The Secret History of How Banks Assumed Control of the U.S. Economy
With U.S. inequality at its highest point since 1928 and Wall Street bonuses hitting pre-2008 levels, we look at the 100-year history of secret collusion between Washington and the financial industry. In her new book, "All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power," financial journalist Nomi Prins explores how a small number of bankers have played critical roles in shaping a century’s worth of financial, foreign and domestic policy in the United States. Prins examines how these relationships have influenced events from the creation of the Federal Reserve, the response to the Great Depression, and the founding of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Now a senior fellow at Demos, Prins is a former managing director at Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs, and previously an analyst at Lehman Brothers and Chase Manhattan Bank.
AARON MATÃ‰: If you go by the balance sheet, the last four years have been a time of economic growth in the United States. Corporate profits and stock prices have mostly recovered and, in many cases, surpassed their levels from before the financial crisis. On Wall Street, bonuses are now the highest they’ve been since before the 2008 crash. Just last year, payouts increased 15 percent to $26.7 billion. That’s enough money to more than double the pay of every minimum-wage worker in the country. That’s because, for most Americans, the recovery has been elusive. Inequality is now at its highest point since 1928, and the wages for lower-income Americans are stagnant.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we now turn to a new history that explains how this disparity has come to be. In her new book, All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power, financial journalist Nomi Prins traces the hundred-year history of collusion between Washington and Wall Street. Prins reveals how a small number of bankers have played critical roles in shaping a century’s worth of financial, foreign and domestic policy in the United States. These relationships have influenced events from the creation of the Federal Reserve, the response to the Great Depression, and the founding of the IMFand the World Bank.
For a good part of the 20th century, bankers and presidents presided over a financial system that was relatively stable. But as Wall Street grew increasingly outside of Washington’s control, financial speculation has exploded, leading to the financial crisis of 2008. And even though the economy may now be on the mend, Nomi Prins ends her book with a stark warning, writing, "Either we break the alliances, or they will break us."
Nomi Prins is a former managing director at Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs and previously an analyst at Lehman Brothers and Chase Manhattan Bank, now a senior fellow at Demos and author of this new book, All the Presidents’ Bankers.
Nomi, it’s great to have you with us. Talk about the inspiration for the book.
NOMI PRINS: Well, actually, we were on the show a few years ago; I was talking about a novel I had written, a historical novel on the 1929 crash called Black Tuesday. And what had happened as one of the segments in that book was that six bankers had gotten together at the behest of the acting chairman of the Morgan bank, who was Thomas Lamont at the time, and they had so been afraid of losing all of the money and all of their reputations and their institutions at the time that they got together and decided to pool their own money to save the markets—stark difference from what happened more recently, which was that the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and everyone else from the government decided to work with them to save themselves. But the impetus for the book really came from those big six bankers. We still have big six bankers today. And I looked into the relationships that they had with all of the presidents going forward and backward from that time to come up with this All the Presidents’ Bankers analysis.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that. Talk about who they were and the companies they represented, and go back.
NOMI PRINS: Yeah, so, in 1929, the men that sat in the room at Morgan was Tom Lamont, who was the acting chair of Morgan, as I mentioned; Charles Mitchell, who was the chairman of National City Bank, which has now grown into Citigroup; Al Wiggin, who was the head of the Chase Bank, which is now part of the Chase—JPMorgan Chase constellation; and a couple of other bankers. And they basically have morphed into some of the six banks we have today. The ones that were absent were Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, but they came in through other avenues and personal connections to bankers, from FDR and forward since that time.
And what I did was I went backwards from the crash in 1929 and noticed that J.P. Morgan, who is arguably—not even arguably, who is the most powerful banker this country has ever known and the most powerful political, financial actor—he died a hundred years ago, but his legacy, his family and what he created and the constellation of relationships between him and, at the time, Teddy Roosevelt, as far back as 1907, through Jamie Dimon’s relationship with Obama more recently, has been a very apparent apparatus in the connection of politics and finance, which I believe has no separation line.
AARON MATÃ‰: Well, on that absent separation line, talk about the creation of the Federal Reserve.
NOMI PRINS: So, this panic in 1907 happened. Teddy Roosevelt, who historically we know as the great trust buster, didn’t bust banks—busted a lot of other companies, a lot of other industries, not banks. And the reason for that was he truly believed—and he says this in documents and memoirs that I looked through—he truly believed that J.P. Morgan, the man, and his bank and his friends could save New York and the country from a greater catastrophe after the panic of 1907. And J.P. Morgan got together with a bunch of people at the Hotel Manhattan at midnight, didn’t have the president there, didn’t have the treasury secretary there, told them later what they would do. And what they would do is save their friends. And that’s what they did, with some of their own money, little bit of Treasury money, saved their friends, saved the Trust Company of America, because they had interests in that. They decided they didn’t want to really have that kind of scare again, so they continued to push for this idea of a central bank, which was the Federal Reserve.
They had help with a senator, Nelson Aldrich, who was head of the Senate Finance Committee at the time, after—a year or so after that under President Taft. Nelson Aldrich took a group of bankers in 1910 to Jeckyll Island. He almost didn’t make that meeting. He got hit by a trolley car up on Madison Avenue, was convalescing with his son, Winthrop Aldrich, who became the head of Chase later, and took a bunch of representatives from J.P. Morgan’s bank—J.P. Morgan was not there, and that’s power: you don’t go, you send your lieutenants—to Jeckyll Island for 10 days. They hunted. They shot pheasants. They did all sorts of things. But they came out also with the impetus for the Federal Reserve. On the way back, the train back to Washington, Nelson Aldrich had to present this plan. He was still convalescing. Two bankers that came from that meeting went in his place to Washington to put up the plans. Now, it wasn’t passed under Taft; it was passed under the Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson. But a lot of those same individuals were friends with Woodrow Wilson, as well, into his presidency, and in fact helped campaign and raise money for his presidency.
AMY GOODMAN: Go—
NOMI PRINS: And it was—sorry—and the Federal Reserve Act was ultimately passed in the end of 1913 under Wilson.
AMY GOODMAN: What were the most famous—or not as well known, but you uncovered them—bromances between top bankers and presidents?
NOMI PRINS: Right, so this—one of them was Tom Lamont, who, I mentioned, was around in 1929. But he started his life moving up the chain of Morgan after the panic in 1907 in things called the Pujo trials, which were in 1912, which, at the time, looked at what bankers had done to cause the panic of 1907. He was a young lawyer at the time. He had gone to Harvard with FDR. But as a young man, he was also hanging out—living in the house of FDR up on 65th Street, renting it for several years while FDR was the assistant Navy secretary under Woodrow Wilson. They chose Tom Lamont to go with Wilson to France for six weeks. Wilson was in France. It was the longest time a U.S. president was outside of U.S. soil and the first time a U.S. president was outside of U.S. soil. But the banker that was by his side was Tom Lamont. He was a Republican. He went across his party lines to come back with Woodrow Wilson to fight for the League of Nations to try to preserve peace after World War I, which was defeated.
But Tom Lamont and Woodrow Wilson developed this relationship. And their letters are crazy. They’re like—they’re like so full of gratuity and love and just, you know, "thank you for being there by my side, and I couldn’t have done it without you," because when Woodrow Wilson then got a stroke and it was difficult for him to go around the country to, after the war, fight for the League of Nations, which the Senate didn’t want to pass and ultimately did not pass, Tom Lamont took it up in his newspapers that he owned, the Saturday Review, went before—you know, backdoors in terms of the senators that he knew, and really tried to push it. And the two of them really worked very closely together and had this bromance. And, of course, Woodrow Wilson ultimately did die from complications of those strokes.
AARON MATÃ‰: If we look back on the Great Depression, it’s understood that Wall Street was hostile in many ways to the New Deal, but how did Wall Street work with Roosevelt, and why?
NOMI PRINS: So, one of the men, Winthrop Aldrich, who I mentioned before was the son of the founder of the Fed, one of the founders of the Fed, Senator Nelson Aldrich, was also friends with the Roosevelts. He was friends with FDR. And he also knew, from a business perspective, he wanted to outdo the Morgans. So he said, you know, Chase has some trading, some speculation, that went miles wrong in the crash of 1929, and he believed that for the stability of the economy and for his bank going forward, so he could sort of walk and chew gum at the same time—see the public interest as well as his bank’s interest—worked with FDR to pass the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated the speculative activities from the depositors that had their money entrusted to banks at the time, including at Chase. And, actually, Carter Glass, whose name is on that act, wanted a slightly weaker version of the act than Winthrop Aldrich pushed inside of Washington with the alliance of FDR. So that was a very, very different time. You cannot imagine today Jamie Dimon pushing with President Obama to separate his bank in such a way that it decreases its risk to depositors and taxpayers. It’s just unimaginable.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about the relationship today. You have said that the relationships between bankers and presidents, those in power, is more dangerous today. And maybe you can use the example of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon’s relationship. I mean, it’s hard to forget him going before a Senate committee when there are so many questions, even the question of would he be criminally prosecuted, and they are on bended knee to him. And you’re just looking at senators, one by one, and though the TV corporate networks weren’t showing it, you know, the ch-ching, how many millions his bank and him were responsible for giving to these senators, Republican and Democrat.
NOMI PRINS: Well, yeah, and I actually remember being up that 4:30 or so in the morning and all night talking about Jamie Dimon bold-faced lying to those committees and then—yeah, and then turning over and saying, "Well, can you give us advice about the economy?" It was kind of ridiculous. This was after the London Whale trade, after they had lost billions in dollars, in money that should have been separated from speculation, to begin with.
So, the relationship is much more dangerous also because those big six banks today—again, slight derivations of the big six banks in 1929, but today—own 85 percent of deposits of all the commercial banks, 84 percent of assets of all the commercial banks, and control 96 percent of all of the derivatives that financial institutions that are backed by the government utilize today, and 45 percent of the world’s derivatives. Six banks control so much capital and have so much power as to the laws around that capital. And the administration—and this started in Reagan, through Bush, through Clinton, into Obama—this is not new—but the reaction of the administrations has been to allow this to happen, to allow the concentration of this capital, of this power, to do nothing in the face of the financial crisis of 2008, which I believe is still ongoing, just in a different manifestation, because this risk still exists and because these numbers are worse than they were before the crisis of 2008.
AMY GOODMAN: JFK, his relationship with the bankers?
NOMI PRINS: JFK was interesting. Of course, he wasn’t, you know, president for a long time.
AMY GOODMAN: You say he could have been president of a bank.
NOMI PRINS: I think—one of the things I look at in the book is sort of the pedigree and the social stature of a lot of the bankers and presidents, and also their connections. In the case of JFK, for example, he was in London in 1938 because his father, Joe Kennedy, who was the first appointedSEC head under FDR, because they were friends, because he helped with that campaign—met David Rockefeller in London at this gala coming-out party for JFK’s sister Kathleen. And David Rockefeller even briefly dated his sister Kathleen. So there were just so many social ties, as well.
But the other side of JFK is that his personal relationship, despite the social background, was a little more stilted. He just came off as a little more trying to do his own thing. So, even when—and because he had this long-standing relationship with David Rockefeller, they started to really diffuse. Rockefeller started saying disparaging things in public, in particular in this really interesting Lifemagazine article that came out in 1962, that were going against what JFK was trying to do. JFK, for example, in Latin America was trying to allow those countries to be more independent, to not have more private debt imposed upon them, which is what Rockefeller and the other bankers wanted to do at the time as a new source of making money. And this really disturbed Rockefeller, in particular, who was trying to expand the bank into those areas.
So, on the one side, they had a very strong social connection, and on the other side, JFK really tried to go about in a way to make external countries a little bit more independent financially from the United States, whereas that was a point where things started going in separate directions, and Rockefeller and Walter Wriston, who ran National City Bank at the time, really wanted to dump them with debt and to privatize and do all sorts of things that have gotten worse since then.
AARON MATÃ‰: So what happens since the 1970s? You have, at least for the bulk of the 20th century, banks and the government working together. Since the ’70s, though, Wall Street kind of goes rogue. So, what accounts for this shift, and how do we fix it now?
NOMI PRINS: Yeah, so, it’s a little bit—started when they found they could do a foreign policy that was separate from U.S. policy, that was an expansion of banks in a foreign capacity. And then LBJtried to rein some of that back. He had some friends that he basically said, "You know, you guys, I know you want to do your own thing, but I have a Great Society vision coming on board, so you need to back me." So there was a little, still, quid pro quo there.
By the time the ’70s came along, with Nixon, who had less personal relationships and also ultimately took the country off the gold standard, which he did because the bankers pushed him to do it, because at this point they wanted two things. They saw that there was Middle East oil, and they could go in there and start to forge relationships and branches in the Middle East and utilize those petrodollars to recycle—it was a huge thing in the early ’70s—into Latin America and other countries. So they started operating more internationally and independently of their connections to the president.
And the minute they discovered all that money and they dumped all of that debt into the Third World, that manifested in a huge Third World debt crisis in the 1980s. And that was the first very large instance of a bailout. There was a small bailout for Penn Central, which was a railroad constellation in the '70s. But in the ’80s, under Reagan and under Bush, the idea of bailing out the banks, who had now refunneled all of this debt into Latin America, was a very epic decision, and it was one in which the bankers gave nothing back to the government. They were like, "We're going to use your money to bail us out." They were in Washington talking about the catastrophe that would happen to America if that didn’t happen. They got the government to basically push the World Bank and theIMF to work on the areas where they had the most risk and they had the most interest in retrieving it, and then in the ’90s just compiled that with the Mexican peso crisis, where Clinton also worked with Robert Rubin to save Mexican interests for Goldman and other U.S. banks, and then the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999. And then all of this idea of consolidation of risk and power just exponentially grew from there.
AMY GOODMAN: Nomi Prins, you talk about Goldman Sachs and that it wasn’t always as powerful as it is today.
NOMI PRINS: Yeah, Goldman Sachs almost died in 1928. Or, well, basically between 1928 and 1929, they had a trading partnership, "partnership," in which investors invested money, and the stock of that trust went up to $320-something, and then it subsequently went down to $1. And there were a lot of angry investors around the street and so forth. But a man named Sidney Weinberg, who was the chairman of Goldman at the time, who actually joined Goldman in the panic of 1907 as sort of an underling, decided that if he could befriend FDR in such a manner as to help him run his 1932 campaign, he would kind of have a seat at the table. And so, the legitimacy of Goldman with respect to FDR also allowed FDR to create the first Business Council, that Sidney Weinberg pushed in Washington to forge relationships between the business financial community and Washington and so on. Sidney Weinberg also was behind LBJ’s choice of Henry Fowler as a treasury secretary, who then joined Goldman Sachs after being a treasury secretary. And, of course, we had Henry Paulson, who did the other way—Bush picked him to be the treasury secretary, George W. Bush. And then, of course, Clinton picked Robert Rubin, coming from Goldman Sachs, to be the treasury secretary in his administration. So, but it started with Sidney Weinberg and FDR.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Then we’re going to be speaking with the Vermont congressman, Peter Welch. He wants to expose the budgets of the 16 intelligence agencies. When we come back, though, Nomi Prins will talk about her favorite story in the book. She’s the author of the new book, All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’ll be speaking with Vermont Congressmember Peter Welch, but right now we’re continuing with Nomi Prins, the author of All the Presidents’ Bankers. She’s a former managing director at Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs and previously an analyst at Lehman Brothers and other places. But we want to go to a clip right now of President Obama in 2009, 60 Minutes. He lashes out at what he calls the "fat cat bankers" of Wall Street.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of, you know, fat cat bankers on Wall Street. The only ones that are going to be paying out these fat bonuses are the ones that have now paid back that TARP money and aren’t using taxpayer loans.
STEVE KROFT: Do you think that’s why they paid it back so quickly?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think, in some cases, that was a motivation, which I think tells me that the people on Wall Street still don’t get it. They don’t get it. They’re still puzzled: Why is it that people are mad at the banks? Well, let’s see. You know, you guys are drawing down $10-20 million bonuses after America went through the worst economic year that it’s gone through in decades, and you guys caused the problem, and we’ve got 10 percent unemployment—why do you think people might be a little frustrated?
AARON MATÃ‰: That’s President Obama speaking in 2009. I’m wondering if there’s been any break in the symbiotic relationship between Wall Street and Washington that you document. Certainly with Obama’s second term, when he ran against Romney, his donations from Wall Street dropped. It was something like $16 million, went down to $6 million. So, do you see any change of course in this pattern of symbiosis that you trace in your book?
NOMI PRINS: Well, of course, Wall Street was very primary in getting him elected, to begin with. And I think also Wall Street doesn’t really particularly care who is in office, so there was a time during that campaign period where they just believed Romney had a better shot. It wasn’t so much necessarily a negative on Obama. I think they were just playing their bet, and they happened to have lost, which they usually haven’t over the many of elections. Who Wall Street backs tends to be who wins. But sometimes that backing gets a little bit split.
But in that clip, and in a lot of what Obama has said, you know, what is said publicly and what actually happens inside the private office and with respect to what’s going on with bankers, you know, shows up in the reforms. It shows up in the structures. It shows up in the minions of lobbyists and lawyers that continue to funnel money, and little chips away at even very weak but existing rules. And Obama has allowed that to happen. He’s never come out and named a name against a banker. He talks about Wall Street "fat cats" as some sort of like big, broad category. He has not named names. He has not said what Wall Street needs to done. It’s just sort of fluffy rhetoric.
AMY GOODMAN: Would he even say what he said in 2009, talking about the fat cat bankers, today?
NOMI PRINS: No. You know why? Because he believes—or he says—I shouldn’t say "believes," I don’t know—but that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act was somehow sweeping reform, and he characterizes it as being relative to FDR’s reform when he did the Glass-Steagall Act and the New Deal and created the SEC and all sorts of things. And it simply wasn’t. As I mentioned before, banks got bigger. Their concentration of our deposits and assets and risk got bigger. Nothing was fixed by that, quote, "reform" act. And so, he would—he doesn’t need to say that now. He said it kind of in the beginning to consolidate his base, to get elected, whatever it was. But many presidents—and, actually, Democrats are a little bit more guilty of this than Republicans, because I think they feel they need to do this—from Wilson on, have always bashed the bankers in their campaign speeches, and then when it comes right down to it, most of them have been very helpful and very symbiotic with them after they have been in office. So it tends to get said to the public, and then when you look at what actually occurred, it’s a completely different matter, because they are connected.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nomi Prins, we want to thank you for being with us. All the Presidents’ Bankers is her book, The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power. You can read an excerpt of that book on our website at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron MatÃ©.