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Clinton: Clear There's No Desire to Nationalize Banks

Former President Bill Clinton discusses what the government should do to help Americans follow standards of energy efficiency, his views on the economy and more with CNBC's Becky Quick. Following is the full transcript:

BECKY QUICK:

Mr. President, we want to thank you again for joining us today.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

I'm glad to do it.

BECKY QUICK:

We appreciate your time. And today we've been talking about energy all day long. The conference that you were just attending upstairs, you were there about two hours longer than anyone expected. What was the most interesting thing you heard?

(Watch the accompanying video for the full interview with former President Bill Clinton...)

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

Well, I stayed longer because we had people there who actually were working on doing things all over America in clean energy and energy efficiency—the U.S. Green Building Council, people that help folks build buildings to very high standards and to cut their utility bills, for example. Wal-Mart, one of the country—companies that's done the most to drastically cut its energy use and improve its profitability as a result. And that's important in a tough time like this.

So anyway, I stayed listening. I think the most important thing that I heard was—maybe what Robert Kennedy, Jr., said when he said that when Al Gore, who was also there—Al Gore and I were in office, we helped create millions of jobs in high technology with the telecommunications law. We set a market that then individuals could take advantage of. And he said we had to do that for energy. And I agree with that.

That's why, you know, I think it's very important to give homeowners and business owners incentives to make their businesses and homes as efficient as possible and let them sell electricity back to the electric company if they can produce more than they need. Or let the electric companies finance these energy efficiency—improvements the same way they finance power plants.

BECKY QUICK:

Right.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

That means that you're not favoring one over the other. That means that no matter how low the price of coal gets or the price of oil or the price of natural gas, it will always be efficient and cost effective to save energy. And it will always create more jobs. So that's what we talked about. It was exciting.

BECKY QUICK:

Is that something that you've seen as we've watched oil prices go from $140 down to below $40?

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

Yes.

BECKY QUICK:

Some of that momentum was lost along the way.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

But I think some of the momentum was lost in the—particularly in the transportation area. They were—their biofuels didn't look as—economical. But we know that oil has to come back because there are more people on Earth and there's not as much new oil being found. And the demand's going up. So I think—I think the most important thing there is that we try to make sure there is an appropriate tax credit for the production of oil substitutes like electric plug-in vehicles, hybrid electric vehicles.

And then we just keep going 'cause we know where it's going in the end. Where it's going in the end is we're gonna have to be more independent, create more jobs in America, and fight climate change and we'll—we'll be less reliant on imported oil. So that's important. But on the electricity, that's mostly from coal and other sources.

And we're getting more and more wind, more and more solar. Today we talked about the barriers to maximizing our production there. And mostly it's in the distribution. A lot of places where the sun shines and the wind blows there aren't many people. So the wires that are existing out there are not powerful enough to carry the electricity back to where the people are. We talked about that some.

BECKY QUICK:

Yeah, Harry Reid was here with us earlier. And he talked a little bit about the transmission lines. Yeah, he's hoping to get that passed in legislation sometime or introduced in the next few weeks.

(Watch the accompanying video for the full interview with former President Bill Clinton...)

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

Yes, I think he will.

BECKY QUICK:

You think he will. Will there be pushback from the opposition on that?

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

Well, I don't know. I mean, I don't know why anybody would be against it. I guess it was the best reason I could think of is that we're doing a lot of things that are very expensive right now. Stimulus package is almost $800 billion. At some point people say we can't afford to spend more money.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

Yes. Well, they have allocated some money already for this distribution system. And it's not enough for a whole new grid in America. So what I would recommend they do is to concentrate the money they have on the area with the greatest potential to produce electricity where it's not being produced today from the wind and the sun. Then prove it's economical. Then private investors will come in and help as the economy picks up.

Clinton on the nation's ballooning deficit...

BECKY QUICK:

You were a very fiscally conservative President. And right now we are talking about spending a lot of money on a lot of different things.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

I know.

BECKY QUICK:

What do you make of that? Does it worry you?

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

Yes, but I think the President was right to propose it. And I'd like to explain why.

BECKY QUICK:

Right.

(Watch the accompanying video for the full interview with former President Bill Clinton...)

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

And I am. I'm very fiscally conservative. You know, we balanced the budget. We ran $600 billion worth of surpluses. I wanted to pay down the debt all the way so that we would be fully able to handle the retirement of the Baby Boom generation. And in general, I believe that, you know, it's a private economy and people should get the government they pay for and not more.

BECKY QUICK:

Right.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

But this is not a normal time. When I came in after a rough economic time, it was obvious what had happened. We had quadrupled the debt of the country in the previous 12 years. And interest rates were too high for the rate of economic activity that we had. So when I announced the plan to slash the deficit, interest rates went down and investment boomed and we had that long economic recovery. President Obama faces a different problem. His problem is the bottom has dropped out of prices, first, for housing then for other assets.

And then if that is made to cause money to dry up and made a lot of our financial institutions not liquid enough to make credit available. So what he has first to do is to put a floor under dropping prices. And the only way you can do that, I believe, is to have aggressive actions to try to slow the rate of home mortgage foreclosures and then to try to restore health to the banks in general, get them back in the lending business.

This stimulus plan is sort of a bridge over troubled waters until that takes effect. But the fact that the President and Congress wanted to invest in some things that would both create jobs and have a long-term positive effect to the American economy through energy and higher productivity, clean energy and higher productivity, is good I think. So it bothers me. But the President's aware of this.

You heard him say yesterday he would still lower the annual deficit of the country in half over the next four years. And what that will do is they should go ahead and spend the money now. Get us through this shocking time. And then when the economy gets a grip and begins to grow again then you will see the same thing team that did this recommend that we be very careful not to let on the backend of this all this accumulated debt 'cause high interest rates are a very undervalued dollar or both.

In other words, they'll manage their way out of it. But the price to be paid here, ironically, if I'm doing this today, would come as the economy comes out of the crisis. But they're very able people and I think they'll manage it. And they have no choice.

BECKY QUICK:

Mr. President, you've said that-- you've given President Barack Obama an A for his early time out. You also said that you wished that maybe he would remind people that we are going to get through it.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

Well, I actually support his decision to tell people how bad it is. And as all of his advisors tell him that the unemployment rate's gonna get higher, I support his decision to tell the American people that. That is, I think one thing the American people really like is if you don't sugarcoat it. I mean, people are living through this. So you don't have to paint a picture that's alien to them. They know what the deal is.

BECKY QUICK:

Right.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

So I strongly support what he has said. But I believe when he speaks to the Congress [next week], for example, he will say that it's bad. It's gonna get worse in the short run. Here's what we're doing. But I have every confidence it's gonna be fine. We're gonna come out of this. That's what I think he will say.

And that's the only point I meant to make. I actually strongly support his decision to lay down all the bad news right now. Tell the American people the truth. They like it when you're telling them this. We all do. But I believe when he speaks Tuesday-- we'll watch. But I believe he'll also say if we do the right things and we keep doing them, we'll be rewarded. That's what I think he'll do. That's what he did so well in the campaign and what I think he'll do again.

Clinton on saving the nation's financial system...

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

I don't think, you know, if you don't get a floor under these assets and also give people some way to get through this, that's what the unemployment benefits, the food stamps, the tax cuts-- the money to state and local governments to prevent more layoffs in schools and healthcare areas and the energy-related jobs, the infrastructure jobs, that's what they're trying to do. It's actually quite a fine bill I think.

BECKY QUICK:

Well, you talked about the stabilization plan. You mentioned mortgages are one place where they happened to put the price controls in or at least for the floor for that. We're still wrangling around with the banks. And that's what has Wall Street so worried at this point. Watching the market down again today.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

Yeah, they apparently believe that if the banks are nationalized they will be worthless and-- to the investor. And, therefore, they're getting out now.

BECKY QUICK:

Right.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

And, of course, by betting against the banks, they make it almost more likely the national government will have to do more. But it's clear that the Treasury Department and the White House don't want to nationalize the banks.

BECKY QUICK:

Right.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

I think what they do wanna do is to, if you will-- nationalize is the wrong word but have the federal government take out of those banks some of the really bad assets and hold them in a federal repository until the economy starts to come up again. Then let them come back on the market. And I think that could be a very good thing.

I think that Sheila Bair at the FDIC has taken over some banks and managed them and then privatized them again. And it may come to that. But the problem is the FDIC is not equipped to do that with the mega banks.

BECKY QUICK:

Right.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

So they're still hoping and I'm hoping with them that they can stabilize these banks with-- some sort of-- asset gathering plan and then finding ways for them to make loans again and get back in the winning business. Gonna be interesting to see. We'll go through a couple of tough weeks here. We'll see how it comes out.

But they'll do whatever they have to do. And then it'll be all right in the end. But it's clearly-- let me just say, as messy as this is, what I like about this is that it is clear that we are not going to do what our friends in Japan did in the 1990s. That is in every year in the '90s the Japanese had a big stimulus program from the government.

And some of those years as a percentage of their income, their stimulus is bigger than the one than President Obama and the Congress made. But they were holding back from trying to fix the banks. These guys have waded into this. They are trying to turn the banking sector around. And since it's fundamentally a private sector economy, that's the right decision.

And I know that investors are now looking and betting on Wall Street based on what form this fix will take. What should be most important to us as Americans is that they're dealing with it and that they are pragmatic and they make it work. Nobody thinks the federal government's gonna be the banker of America over the long run.

BECKY QUICK:

Although you mentioned that what we're seeing on Wall Street right now could almost make this a more likely scenario. Is there a chance that we could get pushed into nationalizing the banks? And would that be Japan all over again?

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

No, it would not.

BECKY QUICK:

It would not?

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

No, it would not because if you look at what the FDIC does, they're not running these banks for the long run, right?

BECKY QUICK:

No.

PRESIDENT CLINTON:

They are moving them. So I don't know. I take the administration at its word. They are doing everything they can to avoid-- having to do a takeover of the very largest banks. They believe that the banks that the FDIC and Sheila Bair, who I think has done a fabulous job, I think she's great.

But the banks they took over were in, you know, they were wrecked, rot, they couldn't be rescued. So I think the administration is trying to create conditions in which the-- no other banks will descend that low. And they won't have to take over any more, particularly the mega banks.

But the point I wanna make to everybody is whatever happens will probably be all right as long as we deal with it this year. That is, I would rather them do what they're doing, which is trying to honestly deal with these banking problems this year and just get through it. 'Cause in the end, we're not gonna have a national banking system. We're gonna have a system we got now. We're gonna have the FDIC and all the backups and the Federal Reserve. And we'll have private banks again. It'll be all right whatever happens, if we'll just go on and deal with it now carefully. And I appears to me that they're doing that.

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