Nomi Prins: The Sinister Evolution Of Our Modern Banking System
I quit Wall Street and decided that it was time to talk more about what was going on inside it, as it had changed. It had become far more sinister and far more dangerous.~ Nomi Prins
Today, the 'revolving door' connecting our political and financial systems is evident to anyone with eyes. But this entwined relationship between Washington DC and Wall Street is nothing new, predating even the formation of the Federal Reserve.
To chronicle the evolution to where we find ourselves today, we welcome Nomi Prins, Wall Street veteran turned financial industry reformist, and author of the excellent expose All The Presidents Bankers.
In this well-detailed interview, Nomi goes into depth of the rationale and process behind the creation of the Federal Reserve, and more important, how its mandate -- and the behavior of the banking system overall -- metastasized into the every-banker-for-himself regime of sanctioned theft we now live with.
Chris Martenson: To me, it couldn’t have been more obviously obscene then in 2010, and I believe maybe 2009, right after the big banks had been handed just vast, huge, very favorable handouts and bailouts during the Great Recession -- and then they handed themselves record bonuses. I thought optically that was just horrible. As somebody who was inside the banking system: Are they that tone deaf? What’s behind that sort of behavior?
Nomi Prins: Indeed, they have become very isolated.
It began with the period before the 1970s when different people were rising to leadership in banks, and worsened in the 80s when we started seeing people who had more sociopathic tendencies or less ability to appreciate the idea of the public's economic stability being beneficial to growing their institutions. They no longer viewed it as necessary.
And with the advent of the larger futures market, the options market, the derivatives market, and all the off-shore elements of banking that were able to be developed, so much capital was now available and off of the books that the idea of maintaining some sort of a connection to stability policy -- or even to whatever the Presidency might want -- dissolved. At the same time, all the Presidents that were involved in running the country around that time didn’t ask or require accountability towards financial stability from them.
So there was a bunch of things that were happening at the same time, and that’s why the media does a poor job of critiquing this because they’re not looking at all the strands. None of this is simple. A lot of things happened at the same time to create these kinds of shifts. On the one hand, you have no restraint: you don’t have the Gold Standard anymore, so you have less of a strain on having something physical be reserved against your leverage. You now have this ability of petrodollars being recycled. You have the ability to leverage more debt. You have less humility. You have a more technologically-advanced, less transparent global financial system, so you can make and hide money easier. And then you have ascendancies of leadership in banks and in the government that are OK with all this, and allow it to fester.
It's all defended as some sort of example of a free market and competition -- "the best gets the best", and so forth -- when the reality is it just destabilizes the entire system and creates an artificiality. We see central banks supporting all of this mess, as opposed to figuring out what the exit policy is -- which none of them have a clue about. That’s really where we’ve evolved to.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Nomi Prins (52m:45s)
Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity Podcast. I am your host Chris Martenson. You know it’s been six, I guess going on seven years now since the Great Crash of 2008 and according to the cheerful headlines we are well on the way to recovery. Auto sales are booming, house sales are reasonable and employment is back above its pre-recessionary levels. But if we dig deeper we note that everything that was either the cause of or which exasperated the Great Recession remain with us today. For instance, too-big-to-fail and even to-big-to-jail banks are even bigger. Sovereign debts are higher. In many cases startlingly so. Derivatives are a hundred trillion dollars higher than they were in 2007. Income and wealth inequality are vastly higher today than six years ago. So in short, everything that should have gotten smaller actually got bigger. Now, to students of the so called modern system of banking, which actually began some hundred years ago with the birth of the Federal Reserve, none of this is really surprising. While peddled as the best system for creating wealth fairly and equitably, modern banking is nothing of the sort. It’s actually a system for concentrating power and wealth while providing passable air cover for the idea that it’s doing something more equitable and noble than that.
As I often say, to know where you’re going you have to at least know where you are, and in order to understand where you are you have to know where you came from. Today we have a very special guest to help us figure all of that out. With us today is Nomi Prins, a renowned journalist, author and speaker. And her latest book, a must read, is All the President’s Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power. This is a ground breaking narrative about the relationships of president’s to key bankers over the past century and how they impacted domestic and foreign policy. Her other books include a historical novel about the 1929 crash, Black Tuesday, and the hard hitting expose It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bonuses Bailout’s and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street. Welcome Nomi.
Nomi Prins: Thank you so much. I’m really thrilled to be on Chris.
Chris Martenson: Oh it’s such a pleasure to have you. So let’s begin with your origin story. Tell us about your time on Wall Street, you know, where you worked and what you learned.
Nomi Prins: Well I started off actually at the Chase Manhattan Bank around the time of the Flash Crash of1987 so quite a ways back as a very junior analyst with a math background. Then I went on to Lehman Brothers, which no longer exists, working on futures and options and sort of the nascent aspects of those and foreign exchange and then on went on to Bear Stearns in London where I built the analytics group there in London and focused a lot on sort of nascent credit products that ultimately became part of what we know as credit default swaps and CDO’s and all the sort of esoteric and combination toxic assets that were the heart of the most financial crash.
Then I went on to Goldman Sachs before I quit Wall Street and decided that it was time to really talk more about what was going on inside it as it had changed, as it had become just not different but far more sinister and far more dangerous. Then I went on to write my first book after I left Goldman, Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America but it was really about the banking relationships that had propelled the frauds of Enron and WorldCom and all the deregulation meetings and such that had gone on from the heads of some of the places that I had been at with the more elite people in Washington that were in charge of those forms of legislation. And I’ve just been doing that really since, well for about 12-13 years now.
Chris Martenson: That’s about the same amount of time I checked out of corporate the world and decided I needed to do something different. But it’s fair to say then that you were in the belly of the beast, you saw it up close and personal and was it your sense there that it was just doing what it had always done or that is was somehow morphing into something different under your careful gaze?
Nomi Prins: It definitely morphed while I was in it and then, of course, stepping outside I see how historically a lot of what I saw had been there before just in sort of different ways. But while I was there really became a much more aggressive stance towards not necessarily aligning with clients but really trying to screw them. I mean that was really, maybe not what was said or sometimes it was said but, you know, the idea was to just find ways to create more and more complex products because they had more and more fees attached to them, you know, combining an insurance product with a credit product with a foreign exchange aspect with an interest rate, had all these things added on fees, they added on structure, they added on complexity and they added on risk to ultimately whoever was involved on the other side and there was just much more of that and much more of a frenzied push towards more of that than simply, you know, looking at, you know, saying helping a central bank balance it’s portfolio by virtue of certain more slightly spreadier, slightly risky assets but actually looking at the up and down sides analytically, which was my job, of what those could entail. It became much more sort of create something complex, dump it in, explain it a little bit but not too much and then just kind of leave the table and have that risk off of the bank's books, off of my company's books but on to the risk of whoever was purchasing it. And that just became worse and worse after I left.
Chris Martenson: You know it was I guess the Wolf of Wall Street to take it down to the retail level. That movie displayed that Wall Street from that perspective is the way that story was told. Not so much about helping clients allocate or distribute or accumulate capital; it was about Wall Street harvesting capital from clients as in the vernacular of today, Muppets, as it were, to pick on one of your former employers there. So that’s always sort of been part of the game. But you’re saying that with advent of these more sophisticated products that Alan Greenspan said, "oh derivatives, they basically helped us launch risk into outer space, never to be seen again," it didn’t really do that is what you’re saying.
Nomi Prins: Every time there was a product or there is a product that has more complexity to it, has less transparency to it, has more documentation that says nothing attached to it, there is more profit to be made right when it goes out the door. Because what happens—and it happens more and more with those types of products, whether it’s just a simple credit default swap and sort of unregulated contract between two parties to multiple layers of those connected to multiple assets and so forth—however it is that sort of manifests, there’s money to be made at every step along the way by whoever got it out the door first, which is the banking institution. And there’s no accountability—and there never really was, historically. There’s no real accountability for what happens after that, especially when liquidity as recently as in when crashes happen or when credit becomes tight and when liquidity dies, every complex product is more risky to the buyers than they were to the creators and the sellers and that’s really what we’ve seen recently. It’s increased in that sort of risk relationship and that last relationship as complexity has increased. So that’s really what’s been happening. And as you said in the opening, to the extent to which there are more derivatives, there is more of a concentration of capital in fewer hands, and again that’s historical. There’s always been a concentration of capital at the largest, most politically connected institutions. But the more concentrated it is, the more dangerous the risk that it imposes to the rest of society, to the markets, to finance, to economics, it imposes. And that’s where we are now. We’re at higher concentration than ever before of capital, therefore, of risk, and there’s not opposing side on any political party or any sort of central bank initiative to do something about that, to look at this systemic problem that sheer concentration indicates. Again, not new; just bigger now.
Chris Martenson: So I want to turn back to that but first I want to help set the stage by really understanding how we got here and this is the part that I just—I love those parts I’ve read in your book about how the Federal Reserve was really formed and how it got there. So let’s turn to that origin story of the Federal Reserve. Take us all the way back. Who formed it and why?
Nomi Prins: There was a panic in 1907 for the same reasons we have panics and crashes since then. There was a set of manipulators in the copper shares, in copper stock, and then there was a set of leveragers or financiers on the other side and basically the copper speculators got hosed. Their game didn’t work, the confidence in their related institutions went down and there were runs on deposits at those institutions, which was going to create a bigger problem, in particular—and this is where the president-banker relationship comes into play for Theodore Roosevelt who had now been in office, he had trust busted, lots of different types of trusts, not banks, not what were called "money trusts" of which one of the main, actually of all time financier was J.P. Morgan. J.P. Morgan was summoned, effectively, you know, not to Washington but he tended to travel less and be communicated with more by Theodore Roosevelt and his treasury secretary to help to secure stability in this potentially rising panic. In the first or one of the largest cases, not the first case of the bailout of the Treasury Department on behalf of the financial community the Treasury Department allocated twenty five million dollars to J.P. Morgan to do with what he wanted to to stabilize the situation. So this is, again, Theodore Roosevelt, big trust buster, trusting J.P. Morgan with the government’s money to stabilize a speculator related panic.
J.P. Morgan, what he did was he took the twenty five million dollars and he put it into Trust Company of America, which was not the company at the core of the panic but it was a company in which he had interests and which his friends had interests and used some of their money as well to stabilize it. Ultimately the situation of panic was stabilized, The New York Times called J.P. Morgan sort of a King amongst humans and things looked sort of good on the outside. On the inside this worried the bankers. What worried them was not having liquidity sources, money sources, capital sources in these panics.
So there was another fellow in Washington who was the head of the Senate Finance Committee, it was called something else at the time, basically the Senate Finance Committee, Nelson Aldrich, who was a senator from Rhode Island who sort of felt this same way and had a lot of attachments and personal relationships with Morgan and other bankers on Wall Street and basically decided to put in place a United States Central Bank that would be able to capitalize institutions in panic. So J.P. Morgan wouldn’t have to call his friends up and tell them to sell their shares and stabilize other companies, it would just happen through this sort of Federal Government somehow. That was how it ultimately was seeded.
It had been talked about a for a while. Under William Taft, William Taft was the president after Teddy Roosevelt, he was a friend of Nelson Aldrich’s, he was very much a part of society and so forth. He was very much for this idea and Nelson Aldrich really had a two year commission to go to Europe supposedly to study, well he did. He went to New York with Vanderlip, Frank Vanderlip, who was one of National City Bank's senior officers and James Stillman, who was also a senior runner of National City Bank, to decide what was going on in Europe. He came back, he said "you know what, we need to do something similar, we need it more private," he didn’t say it like that, those weren’t his words but that was what happened. It took a couple of years of battering back and forth in Washington because there was a little bit of a public tide against this idea of what could be too much concentration in the hands of these private bankers. However, ultimately the meeting at Jeckyll Island, which happened in 1910, was a place where Nelson Aldrich and five other bankers, actually his assistant treasury secretary and four other bankers, all of whom are associated with J.P. Morgan because you had to have a member of Jeckyll Island sponsor any meeting. You could not get on and off that island, that resort, which was a very elite resort, unless you were sponsored. So basically he sponsored them and they came there, they met, they had Thanksgiving pheasants and all sorts of other things and meals while they were and they sort of hashed out this idea.
On the way back from Jeckyll Island Nelson Aldrich, who had prior to this been hit by a trolley care on Madison Avenue while he was meeting with some bankers before this meeting took place, fell ill and the two men that actually brought the policy into—that became the Federal Reserve—into Washington that presented it internally were two of the bankers that had been at that meeting. So Frank Vanderlip was one of the people, he also had been an eloquent writer, he was one of the people who presented it in Washington. So not only was this created by sort of a senator and a bunch of bankers at the bequest of a banker, it was presented initially as such. It didn’t get passed then. The Federal Reserve didn’t get created until a few years later under Woodrow Wilson, the democratic president. But he also—and I talk about this in the book—had very strong personal ties to the Morgan family and to Vanderlip, who had been a close associate of his while Wilson was running Princeton University and helped fund things at Princeton and so forth. There’s a lot of relationships there.
So ultimately the Federal Reserve Act did pass under Woodrow Wilson but it was something that was very much kicked about on both parties and with the banking community, the senior elite members of the banking community, before it was passed. That was the premise. I mean the idea was it would give liquidity to the system. That’s really what its opening preamble says. Somewhere deeper this idea that providing full employment and so forth came into play, but not at the time and not as it was originally structured.
Chris Martenson: You know my grandfather actually served under Volcker at the New York Federal Reserve for a while. He was a regional banker out of Upstate New York and I don’t think he would recognize the Federal Reserve today even from, you know, 1973 when he served on to today. There’s been an enormous shift. What you’re describing is originally the idea was that the bankers were scared of the fact that from time to time these panics would come and potentially wipe them out and if they had a central liquidity source then they would have the opportunity to tap that and use that in times of emergency. So it sounds like it started as sort of an emergency slush fund simply there to manage the liquidity in the system, most notably during times of panic. As I understand how it was originally formed, there was a thing called a discount window, which was a physical, literal window and bankers would bring their collateral over to that window in the form of physical paper bonds and there would be an exchange at that spot, and it’s morphed into something very different. But if we take it all the way back it sounds like powerful and well connected people set up for themselves a government sponsored cartel that really was there to help protect their interests first and foremost. Is that roughly right?
Nomi Prins: Well it was—also the people that were ultimately appointed to run the Federal Reserve and also, it has 12 branches, but the most power branch of it, which was the New York Federal Reserve, which is located in Wall Street and which was sort of the hub of Wall Street’s components of the Federal Reserve System, were effectively run by people who were also associated with this entire elite group. What happened was that the other reason—and it happened to have occurred around the same time is after the Federal Reserve was established for this purpose of providing liquidity and mostly to the people who could control it. The largest member banks who were the most elite individuals who had the strongest relationships, I mean they did control where this capital went. So even though Woodrow Wilson actually campaigned in 1912 about how before it happened that we needed a bank that could help credit for the rest of the country, for farmers and so forth so that they could overcome panics when they occurred. None of that was really how the funds left the Federal Reserve. They still left and they still do leave proportionality to the largest, most powerful institutions. That part hasn’t changed.
The other thing that happened though was that World War I happened. So right at the beginning of this institution being created there was this sort of American idea that was larger than liquidity, or connected to liquidity, the bankers or the largest bankers and which had to do with strengthening the currency. The dollar of the United States relative to these other currencies in Europe. That ultimately wound up happening. So the Federal Reserve, because it could present emergency money to these individuals and because the people on the board of the Federal Reserve were connected to the banks, the largest banks that were associated with it, they did work tougher. So Jack Morgan for example, who was the son of J.P. Morgan—J.P. Morgan died before the Federal Reserve was actually established. But his son Jack Morgan who took over the Morgan Bank was involved in war financing both because the Morgan Bank was so pre-eminent from a relationship standpoint because of how much money it had, how connected they were to the allies ultimately in Europe and to Woodrow Wilson that Jack Morgan had several meetings with Woodrow Wilson about financing the war and how sort of this private and government connection would happen and the Federal Reserve was a key component of that because if the private banks were going to extend financing to the United States and to it’s allies in the time of a war having this backup, you know, took on another level of importance and it actually helped propel U.S. banks into a pre-eminent position globally as the war went on and in reparations afterward in terms of lending to the European nations.
Chris Martenson: You know it strikes me that today there would be almost no opposition that you can really find to the Federal Reserve, you know, some minor calls for it to be audited here and there mostly from people with last names of Paul but if we look back there was actually considerable opposition at the time. There were a number of very outspoken critics to this idea of establishing a Federal Reserve at all and I thought some very well made arguments, both directions. One thing that always stood out to me though is that when I look at when the Federal Reserve Act was passed in 1913, if I’m correct that was on December 23rd wasn’t it?
Nomi Prins: Right it was right around Christmas when it was quite quiet.
Chris Martenson: How many people—so in 1913 it probably wasn’t all that easy to get home for Christmas if you were a senator or a congressman from Iowa say or some place further west. Did they put it up for a vote at a really quiet time because that was one of their best chances? Was that an act of politicking there?
Nomi Prins: They put it up in a quiet time mostly not because it was the best chance to be passed because at that point there actually was buy-in across parties and Woodrow Wilson was very much behind it. He had been the one to make a concession to have a stronger New York Federal Reserve because there were opponents, and they were mostly from the states that thought they would get shafted relative to the Wall Street bankers. So the farming states, the more westward states who were concerned about how the balance of capital power would continue—it had already been, but to shift to the east coast, this New York-Washington alliance. They were the opponents but for the most part there was buy-in on both sides. The element of secrecy that we hear about because of the public and so forth to a large extent that was more of the reason it was put to a vote around December. That’s when Glass–Steagall, which was—we’ll get on to that, but a lot of votes in Washington have been put to pass right before the holidays even since then, regardless of the fact that now travel has gotten simpler. So some of it was also to keep the public away from it and that way, again, Wilson could afterwards campaign, which he did, about how he had created this Federal Reserve to help the public to, again, provide credit to the farming states and so forth in times of trouble. I mean that was how he spun it even though in his conversations and the letters he had with Carter Glass who was the treasury secretary at the time and so forth, he was very a proponent of saying externally that it’s bad to have this concentration of power on Wall Street but in fact, creating this work-around, the New York Fed, to ensure that there would be a balance of power on Wall Street. There’s lots going on behind the scenes there.
Chris Martenson: Fascinating. Now I want to talk to you about this idea then—here’s how I look at it: Apparently one part of the entire banking game as it stood up right now is to privatize the profits, socialize the losses. That means the bankers take home fat bonuses when their risky bets pay off but hand the taxpayers the bill when things go bad. It’s sort of a heads they win tales we lose policy. Talk to us about that and how the creation of the Federal Reserve did or did not enable that.
Nomi Prins: Well in the beginning even though that idea, that policy existed of having the potential to have liquidity when losses were going to grow on the books of the largest banks by virtue of having a Federal Reserve, that existed from the moment the Federal Reserve was created. In the wake, for example, of the 1929 crash one of the things that Wilson explicitly, as I was mentioning just campaigned about didn’t happen, which was that the New York Banks closed ranks on the funding they had on the capital they had in this time of crisis, which they’ve done recently, which banks do. You know the more capital you have the more of a crisis is around it you kind of close it, you hoard it and that happened in the wake of the Crash of 1929 is that even though there was a Fed which was supposedly created to help credit throughout the country, it didn’t. New York Banks basically sat on credit and had easier access to it through the Federal Reserve than did a lot of the other interests in the United States and that’s why thousands of banks closed. That’s why thousands of smaller banks closed. That’s why thousands of smaller banks just closed, more like hundreds, but close to thousands of banks closed more recently as smaller banks because they don’t have the access to capital that larger banks do. So that’s, again, been pretty common it’s just more to the extent where today the Federal Reserve has four and half trillion dollars on it’s books basically supporting the financial system in particular the largest institutions which happen to be most connected to the four and half trillion dollars worth of assets that they have backed on their books. So that’s one thing that’s going on now.
But in the middle of all of that there was a period where things were a bit more stable after World War II when there had been a lot of financing of a second round of reparation with respect to the war by a lot of the same banks that had done that in World War I but a few more add ons. After that there was a period where the Federal Reserve didn’t really step in as much. There was more stability and there was more of a policy of prudence on behalf of the banks because after the Great Depression and into World War II, two of the leaders of the largest banks on Wall Street, a man named Winthrop Aldrich who was running Chase and James Perkins and other people who came in to run National City Bank, they didn’t leverage their money. They didn’t leverage their capital even though there was this Federal Reserve, even though they had the capacity to find it from somewhere in an emergency. They just managed better and they were more a part of the war effort and they were more a part of this sort of more stable growth of the country and so they didn’t, lend or borrow to lend beyond the capital they had, beyond the means they had and this created a lot of stability.
That changed really in the 70’s when a number of things happened, you know, new bankers came in to run these institutions or rose within them who had less of an infinity towards prudence or the public good or public stability. The gold standard was abandoned, as well as larger banks found money or found they could access capital and not just through the Fed but through petrodollars through basically recycling profits that were made in the Middle East into debt that was dumped into Latin America so the game became different on an international basis and more access to capital became available. Plus there was no gold standard to sort of create an extra reserve restraint on the banking system or on the currency and so things got a little more out of whack. But that’s why in the 80’s we had the Latin American debt crisis, which then also invited a large bail out of the institutions that had lent money into Latin America. Same thing with the 1994 Mexican Peso Crisis, there was a bailout that was orchestrated by new treasury secretary, former Goldman Co-Ceo Robert Rubin under Clinton, you know and so forth into the most recent epic case of what is now going on to ten to eleven trillion dollars subsidization of the global financial system mostly for the largest U.S. and global banks. So all of that has just ratcheted up many notches over the years but that’s basically what we’ve evolved to.
Chris Martenson: This is something that obviously a lot of our listeners, but I think most anybody is aware of and I think is presented poorly in the press. It’s not well characterized for what it is. To me it couldn’t have been more obviously obscene than in 2010 and I believe maybe 2009 but 2010. This was right after the Great Recession, the big banks had been handed just vast, huge, very favorable handouts and bailouts and things like that and then they handed themselves record bonuses. I thought optically that was just horrible. As somebody who was inside the banking system, are they that tone deaf or they just know that you have to make hay while the sun shines; what’s behind that sort of behavior?
Nomi Prins: They are very isolated and again this period before 70’s when more capital is found and different people were rising to leadership in banks and in other corporations and then in the 80’s and so forth when a combination of those types of people who had more sort of sociopathic tendencies or less ability to sort of balance this idea of the public economic stability being beneficial to growing their institutions and realize that that wasn’t necessary. You know, with the advent of the larger futures market, the options market, the derivatives market, all the off-shore elements of banking that were able to be developed, so much capital was around and off of the books that this idea of maintaining some sort of a connection to stability policy or even to whatever presidency might want dissolved. At the same time all the presidents that were involved in running the country around that time also didn’t ask or require accountability towards financial stability of these leaders. So there was a bunch of things that were happening at the same time and that’s why the media does a poor job of this like you’re saying Chris because they’re not looking at all the strands. I mean none of this is simple.
A lot of things happen at the same time to create these kinds of shifts. So again, on the one hand you have no restraint, you know, you don’t have the gold standard so you have less restraint on having something physical be reserved against your leverage. You also have, again, this ability of petrodollars being recycled. You have the ability to leverage more debt. You have less humility. You have a more technologically advanced, less transparent, global financial system so you can make and hide money easier. And then you have ascendancies and leadership in banks and in the government that are okay with all that and that allow it to fester as sort of some sort of example of, you know, a free market, you know, competition, you know, "the best gets the best" and so forth, when the reality is it really just destabilizes the entire system and it creates an artificiality, which we see today in the system, which was that then you’ll have central banks supporting all of this mess as opposed to figuring out what the exit policy is, which none of them have a clue about. Again, that’s really where we’ve evolved to. You add that together and that’s why you can see record bonuses being paid.
I’ll give you an example—there’s so many examples in the book, but you’re back in the 50’s for example—and this is about money and about taxation and this idea of where it comes in. There are bankers at the time that worked, for example, at Morgan who were on senior committees, who would have side conversations with President Eisenhower, and I have these letters, I talk about them in the book, where they say, "you know what, it would be better, for example, for us to say pay more taxes and for the population—" and these are like rich, you know, mega rich, wealthy, family connected bankers, you know— "because that would be better for the general public because more money in the pockets of the working person..." you know, this sounds like Marxist stuff but was coming from senior bankers who could just see that the idea of moving wealth, moving capital through a larger swath of individuals of the population of they system could actually also benefit them. So that mentality doesn’t exist at all either.
So a lot of things are happening and sort of evolving around the same times across the decades to give us the situation where we have now. The ratio between salaries in the 50’s of a chairman of Chase Bank, of John McCloy who was not only a chairman of Chase but he was the President of The World Bank, he was involved with many presidents and so forth—his relationship of what he made to what people who worked at the bank made was very, very tight, and we don’t have that anymore either. It would have embarrassed him. And he was a very powerful man, you know, very much mixed with the elite, directed a lot of policy in the country and foreignly. It just wouldn’t have made sense to him to have such a differentiation of pay and compensation. So again, those mentalities have changed as well.
Chris Martenson: Well I’ll tell, you know, in a headline that caught my eye this week, which I’m sure you might have run across as well. It came in The Guardian, and it says: "As Inequality Soars The Nervous Super Rich Are Already Planning Their Escapes." So you’re describing a series of statements and letters in the 50’s where people were openly saying "hey, it doesn’t make sense for me to be taking more than my fair share because, you know, our stability, our general welfare is actually really important to all of us." And now the mentality seems to be "listen, I’m going to grab as much as I can and if this stuff gets really bad I’m just going to skedaddle."
Nomi Prins: Right.
Chris Martenson: There’s a very different sense of responsibility towards, and being a participant in, society. It’s almost like there’s two societies. There’s me and my rich friends and then there’s those people and if I have to escape from them I’ll get in my jet and I’m out of here. That was a really striking headline I thought.
Nomi Prins: No definitely and again there’s always been, you know, particularly our country that there has been this differentiation between the very elite and the guys how hung out at Jeckyll Island and went there for two months with their families and the holidays between, you know, sort of pre-Christmas, post-New Year’s and so forth and talked about events of the day and all of that, they were definitely, definitely apart from the rest of society. There was no doubt. They were rich, they were powerful, they considered themselves different. They had a ratio at the Jeckyll Island club of something like eight servants to each one person. All of that stuff existed. And their period that ultimately led to the crash in 1929, saw an increase of that inequality and then, again, we saw stability for a while and a decrease of the inequality and growth, and growth of those companies and so forth.
Another example is Winthrop Aldrich, who I’ve mentioned who was very much about balancing the public good with being a tremendous capitalist. He was a republican, a capitalist, you know, all the things that—he came into a rich family, married into the Rockefellers and so forth. I mean he was definitely on the cusp of American power but he was also prudent. And so yes, again, there was a separation then of what we call now the top one percent or whatever the top half of one percent versus everybody else but there also came into leadership roles individuals who got that you could balance both. You could stay really, really rich and really, really separate and you could still think that balancing that with more public interest and good and works and so forth was useful to you and to, you know, having sort of spirit of a greater society and all of that.
We don’t have that now and part of it’s because—all the types of securities, the types of financial instruments, the ways to hide it, the ways to grow it, all of that has just gained. It’s accelerated in terms of how it’s used to create wealth and to hide wealth. And those are elements of wealth that are not available and it would be dangerous. They’re dangerous with people that create them that they’d be unavailable to most of the rest of society. And so there’s this other avenue that’s grown to separate the people who control it, the people who basically control capital versus the ones who controlled capital. Some of which are in the same families, you know, throughout all of these decades but there’s a difference in how they care about the rest of society and that’s where it becomes dangerous.
Even back then, even when J.P. Morgan sort of pushed for the creation of the Federal Reserve to create liquidity for the larger banks, even back then the idea of using so much of it, you know, of counting on so many trillions of dollars to stabilize their institutions would have been sort of unacceptable to them. And certainly in the 40’s through the early part of the 70’s the people running institutions wouldn’t have accepted—they wouldn’t have even thought it was imaginable to receive so much help from federal policy, from the Federal Reserve and so forth to sustain themselves. You know that all just started happening, again, from the sort of mid-70’s and accelerating up towards now. So yeah, if it’s so easy to get and so easy to have your losses protected, you know, as you said it’s so easy to socialize the losses and privatize the gains. The idea of exiting with them just seems logical and not really caring about what happens. And that’s really—it’s easier to get, it’s easier to maintain and it’s easier to escape with. So yes that’s another very dangerous element of the system in which we live now.
Chris Martenson: I want to talk about that dangerous part because this goes way back. One of my favorite Plutarch quotes, he of many, many centuries ago, of thousands of years ago, he said "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics." You mentioned that there was extraordinary concentration of power and money and wealth and all of that that came up in the 1920’s and then oops we had this little hiccup and call it the Great Depression, again, we’re back at sort of that apex of concentration. People are trying to say this time it’s different. You’re arguing it’s not different that this concentration—you would agree with Plutarch that that gap between rich and poor is a destabilizing force, not a stabilizing force, and you’re saying that bankers once upon a time got that. I think my grandfather was part of that cohort of bankers, right? They served a valuable function, they earned a modest share of profits. When my grandfather was a banker I think four percent of all profits and flows of the country went to the financial sector. Today that’s probably an order of magnitude off.
Nomi Prins: Right.
Chris Martenson: So once that game gets started now it’s interesting that we have this one dynamic of this increasing concentration of power and complexity in all of that but that’s all within the sphere of this E we call the economy at Peak Prosperity. We believe that the pie isn’t growing like it used to and it can’t on per capita basis because the resources just don’t exist. So the game is fundamentally changed but the old guard who are maintaining the game just want to keep doing what we used to do, which we don’t think we can do, fundamentally, because—here’s just economically what we were doing. Starting in early 1980’s under Regan the nation as a whole, not to pick on the government or any political party but the whole country started accumulating debt at twice the rate that our economy was growing and we call that normal and that broke in 2008 and instead of saying "hey, maybe that was a bad idea, trying to borrow at twice the rate our income is growing," that’s sort of a math problem that we were running into, the Federal Reserve and all of it’s guardians had decided that we’re going to do whatever it takes to, and I’m quoting here, "repair the credit markets," which was a wink to the idea that we’re just going to keep doing what we used to do.
From your time in the belly of the beast, here’s my biggest concern is that clearly something is very wrong with both the larger narrative and the smaller parts of this story and I’m worried that the people who are running the ship aren’t aware of that.
Nomi Prins: Yeah again, it depends on what element of the ship. I think running, if you're Jamie Dimon, you may or may not be aware of it but you don’t care, or you don’t need to care I should say I don’t, whatever’s going…
Chris Martenson: Right.
Nomi Prins: …on there personally but you don’t need to care because again, you’ve just amassed, you’ve just become the largest bank in the United States from an assets to positive perspective, you’ve grown your capital base, you have four times the amount of cash you had on your books as you had before, you know, all of these elements are occurring and you’re at the top of this, you know, you’re one of several but you’re at the top of this financial empire, you don’t need to care because you’re so insulated and if you add to that the government on either side, again, yeah I agree it’s not a partisan thing. It is both sides, both parties have funded the growth of this morale hazard, the growth of this risk, the growth of the leverage in the banking system—have sustained it, have helped to grow it and have helped to fund it when it goes wrong, when there are cracks in it. So there’s no incentive to really change direction. And the leaders who are sort of at the center of it, Janet Yellen or Ben Bernanke—Ben Bernanke as the head of the Federal Reserve kept on going back to this idea of what the Fed did or didn’t do in the wake of the 1929 crash and nowhere did he say, as far as I could tell reading all of his scholarly "research"—nowhere did he talk about the fact at that point disproportionately provided funding to the largest institutions, which in turn helped them survive while their competitors, you know, crashed and burned from lack of credit and then they consolidated further and so forth. You know, that’s the problem, the concentration of capital continues to consolidate and there’s no need to care.
For example, this latest round of QE next at the ECB, you know, this has been applauded by many official avenues of the main stream media as being something that the ECB had to do to sort of help Europe, and nowhere—not from what the Federal Reserve did with any of its QE moves, to the ECB—nowhere are any of the leaders of these institutions drawing an actual line because they can’t because it doesn’t exist, but even trying to draw an actual, physical, follow the money, follow the bond purchasing party line from that policy to anything that helps economic stability, wages, jobs, anything on the ground for the broader population. I mean it’s said, it’s mentioned but nowhere has any of the funding underlying any of these institutions connected any of the dots. So that’s troubling.
They convey that they believe that these dots are connected and that these polices do help broadly, but they don’t. Is that cluelessness or just simply white washing it? It’s hard to know, but if you have the ability to print or to create debt to plaster over problems what we have seen is that course of action will be taken and it will be approved by governments, central banks and the private institutions that are involved in being helped.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely. In 2008 when my Crash Course first came out I said most likely we’re going to point, I didn’t know they were going to call it quantitative easing at the time, and that’s where the Plutarch quote came up because I said the most predictable outcome of printing is that the rich are going to get richer. That’s what happens. So let’s talk about income inequality, wealth inequality. You know it is presented still as if it were some mysterious force of nature, you know, something that is just happening. And the media reports on it as if they were reporting on a meteor shower. It’s not as accidental as the media portrays it is it?
Nomi Prins: Well it goes back to the idea of, you know, sort of plutocratic but capital consolidation. The more that an institution and a government collaborate to insulate how capital is used, shifted, created, the more inequality is going to follow from that. For example, you go to what I said on Chase, on JPMorgan Chase, if they like other of the larger banking institutions now have four times the amount of cash on their books but they aren’t helping, for example, to shift some of that cash into really renegotiating mortgages with people or student loans or any sort of really in large numbers of small business lending at better rates so that growth can happen and it’s not this inequality of credit or inequality of finance or inequality of being able to pay your bills, which it perpetuates by them keeping the cash. That would be a way to alleviate inequality but if there’s only so much and, you know, you talk about this, you know, in the philosophy of things being at a peak, if there’s only so many resources or there’s only so much ability to create capital then you need to leverage capital because leveraging capital isn’t like leveraging an actual resource. It’s not really creating anything but it’s moving stuff around on the books and so it’s making whoever is in control of those books, whether it's by virtue getting a bonus out of it or dictating policy or collaborating on policy or whatever it might be or even institutionally, you’re basically able to suck more out of that equation. That becomes sort of like a zero-sum game in that you’re sucking out because you can, if you’re at the top of that capital food chain, and other people who are not involved in any aspect of the power or of the politics or of the capital that’s involved in the system and have no call on it are getting shafted on the other end. That’s what’s happening. What we’re seeing now since QE started, since this particular financial crisis, which is just larger in terms of the subsidies that are being provided to the private markets than before but not different from the idea of providing them, this is just accelerating. And so inequality of power, of capital, of economics continues to increase.
Chris Martenson: So Nomi as we end this podcast I note that the end of your book All The Presidents Bankers has this warning, and it says that either we break the alliances or they will break us. Tell me more about that. What did you mean there?
Nomi Prins: Well first, when I first left Wall Street, when I left Goldman and wrote Other People’s Money the idea was there. It was the same title actually of a book written by Brandeis which was called Other People’s Money, which came out around the time the Federal Reserve, as we were discussing, was being debated in 1910 and so forth. And he said these money trusts, these combinations of powerful interests that collaborated to manipulate markets, to take advantage of the fact that they were bigger so they could manipulate them even without trying very hard and so forth were dangerous to stability. And a hundred and something years later they’re still dangerous to stability. Except now the alliances that I talk about in the book between the presidency and sort of the main executive office in Washington and the private banks in the country are such that there’s no requirement from the standpoint of the senior elite politicians or presidents to restrain any of this from happening, and so now it’s not just that the money trusts are in control of the capital, it’s the political financial alliances that are in control of capital.
So I’m going back to this morning of over a hundred and something years ago that Brandeis said, which was that you break the money trust or the money trust will break us and now it’s like we have to break these alliances or they will break us. Because a lot of history has happened in between—and we’ve talked about some of the better, more stable periods—but the reality is right now we’re at a worse position than we were back then in terms of the concentration of capital, of assets, of deposits, of trading, assets of derivatives, of any aspect of financial instruments and capital in the hands of a few major players and subsidized by the governments of those players and the central banks that are involved in helping as well. So we—when I say "we" it’s kind of metaphorical, meaning that the idea that if there isn’t, if we don’t, if these alliances that allow this type of system to continue to fester are not broken, the system will continue to implode at more chaotic, at deeper levels, onto the rest of the global population increasingly so going forward because we’ve done nothing to change it and all we are doing is epically subsidizing it.
Chris Martenson: It sounds like you’re telling people to get ready because from where I sit, I don’t know, I look at like Dodd Frank or something, which was a beast of a bill watered down from the get go and then just death by a thousand cuts since. I haven’t seen anything that remotely smells like toothy, regulatory reform. In fact, I was a little astonished and maybe a little dismayed to watch Jamie Dimon give testimony and see that this guy was basically in charge of a criminal operation that should have been charged on a number of fronts and virtually every single person who was "grilling him" or asking him questions was really groveling, if I could use that term.
Nomi Prins: Yeah and I mean the Chase relationship with—JPMorgan Chase relationship with Washington has always been one of this sort of mutual adoration policy regardless of who’s running the institution, who’s on the elite committees of Chase and who revolves in and out going back to the Morgan Bank, going back to JPMorgan when it was not a part of JPMorgan Chase. So this has been there and yes there was a lot groveling and it was really—and maybe a lot of crimes were going on back then but yes, right now, you look at currency manipulation, the Libor interest rate manipulation, settlements on mortgage related—there’s nothing really that has not been in the forefront of some type of a fraud settlement or allegation. So yes, it’s definitely, that’s crime. I mean if a person were doing that with like street crime, with an actual street drug dealer they would be off the streets, they’d be in jail. So that’s something that continues to happen and the fact that—and Jamie Dimon has been the recipient, well of both his ambition and rising to the head of this organization, but of all of this history of alliances that now not only treat him with this respect but also provide him the policies and the capital to continue to command it. So again, there’s a real dangerous relationship that’s always been there but has just gotten worse and we are just noticing, well not noticing but the numbers behind this, the capital behind it, the leverage behind it, all the recklessness and the risk behind it that has grown since the financial crisis is still there.
Chris Martenson: Well thank you so much for helping people to become aware of it. I know it’s complicated and all of that but that’s really no excuse for people not to be paying attention to all of this because it affects us all deeply both today and in the future. And the part that we didn’t really have time to get to here, which I wish we could, is the risks. You had a point talking about the risk to society, to markets, some of them are big systemic risks, some of them are erosions of our basic principles, freedoms, all kinds of things. I mean this really is a very, very important topic. I know it’s complicated and thank you so much though for simplifying it and dedicating your life to bringing this story out. I’m sure there are days you wish you were writing travel guides or something different.
Nomi Prins: [Laughter]
Chris Martenson: Cause it’s hard work. I know it is. We’ve been talking with Nomi Prins. Obviously talented, very well spoken author, researcher and American thinker. Nomi, what’s next and where can people follow you and your work more closely?
Nomi Prins: Well I have a website under my name www.nomiprins.com and of course, The Presidents' Bankers book is available independent, Amazon, Barnes and Noble. It’s coming out in paperback in March so it will less heavy. Right now it’s a very, very heavy book. So there’s that. I’m actually working on some other ideas right now on sort of global speculation going back to Lincoln’s days. So I’m a little bit off blog but I do also have a thoughts page on my website that I invite people to check out. And again, I just want to say all the work that you do there Chris and I’ve followed you for years, I just—the fact that you and others like you are able to take on this idea of dissecting the complexity is what, you know, hopefully will make more people aware of all the elements that affect them.
Chris Martenson: Well thank you that’s very meaningful coming from you so thank you for that. It is hard work. There are days I do wish I was selling, I don’t know, pet rocks or something but this is the job I’ve got. Somebody’s got to it and it becomes a calling. So Nomi thank you so much for your time today. Very generous and I hope we can it again.
Nomi Prins: Thank you.