Throw The Bums Out

Throw The Bums Out

In a sign that the End Times are upon us, I actually agree with a WSJ Opinion column:

“Another Sunday night, another ad hoc bank rescue rooted in no discernible principle. U.S. taxpayers, who invested $25 billion in Citigroup last month, will now pour in another $20 billion in exchange for preferred shares paying an 8% dividend. (…)

What is missing is a statement that at least some American bankers still have the freedom to fail, an essential ingredient if we hope to restore functioning capital markets. Not a single one of Citigroup’s senior managers and directors will be let go as a condition of taxpayer assistance that now totals close to $350 billion. (…)

“Citi never sleeps,” says the bank’s advertising slogan. But its directors apparently do. While CEO Vikram Pandit can argue that many of Citi’s problems were created before he arrived in 2007, most board members have no such excuse. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has served on the Citi board for a decade. For much of that time he was chairman of the executive committee, collecting tens of millions to massage the Beltway crowd, though apparently not for asking tough questions about risk management.

The writers at the Deal Journal blog remind us of one particularly egregious massaging, when Mr. Rubin tried to use political muscle to prop up Enron, a valued Citi client. Mr. Rubin asked a Treasury official to lean on credit-rating agencies to maintain a more positive rating than Enron deserved. What signal will President-elect Barack Obama send if his Administration, populated with Mr. Rubin’s protégés, allows this uberfixer to continue flying hither and yon on the corporate jet while taxpayers foot the bill?

Chairman Sir Win Bischoff has held senior positions at Citi since 2000. Six other directors have served for more than 10 years — including former CIA Director John Deutch, Time Warner Chairman Richard Parsons, foundation executive Franklin Thomas, former AT&T CEO C. Michael Armstrong, Alcoa Chairman Alain Belda, and former Chevron Chairman Kenneth Derr.

When taxpayers are being asked to provide the equivalent of $1,000 each in guarantees on Citi’s dubious investments, how can these men possibly say they deserve to remain on the board?”

I have no idea. The same goes for a lot of senior management. If some particular division of Citi has done well over the past few years, I can see letting the management of that division stay on. But the people who either ran Citi into the ground or were asleep at the wheel need to go. That should be the condition of a bailout: if you turn out to need public assistance, you lose your job. No golden parachutes either.

As I’ve said before: we absolutely need to make sure that the people who run these banks do not conclude from our unwillingness to let them take down the entire financial system that it’s OK to run these risks. The best way I can think of to do that is to make sure that they, personally, pay.

I don’t think I’m saying this out of vengeance. At least, I’m trying not to. I just do not want a system in which private individuals get the rewards of excessive risk-taking and taxpayers pay the price when it all goes wrong; and I do not know how else to avoid one.