Summers’ compensation intensifies reform doubt
The weekend revelation National Economic Council chief Lawrence Summers received almost $5.2 million in salary and other compensation last year from hedge fund DE Shaw and Co, and hundreds of thousands more in speaking fees from other banks, has dealt another blow to the administration’s fast-waning credibility on financial reform.
Summers and protege Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have already attracted criticism for a strategy many commentators believe is unduly favorable to Wall Street.
For all the talk of beefed up supervision and stringent capital requirements in future, financial assistance to the banking system has come with few conditions. Anxious not to offend powerful Wall Street interests, Treasury staff have consistently pushed back against attempts to impose compensation restrictions or other penalties on recipients of public funds.
It all stands in marked contrast to the tough line being taken with General Motors and Chrysler. Bank chiefs were invited to discuss the industry’s future at the White House; GM CEO Richard Wagoner was summarily dismissed.
Wall Street’s special treatment is justified by citing the industry’s pivotal credit-creating role. But there is a widespread suspicion financial interests have captured the government agencies, legislators and senior officials meant to regulate them. It is the type of rent-seeking behavior common in emerging markets and associated in the past with militant industrial unions and President Dwight Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex.
In a thoughtful article in the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine, former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson argues U.S. policy has been controlled for the past two decades by a “financial oligarchy” which exercises influence through campaign contributions and the regular exchange of top personnel between Wall Street firms and the White House, Treasury and other institutions meant to regulate them. It promotes an identity of views between the regulators and the regulated.
The disclosure of Summers’ earnings simply fuels that impression, and the administration’s decision to publish the disclosure forms on a Friday afternoon shows awareness of the embarrassing appearance of business as usual for an administration that came to power promising “change we can believe in.”
No one is accusing Summers or other senior officials of impropriety. His deep involvement with Wall Street was known at the time of his appointment and the fees were all earned before he accepted a position. But with his highly quantitative approach, assumption the solution to most problems is a market-based one, plus instinctive hostility to most forms of regulation, Summers epitomizes the financial revolution that so visibly failed in 2008. He is a leading exponent of the ancien regime. It is hard to imagine he will really press for significant reform in the months and years ahead.
If the president wants more funding from Congress, and to demonstrate he is serious about changing the way Wall Street works, he needs to broaden his circle of advisers.
The president is not short of advice. But he needs to reach out beyond the tight circle of Summers-Geithner-Rubin-Gensler to consider alternative views, then have the courage to trust his reformist instincts rather than the status quo views of the Wall Street-Washington establishment.