Bankers defend actions in crisis
By JIM KUHNHENN and DANIEL WAGNER
WASHINGTON — Challenged by a skeptical special commission, top Wall Street bankers apologized yesterday for risky behavior that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But they still declared it seemed appropriate at the time.
The bankers — whose companies collectively received more than $100 billion in taxpayer assistance to weather the crisis — offered no regrets for executive pay that is now likely to increase as a result of their survival. They did say they are correcting some compensation practices that could lead to excessive risk-taking.
The tension at the first hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was evident from the outset.
"People are angry," commission Chairman Phil Angelides said. Reports of "record profits and bonuses in the wake of receiving trillions of dollars in government assistance while so many families are struggling to stay afloat has only heightened the sense of confusion," he said.
Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, took the brunt of the questions, especially on his firm's practice of selling mortgage-backed securities and then betting against them.
"I'm just going to be blunt with you," Angelides told him. "It sounds to me a little bit like selling a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer of those cars."
Blankfein replied: "I do think the behavior is improper. We regret the consequence that people have lost money in it." Later, though, he defended the firm's actions as "exercises in risk management."
In a moment of self-analysis, Blankfein said the world of high finance simply rationalized its way into risky transactions. Summarizing the thinking in the industry at the time, he said: "Gosh, the world is getting wealthier. Technology has done things. These businesses are going to do well."
"You talked yourself into a place of complacency," he concluded.
The panel began its yearlong inquiry amid rising public fury over bailouts and bankers' pay. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., said yesterday he will hold a hearing next week on bank compensation, looking to expand legislation that already passed the House.
The bankers said they supported tighter oversight, but warned against going too far. Congress is considering limiting the size of financial companies or breaking up companies whose failure could collapse the financial system.
The commission's vice chairman, former Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said the inquiry would try "to get to the bottom of what happened and explain it in a way that the American people can understand."
Dimon said a crucial blunder was "how we just missed that housing prices don't go up forever." Mack added: "We did eat our cooking and we choked on it."