President Obama didn’t exactly look thrilled as he stared at the Polycom speakerphone in front of him. “Well, I appreciate you guys calling in,” he began the meeting at the White House with Wall Street’s top brass on Monday.
He was, of course, referring to the three conspicuously absent attendees who were being piped in by telephone: Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs ; John J. Mack, chairman of Morgan Stanley ; and Richard D. Parsons, chairman of Citigroup .
Their excuse? “Inclement weather,” according to the White House. More precisely, fog delayed flights into Reagan National Airport. (In the “no good deed goes unpunished” category, the absent bankers were at least self-aware enough to try to fly commercial.)
That awkward moment on speakerphone in the White House, for better or worse, spoke volumes about how the balance of power between Wall Street and Washington has shifted again, back in Wall Street’s favor.
Now that Citigroup has given back its bailout money — and Wells Fargo announced late on Monday that it would, too — whatever leverage Washington had over the financial services industry seems to be quickly eroding.
Executive compensation, leverage limits and lending standards were all issues that Washington said it planned to change — and when the taxpayers were the shareholders of these firms, it probably could have done so. But now the White House has been left in the position of extending invitations, rather than exercising its clout. And in the figurative and literal sense, it is getting stood up.
Those who attended the meeting — Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan flew down on a private jet and didn’t take any heat for it — seemed to talk a good game, but even President Obama acknowledged they might have been just toying with him.
“The problem is there’s a big gap between what I’m hearing here in the White House and the activities of lobbyists on behalf of these institutions or associations of which they’re a member up on Capitol Hill,” he said after the discussion.
Are we making too much of this meeting and its grounded attendees?
The meeting was always just going to be political theater. Wall Street bankers were supposed to play their part on the public stage in Washington, and submit to a scolding from the president about bonuses and the need to start lending more to help get the economy moving.
But inevitably public perception will issue its harsh ruling, and it goes something like this: If the meeting were really that important to Mr. Blankfein, Mr. Mack and Mr. Parsons, they would have found a way to get there.
They would have left the night before, or they would have flown out at the crack of dawn, or better yet, taken Amtrak (I called customer service, and the Acela was running only a couple of minutes late).
In fairness, there is little question that they wanted to be there and seemed genuinely disappointed they couldn’t make it. (You could hear it in Mr. Mack and Mr. Blankfein’s voice when they got on the call. “Mr. President, we’re upset we’re not able to be there, but we’re on line with you now,” Mr. Mack said. “It’s certainly not for a lack of effort,” Mr. Blankfein quickly followed up.)
But this missed meeting clearly didn’t help their case.
After all, they sure hoofed it down there last year, when Henry M. Paulson Jr. ordered them to meet him in Washington with less than 24 hours of notice. Most of them got there early, and went home with $10 billion to $25 billion of taxpayer money.
Upon hearing the news Monday morning of the airplane delays, Mark Haines, an anchor at CNBC, went on the air and, in a Howard Beale moment, said what many Americans were probably thinking: “These guys are such little girls! Give me a break. What a bunch of wimps! Thanks for all that taxpayer money ... and, ah, gee, there are delays at the airport!”
But extra effort may have been a lot to ask given the blasting headwinds they were flying into down in Washington.
President Obama’s “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night eviscerating Wall Street laid down the not-so-welcome mat. “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat-cat bankers,” he said.
Inside the Obama administration, there were bruised feelings about the need for a conference call to have a meeting.
“It was pretty nervy,” one staff member told me.
That’s not to say that Mr. Blankfein, Mr. Mack and Mr. Parsons have not been trying to be constructive.
Mr. Mack has been particularly outspoken about the need for serious financial reform on Wall Street. Mr. Parsons, too, has been trying to act as a liaison with Washington and has not pushed back on legislation.
And Mr. Blankfein, who is under perhaps the hottest spotlight, has been saying many of the right things, though he probably can’t say enough of them at the moment.
But as President Obama has said, it is not what those leaders say to him that really matters.
“The way I see it, having recovered with the help of the American government and the American taxpayers, our banks now have a greater obligation to the goal of a wider recovery, a more stable system, and more broadly shared prosperity,” Mr. Obama said.
There’s an expression that many bankers already know, and might want to keep in mind if they are summoned to Washington again. The saying is often trotted out on Wall Street when people need to be reminded of the importance of getting on a plane and seeing a client: “You can’t fax a handshake.”
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