The Citi Never Weeps

On the first day of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Phil Angelides demonstrated a gift for powerful and memorable metaphor: accusing Goldman Sachs (GS) of essentially selling defective cars and then taking out insurance on the buyers.  Lloyd Blankfein and the other CEOs looked mildly uncomfortable, and this image reinforces the case for a tax on big banks – details to be provided by the president later today.

But the question is: How to keep up the pressure and move the debate forward?  If we stop with a few verbal slaps on the wrist and a relatively minor new levy, then we have achieved basically nothing.  We need people more broadly to grasp the dangerous financial “risk system” we have created and to agree that it needs to be dismantled completely.

One way to do this would be for the Commission to call key people from Citigroup (C) to testify.

This would not be as part of a large panel with other firms.  This would be a drill down into the history, structure, and attitudes involved in building what became the country’s largest bank – and then in driving it into the ground.  My full proposal is on the Daily Beast today, but in summary I would question Vikram Pandit and Chuck Prince at length and then pull in Sandy Weil and Robert Rubin.

This is not about the individuals; it’s about the system.  But the only way that broader mainstream opinion will change is if it sees and hears from the people who thought they had everything under control.  And – let’s face it – Citi has been at the center of all major international financial crises over the past 30 years; its alumni have top positions in our administration; and no one thinks it is a well-run organization.

It’s the human dimension of big bank hubris that will grip the popular imagination.  That and the great fortunes they accumulated at your expense.

About Simon Johnson 101 Articles

Simon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He is also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., a co-founder of BaselineScenario.com, a widely cited website on the global economy, and is a member of the Congressional Budget Office's Panel of Economic Advisers.

Mr. Johnson appears regularly on NPR's Planet Money podcast in the Economist House Calls feature, is a weekly contributor to NYT.com's Economix, and has a video blog feature on The New Republic's website. He is co-director of the NBER project on Africa and President of the Association for Comparative Economic Studies (term of office 2008-2009).

From March 2007 through the end of August 2008, Professor Johnson was the International Monetary Fund's Economic Counsellor (chief economist) and Director of its Research Department. At the IMF, Professor Johnson led the global economic outlook team, helped formulate innovative responses to worldwide financial turmoil, and was among the earliest to propose new forms of engagement for sovereign wealth funds. He was also the first IMF chief economist to have a blog.

His PhD is in economics from MIT, while his MA is from the University of Manchester and his BA is from the University of Oxford.

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