It was an unlikely pairing.
The former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund.
And an antitrust activist – who heads the nation’s most prominent antitrust public interest group.
Simon Johnson, the former IMF guy, said in effect – break up the big banks.
Bert Foer – the president of the American Antitrust Institute – said – not going to happen.
The two were brought together at a downtown Washington law firm last week to discuss big banks and antitrust enforcement.
Also joining the discussion was Arthur Wilmarth a professor of law at George Washington University.
The discussion moderated by Don Resnikoff of FinkelsteinThompson.
Johnson is the author of 13 Bankers: Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown (Random House, 2010).
Johnson said that the “too big to fail” big banks have tremendous economic and political power.
How much power?
During the most recent financial crisis, “Obama administration officials believed that if they ruffled the feathers on the back of a single Citibank director, they would have worsened the recession,” Johnson said.
“This is a major problem,” Johnson said. “The too big to fail banks are a dagger pointing at the heart of our democracy. They have overly concentrated power.”
“At the turn of the century, Teddy Roosevelt used antitrust against JP Morgan’s railway trust,” Johnson said. “The issue that motivated Roosevelt – that galvanized people 100 years ago – was power.”
And in a short ten years, Roosevelt shifted the consensus.
“In 1901, when Roosevelt took on the big trusts, nobody knew what he was doing,” Johnson said. “This was an idea out of left field.”
“JP Morgan went to the White House to see Roosevelt. And Morgan said – if we have done anything wrong, send your man to see my man and we’ll fix it up. Roosevelt said – no, we don’t want you to fix it up – we want to stop it.”
Roosevelt forced a shift in the consensus.
So much so that by 1911, breaking up Standard Oil was not particularly controversial.
“People understood that while big could be beautiful, big could also be dangerous to society.”
Foer said that while he agreed with much of what Johnson said, “antitrust law as we know it today can’t do the job.”
“Certainly there is a strain in antitrust history that considers large corporate size in and of itself to be bad,” Foer said.
“The problem is, this has not been a dominant, or ever a very influential theme for many years.”
“Industrial structure was more important in the 1960s and 70s,” Foer said. “It has been reduced to the point that what is looked at is economic effects. Those effects are found in narrowly defined products and geographic markets. And in recent years, the political content of antitrust has been minimized by a narrow focus on microeconomics and near term price effects.”
“One result of this change is that mergers are generally deemed to be efficient unless you can show fairly precisely that prices are going to rise in the near term as the result of a merger. And when you do this with banking, you don’t stop mergers.”
“Antitrust as a movement gave up on conglomeration,” Foer said. “We have a situation now where we have created these economically and politically powerful behemoths.”
“I certainly agree with Simon that there is a close relationship between the big size of banks and their political impact. However, that was considered legally irrelevant. It’s possible that antitrust could have stopped this [consolidation] from occurring. But the likelihood of that was small then. And it would have required going for the heart of antitrust policy for the past 40 years to change that now. I’m not saying we can’t. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But it’s difficult.”
“Noriel Roubini says we should launched an antitrust campaign against the too big to fail institutions,” Foer said. “But you can’t just say – let’s break them up with an antitrust case.”
“You have to ask – what have they done that’s illegal? Monopoly is not illegal in and of itself. And we’re not talking here about levels of concentration that are monopolistic. And we are not talking about collusion.”
“So, if we are not talking about monopoly and we are not talking about collusion, the problem is not a lack of competition within particular markets.”
“And by the standard of the game, that means there is no violation and that means no remedy.”
“What would it take to change all of this? Probably a populist revolution. You have to change the Supreme Court before you change what law enforcers are going to attempt to do with their jurisdiction. That means you need a change in the Presidency over a sustained period of time, but you also need Congressional changes.”
“Looking at it realistically, where we are today and we will be over the next few years, it ain’t going to happen.”
Professor Wilmarth asked “why are the bank lobbyists able to have any victories at all after the crisis?”
“The financial industry was steamrolled in 1933 and 1934,” Wilmarth said. “But after the most recent crisis we had, you have to ask – why did the bankers have any credibility? I have a blunt answer. Six billion dollars. The financial services industry and real estate industry spent six billion dollars on political contributions and lobbying expenditures between 1998 and 2009 – far more than any other industry – more than Big Pharma, more than Big Oil. This is the biggest political machine we’ve seen in this Capitol over the last dozen years. And they got what they paid for.”
“The House Financial Services Committee has 70 plus members – which is absurd. But if you get on that committee, you get a gravy train to contributions from the financial services industry. That’s one sixth of the House in a direct funnel from the industry.”
“How can this industry have this much power despite the crisis? They have captured major segments of both parties. It doesn’t matter which party is in control.”
Johnson said it was a question of leadership.
“What would Teddy Roosevelt do?” Johnson asked.
“He would be looking for sticks of various sizes with different degrees of pointed ends that he could pick up and use for this purpose. We’re looking for people to take
the political lead.”
“It’s the pressure of events that moves things. It’s scandal. It’s revelation. It’s crisis, more than anything,” Johnson said. “But be careful. Crisis does not necessarily give you a good outcome. Crisis can result in chaos, which can propel all sorts of strange characters to the forefront – including in the United States. So, I don’t want anyone to say – it’s a problem, but we’ll fix it next time we have the opportunity, which will be when we have the next crisis.”
“We got lucky in the 1930s. You didn’t have to have FDR. You could have had a whole range of other people coming to the forefront. Do not rule that out. I’m not in favor of waiting for a crisis.”
“We missed an opportunity with Dodd-Frank. And it was missed because the lobby was let back on its feet.”
“Breaking up Standard Oil was done in a particularly American way. You break it up into 35 pieces. Most of them go on to become profitable for the shareholders. And the Rockefeller family goes on to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the American people. What a fantastic outcome.”
“President Obama met with the 13 bankers in March 2009. He said to them – my administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”
“Well, I don’t have a pitchfork,” Johnson said. “And I don’t see any pitchforks in this room. We are not talking about overthrow. We are talking about sensible reform and change.”
“And when they let the bankers back on their feet, what did the bankers spend their political contributions on? They funded people who do actually have pitchforks in the midterms who are pushing for no regulation and no tax to counteract the subsidy.”
RUSSELL MOKHIBER edits the Corporate Crime Reporter.