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13 Bankers
Cover of 13 Bankers
13 Bankers
The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown
Borrow Borrow Borrow
In spite of its key role in creating the ruinous financial crisis of 2008, the American banking industry has grown bigger, more profitable, and more resistant to regulation than ever. Anchored by six megabanks whose assets amount to more than 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product, this oligarchy proved it could first hold the global economy hostage and then use its political muscle to fight off meaningful reform. 13 Bankers brilliantly charts the rise to power of the financial sector and forcefully argues that we must break up the big banks if we want to avoid future financial catastrophes.

Updated, with additional analysis of the government's recent attempt to reform the banking industry, this is a timely and expert account of our troubled political economy.
In spite of its key role in creating the ruinous financial crisis of 2008, the American banking industry has grown bigger, more profitable, and more resistant to regulation than ever. Anchored by six megabanks whose assets amount to more than 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product, this oligarchy proved it could first hold the global economy hostage and then use its political muscle to fight off meaningful reform. 13 Bankers brilliantly charts the rise to power of the financial sector and forcefully argues that we must break up the big banks if we want to avoid future financial catastrophes.

Updated, with additional analysis of the government's recent attempt to reform the banking industry, this is a timely and expert account of our troubled political economy.
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    --F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

    INTRODUCTION

    My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.
    --Barack Obama, March 27, 2009

    Friday, March 27, 2009, was a lovely day in Washington, D.C.--but not for the global economy. The U.S. stock market had fallen 40 percent in just seven months, while the U.S. economy had lost 4.1 million jobs.2 Total world output was shrinking for the first time since World War II.

    Despite three government bailouts, Citigroup stock was trading below $3 per share, about 95 percent down from its peak; stock in Bank of America, which had received two bailouts, had lost 85 percent of its value. The public was furious at the recent news that American International Group, which had been rescued by commitments of up to $180 billion in taxpayer money, was paying $165 million in bonuses to executives and traders at the division that had nearly caused the company to collapse the previous September. The Obama administration's proposals to stop the bleeding, initially panned in February, were still receiving a lukewarm response in the press and the markets. Prominent economists were calling for certain major banks to be taken over by the government and restructured. Wall Street's way of life was under threat.

    That Friday in March, thirteen bankers-- the CEOs of thirteen of the country's largest financial institutions-- gathered at the White House to meet with President Barack Obama.

  • "Help me help you," the president urged the group. Meeting with reporters later, they toed the party line. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs summarized the president's message: "Everybody has to pitch in. We're all in this together." "I'm of the feeling that we're all in this together," echoed Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup. Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf repeated the mantra: "The basic message is, we're all in this together." What did that mean, "we're all in this together"? It was clear that the thirteen bankers needed the government. Only massive government intervention, in the form of direct investments of taxpayer money, government guarantees for multiple markets, practically unlimited emergency lending by the Federal Reserve, and historically low interest rates, had prevented their banks from following Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Washington Mutual, and Wachovia into bankruptcy or acquisition in extremis. But why did the government need the bankers?

    Any modern economy needs a financial system, not only to process payments, but also to transform savings in one part of the economy into productive investment in another part of the economy. However, the Obama administration had decided, like the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations before it, that it needed this financial system-- a system dominated by the thirteen bankers who came to the White House in March. Their banks used huge balance sheets to place bets in brand-new financial markets, stirring together complex derivatives with exotic mortgages in a toxic brew that ultimately poisoned the global economy. In the process, they grew so large that their potential failure threatened the stability of the entire system, giving them a unique degree of leverage over the government. Despite the central role of these banks in causing the financial crisis and the recession, Barack Obama and his advisers decided that these were the banks the country's economic prosperity depended on. And so they dug in to defend Wall Street against the popular anger that was sweeping the country-- the "pitchforks" that Obama referred to in the March 27 meeting.

    To his credit, Obama was trying to take advantage of the Wall Street crisis...
About the Author-
  • Simon Johnson is Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He is coauthor, with James Kwak, of The Baseline Scenario, a leading economic blog, described by Paul Krugman as "a must-read" and by Bill Moyers as "one of the most informative news sites in the blogosphere."

    James Kwak is an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law. He previously co-founded Guidewire Software.

    Visit the authors' blog at baselinescenario.com.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 22, 2010
    Though this blistering book identifies many causes of the recent financial crisis, from housing policy to minimum capital requirements for banks, the authors lay ultimate blame on a dominant deregulatory ideology and Wall Street's corresponding political influence. Johnson, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Kwak, a former consultant for McKinsey, follow American finance's rocky road from the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton over the first Bank of the United States through frequent friction between “Big Finance” and democracy to the Obama administration's responses to the crises. The authors take a highly critical stance toward recent palliative measures, arguing that nationalization of the banks would have been preferable to the bailouts, which have allowed the banks to further consolidate power and resources. Given the swelling size of the six megabanks, the authors make a persuasive case that the financial system cannot be secure until those banks that are “too big to fail” are somehow broken up. This intelligent, nuanced book might be too technical for general-interest readers, but it synthesizes a significant amount of research while advancing a coherent and compelling point of view.

  • The Economist "How Modern Wall Street--the most powerful and concentrated financial sector in the country's history--both created the financial crisis and ensured a bail-out for its own benefit."
  • David Weidner, Wall Street Journal "Mr. Johnson offers an enticing vision of a Wall Street confined, its potency limited to put-downs and head-shaking: a Wall Street where right-sized banking is a do-gooder word for a safer, saner system that has learned from its mistakes."
  • Elizabeth Warren, Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; and Chair, TARP Congressional Oversight Panel "The best explanation yet for how the smart guys on Wall Street led us to the brink of collapse. In the process, Johnson and Kwak demystify our financial system, stripping it down to expose the ruthless power grab that lies at its center."
  • Niall Ferguson, Professor of History, Harvard University; Professor, Harvard Business School; and author of The Ascent of Money "Too many discussions of the Great Recession present it as a purely economic phenomenon – the result of excessive leverage or errors of monetary policy or algorithms run mad. Simon Johnson was the first to point out that this was and is a crisis of political economy. His and James Kwak's analysis of the unholy inter-twining of Washington and Wall Street – a cross between the gilded age and a banana republic – is essential reading."
  • Bill Moyers "If the wads of money you're stuffed into your mattress for safekeeping don't keep you up at night, 13 Bankers will. A disturbing and painstakingly researched account of how the banks wrenched control of government and society out of our hands – and what we can do to seize it back."
  • Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics, Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University; and Chairman of Roubini Global Economics "Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what comes next for the world economy. Dangerous and reckless elements of our financial sector have become too powerful and must be reined in. If this problem is not addressed there is serious trouble in all our futures."
  • Lawrence Lessig, Director of "Beautifully written and powerful. Ties the current financial crisis to a cycle of politics as old as the Republic, and to a pathology in our politics that is as profound as any that our Republic has faced. Required reading for the president, and for anyone else who cares for this Republic."
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The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown
Simon Johnson
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