Oral Testimony of William K. Black – Joint Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis


New Economic Perspectives has the article Oral Testimony of William K. Black.

The article points to a transcript of the testimony Joint Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis. Rather than read the article’s summary of the testimony, I went right to the transcript. The transcript is long, so even the lengthy excerpts below are only a small part of the transcript. (I wish I had found the link to the promised video.)

Marc MacSharry

Okay. In terms of the likelihood of a repeat, does Professor Black think that the set of parameters that currently exist make it quite likely that it will all happen again?

Professor William Black

Yes, and it will be worse. This is not just Ireland and Europe – this is the United States. There has been no accountability for the bankers and no accountability for the regulators. So, it will take the next boom before this happens again. In the savings and loan crisis, as the committee heard we got over these 1,000 felony convictions. None of those people, to my knowledge, participated in the current crisis precisely because they had criminal records. That is what we call specific deterrence. There will be no specific deterrence out of this crisis. The worst actors who know exactly how to use these four ingredients of the recipe that I told the committee are out there, and what they have learned from this crisis is that it is a sure thing and not much of anything happens to one. That is a really perverse incentive structure. It is critical that one reverses that.

Notice the mention of Stephanie Kelton and her current position. This is a name that I have been trying to get readers of my blog to burn into their memories. It is going to be extremely important for people to know who she is, and to remember who hired her – Bernie Sanders.

Marc MacSharry

Would Professor Black feel that the euro, therefore, is arguably unfit for purpose because of the smaller economies on the periphery like Ireland, which are less than 1% of the eurozone?

Professor William Black

The euro is a disaster. It never made sense in terms of the economic literature on an optimal currency area. My colleague, Professor Stephanie Kelton, who is now the chief economist on the Senate budget committee, is one of a number of scholars who wrote this in advance and their predictions have proven absolutely correct.
.
.
.

Professor William Black

We have not set this up but I thank Deputy Doherty. My answer is not in response to Ireland. I am not talking about Ireland. I am responding to the generic question. Here is an example of that dated 15 July 1987 from Charles Keating, our most notorious fraud in the savings and loan crisis to his chief political fixer. “Highest priority – get Black. Good grief – if you can’t get Wright [the Speaker of the House] and Congress to get Black – kill him dead – you ought to retire.” That is the kind of thing I am talking about. Our joke in the savings and loan crisis was the highest return on assets was always a political contribution for any banker. In our context, the Speaker of the House held hostage our Bill to get funding to close the institutions, to extort special favours for several fraudulent Texas savings and loan branches. Five US Senators who became known as the Keating Five sought to keep us from taking enforcement action against the worst fraud. The President of the United States attempted to appoint two members, chosen by Charles Keating, to run the agency. I told the committee it was a three presidential appointee agency that ran it. A Mr. Phelan, doubtless a distant cousin, was hired by the House ethics committee to investigate the ethics complaints against the Speaker of the House, James Wright. He did resign at the end of this process, but three of the recommended charges by Mr. Phelan after his investigation were that an ethics case should be brought against the Speaker of the House for his effort to fire William Black, his effort to fire Joe Selby, who was one of those two top regulators I told the committee about, and because he held hostage our funding to extort favours on behalf of folks.

In the United States context, these people do not go quietly. If you bring cases against powerful bankers, they will enlist their political allies and they will give very large political contributions to do that. In our context, Alan Greenspan was used to recruit the Keating Five, the five US Senators. He was hired as a lobbyist initially by Charles Keating to recruit those Senators. The United States is not unusual in those terms. If you take on really powerful bankers you will find that you get political push-back. If you do not pick regulators who will stand up to that – this is what I referred to as the Mike Patriarca level – Mike Patriarca was asked by a US Senator, one of the five who was meeting with us, whether he was saying that Arthur Young & Company, then one of the top tier audit firms, would prostitute itself for a client. Committee members, as legislators, know that if they ask that of a bureaucrat what the only possible answer is. When there are five Senators the only possible answer is, “Oh no sir, I would never say that.” The actual answer from Mike Patriarca was “Absolutely, it happens all the time.”
.
.
.
Professor William Black

When I was an enforcement and litigation director I negotiated these things all the time and here is the key that you need to understand. Bankers make the decision and their priorities are not to go to jail, not to lose their job and not to have their bonuses clawed back. To accomplish those three things they also have a fourth priority to not throw anybody junior to the wolves. In the United States we have much broader plea bargaining powers than exists in most of Europe. If you throw the junior person to the wolves we will flip him which means we will get him to plead and to testify about the more senior people. The committee will note that in all of these major deals in the United States nobody got named, loses their bonus, loses their job or goes to jail and they are happy to trade off fines.

The fines sound large. They are large in absolute terms but relative to JP Morgan Chase, to pick a non-random example, they are literally a few weeks’ revenue so they do not care. Also, bankers do not pay the fines; it is the shareholders. This is the third in a triple whammy hit if you follow the recipe to the extent that the banks have followed this recipe. First, they have caused huge losses to the shareholders directly by making bad loans intentionally. Second, they have taken a whole lot of money that should have gone to the shareholders in the form of bonuses for destroying the institution or at least causing huge losses. Third, they come along and are happy to sign an agreement in which the shareholders pay the fines to make sure that they have no accountability. Therefore, this is an utterly useless exercise in terms of deterrence.

I think I understood a lot of the testimony because I am a regular reader of the New Economic Perspectives blog and of the book, “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is To Own One”. I wonder how much is understood by ordinary people and perhaps even the members of the committee that took the testimony.

I take particular interest in the talk of Gresham’s Dynamic, which I am not sure Black did justice to in explaining it to the uninitiated.

Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I was remarking on the Gresham’s Law as it applied to Mutual Fund Managers. The only ones who could keep their jobs were the ones who were taking insane risks and achieving insane (if temporary) returns for their funds. It was hard to find a mutual fund that was still being managed by prudent investors. I even had to keep reminding myself that it was not how much money that I was making on paper, but it was about how much of it that I would eventually get to keep.

The American public still does not get what a crucial failure of the Obama administration it was and still is in the failure to prosecute the bankers (fraudsters.) This is why I keep harping on this issue to the same extent that Bill Black does.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.