In mid-2009, I went on a search for apologies, from the people who laid the intellectual and regulatory foundations for the financial crisis. I wondered whether and when Larry Summers, in particular, would apologize for what he did at Treasury, and I was heartened when Bill Clinton came out and said that, with hindsight, he was wrong about derivatives regulation.
Then, in 2010, Inside Job came out, and demonstrated the need for the likes of Summers to be asked direct questions about their culpability on the record, on-camera. But Summers refused to be interviewed for that film, despite having known its director, Charles Ferguson, for many years. And when he does sit down for a rare on-the-record video interview, these questions never seem to get asked.
So I was very happy to see that Krishnan Guru-Murthy at least tried to ask Summers these questions earlier this week. Krishnan starts off with standard Summers-interview questions, asking him what he thinks about UK fiscal policy, and Summers gives his standard wise-man answers. But then Krishan gets steadily tougher, asking Summers about the advice he gave the president-elect in 2008, and eventually about his deregulatory tenure at Treasury.
And Summers doesn’t even come close to apologizing, or admitting that he made any kind of mistake at all. Quite the opposite: he starts getting very touchy, telling Krishnan that he’s reducing complex questions to overly simplistic black-and-white narratives. Halfway through the interview, Krishnan asks Summers whether laissez-faire capitalism isn’t working for the middle classes. And Summers pushes back. “I’m a Democrat,” he says, adding that “I’ve long been someone who favored significant interventions to protect the environment.”
“Protect the environment?” responds Krishnan. “Didn’t you advise the president not to sign up to Kyoto?”
“No, no,” replies Summers.
“No. I advised that an agreement be designed in order to protect the American economy, and the United States not take on obligations that would render its businesses uncompetitive.”
Summers never explains how this differs from advice not to sign up to Kyoto, nor does he give an example of any “significant interventions” he pushed for to protect the environment. Because the interview soon moves on to the subject of deregulation, with Summers saying that he “was for moving derivatives to exchanges” — something Krishnan lets stand — and deciding to pick the ground of Glass-Steagal on which to fight, saying that Lehman and Bear Stearns might have survived had they been part of bigger banks.
Well, yes, they might — but then again, they might also have just created another Citigroup, requiring massive bailouts from the government. Personally, I don’t think that repealing Glass-Steagal was in and of itself a major cause of the financial crisis, but Summers goes further, saying that huge financial supermarkets are a good thing (he holds up Canada as a model).
Krishnan continues to push. “Even Bill Clinton says that he was wrong to listen to the wrong advice when it came to derivatives. And that was your advice.” (Has Summers ever been asked questions like this, on camera, by an American reporter?)
Summers responds, again, that “it’s complicated”, and then builds up to attacking Krishnan:
Would it have been better if the whole of the 2010 financial reform legislation had passed in 1999 or 1998 or 1992? Yes, of course it would have been better. But at the time Bill Clinton was president, there essentially were no credit default swaps. So the issue that became a serious problem really wasn’t an issue that was on the horizon If you want to assign responsibility, If you take a market that essentially didn’t exist in the 1990s, that grew for eight years from 2001 to 2008, and then brought on a major collapse, if you were looking to hold people responsible, you would look to officials of the Bush Administration. I’m not going to tell you that I foresaw this crisis in all its dimensions, but without sounding like Newt Gingrich here, for you to read two articles that a researcher handed you and sling this stuff is not really to give your viewers a very clear chance.
Summers is absolutely wrong about credit derivatives not existing in the late 1990s. He was Treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001; Euromoney magazine had splashed the words “Credit Derivatives” all over its front cover in March 1996. And Brooksley Born, between 1996 and 1999, was literally losing sleep over those things as head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Summers’s response to Born? To make sure she was marginalized, and, eventually, pushed out of her job entirely.
And of course it’s a bit rich for Summers to criticize Krishnan for asking uninformed questions (they’re not uninformed at all, actually), when he has steadfastly refused to answer informed questions from the likes of Charles Ferguson.
Eventually, Krishnan attempts another tack. “It’s not to put all the blame on you,” he says. “But you started on a trajectory that was then continued by the Bush Administration.” The reply is a classic:
“No, no, no, no. That is just not credibly correct.”
Krishnan then brings up Inside Job and the issue of the revolving door, which of course Summers took full advantage of with his $5-million-a-year job working one day a week for DE Shaw.
“Inside Job had essentially all its facts wrong,” replies Summers, unbelievably, resorting to an argument based on timing: because he didn’t work in financial services before he was Treasury secretary, and because he waited a few years before taking that job at DE Shaw, Summers says it’s “absurd” to blame the revolving door for any of his actions.
It’s weird that Summers, who loves debate, generally refuses to sit down in some public forum and answer serious, informed questions about the legacy of his tenure at Treasury; it might well be that this single interview is the closest we’ll ever get. And on the basis of this interview, it’s clear that, far from apologizing for his actions, Summers is going Full Bluster, denying any culpability, and choosing instead to violently reject and belittle any suggestion that he holds any responsibility for the crisis at all.Felix Salmon is an Audit contributor. He's also the finance blogger for Reuters; this post can also be found at Reuters.com. Tags: Felix Salmon, Inside Job, Larry Summers, Regulation, Treasury Department