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.