Schoolmarm & the three Rs

FederalHall-GovtPhotoPresident Obama commemorated today’s anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing financial panic by going to the Wall Street playground and delivering a schoolmarm’s lecture to the boys who’ve been acting up. (News story here, text of speech here.)

Like many a grammar school teacher, Mr. O lectured all the kids without differentiating much between those who actually misbehaved and those who followed the rules. For example, the president said:

I want everybody here to hear my words: We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess that was at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses. Those on Wall Street cannot resume taking risks without regard for consequences, and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break their fall.

The president retold the brief history of the financial crisis since September ’08. Not delving much into root causes or the cyclical nature of markets, he focused on the misdeeds of Wall Street. He reminded us (twice) that the crisis was already raging when his administration walked in the door. In this lecture, he made it clear that the schoolboys have failed to learn the three R’s.

The first “R” word is risk. And risk, we gathered from the president, is bad. At least, it’s bad when Wall Street fails to properly anticipate or control it – he spoke of risky loans, risky behavior, reckless risk. These may be seen more easily in hindsight, perhaps, but the president definitely wants financial markets to take less risk.

The president also invoked responsibility. We heard the second “R” word 20 times in its various forms. Mostly, he chastised the giants of the financial world for not acting responsibly … and urged them to grow up and embrace responsibility.

Most of all, Mr. O lectured on regulation. He said the financial crisis came about, essentially, because of a lack of adequate regulation from Washington. And he promised the errant schoolboys more regulation – much more – and by the end of this year if he and Vice Principal Barney Frank have anything to say about it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending executives on Wall Street, or elsewhere, who failed to disclose risks to investors, dodged responsibility for their actions, or found ways to exploit loopholes in regulation. The wreckage of shareholder value is producing recriminations – and malefactors deserve what they get, you might say.

Mr. O offered one admonition to corporate leaders that I think is correct:

The reforms I’ve laid out will pass and these changes will become law. But one of the most important ways to rebuild the system stronger than it was before is to rebuild trust stronger than before — and you don’t have to wait for a new law to do that.  You don’t have to wait to use plain language in your dealings with consumers.  You don’t have to wait for legislation to put the 2009 bonuses of your senior executives up for a shareholder vote.  You don’t have to wait for a law to overhaul your pay system so that folks are rewarded for long-term performance instead of short-term gains.

Those are actions CEOs and boards of directors could begin taking, and if they demonstrate responsibility maybe the powers in Washington will feel less need for severity in imposing all manner of new regulation. Maybe.

President Obama had all the rhetoric right today at Federal Hall. His speech, of course, was short on detail and long on generalities. He really was speaking to people outside the financial markets, those who deeply resent the bailouts and bonuses and (especially) both happening at the same banks. The symbolism of going to Wall Street to deliver the lecture was the main point today.

Whether the new rules that the financial markets eventually do get will actually improve things – or merely shift risks into different forms and sectors while stifling the flexibility (and discipline) of the free market – we will see in time.

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