media spun dialogue is their seeming oblivion to the physical living breathing world out here. One would think our economy was contained wholly within ledger sheets and credit capability.

    Maybe it’s denial? And maybe it’s not just them, maybe it’s most all of us? How many of us are guilty of ignoring what really keeps this economy afloat? For instance, do you turn on a water faucet totally disinterested in the water system & reservoirs & mountain wetlands & weather systems that made that stream of liquid life pour from your faucet? You should be interested, because there’s no guarantee that it will always be flowing.

    When have we heard a politician ~ be they Democrat, Republican, Obama or an ideological dinosaur ~ discuss the fact of America’s fantastic success these past couple centuries being attributable to the cornucopia of land and resources that lay before us immigrants. Sure our ingenuity helped, but without the resources at our disposal, all the ingenuity in the world would have come to naught.

    “We” had centuries of consuming as ravenously as possible, but the party couldn’t go on forever. Our fortune is to be part of the generation of reckoning. Our kids will have to learn to live in a brave new world. Within means and learning to become true stewards of the land, focused on sustaining and enhancing. What will they make of the our boast that: “too much is never enough?”

    The questions could go on. But, I think the bigger issue may be in recognizing how much ego we have invested in our views of the world. Both the left and the right have excellent ammunition against the other. It is too easy to ridicule the epic mistakes of each. Maybe one of the prerequisites for successfully dealing with the coming crisis is in recognizing our own mistakes, misunderstandings and blind spots. To gain a degree of humility. To appreciate that there is much to learn. To want to learn. To achieve a willingness to listen to others while suspending judgement for the moment and digesting the thoughts behind the words before returning to judgmental mode. Sounds easy, but so hard to do, yet oh so necessary.


  29. I second Mike’s curiosity about the difference between Japan in the past and our current level of personal debt. Another NPR commentator said the total debt, personal, corporate and gorvenmental, is 13 trillion dollars, equal to 100% of the annual GDP. The last time this was true was 1929.
    I would like to hear professor Johnson’s comments about that. Otherwise I was reassured by his comments at the end of the program.

  30. What ‘entrepreneureal’ communists in management did with the fall of the Berlin Wall was rob state property and leave the majority of the population starving. If anything similar is allowed to take place here without criminal charges against the perpetrators, then Americans will take a long time dreaming the American dream.

  31. Yes, the idea that we can grow the economy to use an ever-increasing share of depleting resources is just dumb. Krugman keeps asking on his blog – what happens after the stimulus. I don’t think he’s come to the point of pondering that we will all be learning to live with less material production in the long haul, and that will mean lot’s of us will be adapting to that reality.

    One good group on this is Redefining Progress:

  32. It is strange that Simon did not mention the efficient functioning of nationalised banks in India which had their bitter dose of IMF prescriptions in 1986 which had resulted in partial denationalisation of the nationalised banks. In fact, the chairman of State Bank of India, the largest nationalised bank in fact thanked the government of India for not denationalising the banks as prescribed by IMF which would have duplicated the American scenario in India with no regulatory oversight. Simon was blunt to say that America can not be advised by IMF since the majority share holding was from USA for IMF. Can I presume that a husband being a doctor should not tell his wife with cancer the real truth about her health. It is unfortunate that Americans do not want to face truth since it is bitter even though they may be bankrupt in the process.

  33. Prof. Johnson,

    I just heard your Fresh Air interview – thank you for your candor! I am relieved to finally hear someone point out the serious conflicts of interest created by having ex-Wall Streeters run the bailout.

    Thank you also for noting that “too big to fail” encourages management to take excessive risks in order to pad their own bonuses.

    One thing you didn’t note was that “too big to fail” more generally encourages any transfer of revenues from the future to the present, including the exchange of certain future losses for present revenues. This kind of fraudulent behavior can be completely risk-free, but it has become a tried-and-true method for financial services management to loot their own corporations. That’s what happened with the subprime debacle of the late 1990’s (eg. FirstPlus, the Money Store), and it is hard to see that AIG’s credit default swap business was any different.

  34. Thanks for bringing your much-needed competence and perspective to a wider audience. The public needs a level-headed advocate in this situation.

  35. Great interview. Many thanks. But I have to say that I think using renewing your drivers license as an example of why governments shouldn’t run banks is a cliche and actually untrue. It doesn’t take into account real improvements in customer service many government agencies have achieved over the last decade or so. No, I don’t work for the government. But I have renewed my license in three states over the last ten years and the truth is, it hasn’t been so bad, especially compared to how it was say 20 years ago. And have you tried to get any telephone assistance from a privately owned bank in the last five years?

    Now, you may be right about the dangers of letting government run banks — I’m just quibbling about your example.

  36. subramaniam, you are the only independent comment on this board full of blind acolytes of Dr. simon! It is clear that the upper echelons of american society benefit from blind worship and groupthink, and the careers of those who benefit from the same.

    The imf where simon made a career is a TOOL of american policy. This time, fate has laid bare the hypocrisy of elitist people like dr. simon who prescribed quite the opposite treatments to people in latin america, asia and africa, but kiss up to US practices as required. John Bolton calling…..

  37. Mark appears correct. Last data I could (easily) find was in 2000.

    I suspect govt. has stayed flat, and I strongly suspect that private business customer service has declined.

    I think the (recent) generalization about customer service in the private sector is that when you call about buying you get great service. When you call to report a problem or address some other issue, you get very long hold times. I rather like my local post office – quite a bit more than my bank.

  38. Finally, someone with aptitude stating the context of this crisis, instead of glossing it, as the current administration is doing, keeping everyone in a confused mode. Professor Johnson articulates without suspicions what is the problem and it is unfortunate that he is not in Geithner’s shoes, which he can fill in his sleep; not taking anything away from Geithner’s skills-set, of course, but professor Johnson’s worldwide familiarity and exertion, along with his clear-cut analysis, proves that knowing the menu can certainly help in ordering the right thing for a given situation.

    As president of the IMF Johnson assisted countries in preventing the longevity of pain that comes with an economic/financial crisis if it is not handled properly and it seems that his understanding of the current USA crisis is clear and to the point. Wall-Shington seems to act well in public, especially during their hearings, but if you do a textual analysis of what they say, the resemblance of the language used by Charlie Brown is uncanny: wa-wa wa-wa and it is sad that as Americans they are our last resort; only because Financial Institutions Executives were to incompetent to realize that greed can only go so far, which Gordon Gekko forgot to mention in his speech.

    Thank you very much Professor Johnson for sharing your expertise with us, your humbleness is as valuable as your brilliancy, especially when our money is being distributed without a proper clarification and the sad thing about it, is that there is nothing we can do to stop it, other than doing a mock vote on some of the plans Washington is putting forth to restore some of the miniscule faith we have in them.

  39. Over all that was a very informative interview. I do have a couple of questions after listening to it. You seemed to imply that the government should put new members of the board of directors and that the board of directors should select a new CEO of the banks. Would it not be possible for the government to put in a board of directors who would do a proper stress test on their own and determine if the bank needs to be nationalized?

    Also is there such a thing as nationalization lite? Where the government dilutes the stocks and gives the lenders a haircut, but not zero them out altogether? It seems like we are sort of on that path now, but we are not forcing in new management.

  40. Simon,

    Thank you! You cut to the chase for all those who can hear your voice!

    We can all hope that your voice will be heard and policy will change before it is too late.

    May all blessings be yours!

  41. Mr. Johnson,
    I just wanted to thank you for your honesty, candor, and tact while covering this topic. My faith that anyone in government has a real grasp on what needs to be done has been nonexistent for quiet some time. After hearing your interview my understanding shifted regarding the underlying attitudes of those in charge. The fact that campaign contributions have ANY affect on these proceedings is an outrage.
    Please do correct me if I’m misinterpreting you, but it sounds like your saying that the main, if not only, reason that our officials are not doing things the way they should is because they pandering to the omnipresent banker campaign contributor. If this is the case then America has worse problems than even an economic crisis on it hands. The Obama administration has injected a large helping of faith in government into the American psyche. On the converse, the American public will not stand blindly to this sort of behavior. I fear the American government is behaving like the last days of the Roman Empire. Perhaps we should be looking to enact more oversite on our lawmakers, lest they “tunnel” their way out of a crumbling capitol straight to the beaches of the UAE.

    To quote another public servant, I’m afraid “This will all end in tears.”

  42. Thanks, Prof. Johnson, for the refreshing clarity you offer. Any thoughts on what the tens of thousands of bank loan officers and other mega-bank employees whose jobs involve currently non-existent ‘lending’ are doing these days? While I am not a stone-thrower, why not lay off or ‘restructure’ these people and save millions of dollars?

  43. Good interview, but I have some points to ask:

    1.I am still not convinced WHY IMF is not playing a role in this crisis. They should.

    2.Shouldn’t the credit ratings agencies (and its managers) be held accountable for this mess?

    3.Why people who got their bonuses last year not asked to return it? They should return ALL money. It is immoral.

    4.Before working in any Financial Institution one should receive lessons of ETHICS & MORAL.

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