Who is Sandy Weill and why should we care that he now says he thinks big banks should be broken up?
Weill built Citibank into the financial colossus whose spectacular collapse in 2008 helped tank our economy. He said he had a vision of creating giant financial supermarkets that conjured up convenience, friendly service, well-lit aisles and lots of choices. But what he was actually building were massive financial tankers fueled on fraud and risky, toxic assets no one understood, kept afloat with dirty back-room deals, hijacked regulators, lobbying and campaign contributions.
To make that vision a reality, Weill also did more than anyone else to drive the final spike through the heart of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law, which for seventy years had kept risky investment banking separate from federally-guaranteed traditional banking, reducing the risk of bank failures. President Clinton signed the bill repealing Glass-Steagall in 1999.
For his efforts, Weill, 79, made gazillions before he retired in 2006, ahead of the financial collapse.
He also earned a spot among a very select group - Time Magazine’s “25 people to blame for the financial crisis.” Weill, Time said, helped create the country’s “swollen banks,” which remain one of the economy most serious unsolved problems.
His Citibank is one the worst, and remains on life support only through $45 million [million?] worth of the taxpayers’ generosity.
It didn’t help Weill’s reputation that a few weeks after Citibank accepted its bailout, he used the Citibank jet to fly to his vacation in Cabo, a flight immortalized by the poets on the New York Post copy desk with the headline: “Pigs Fly.”
It was only six months ago that Weill announced he was “downsizing” and simplifying his life, selling his Central Park West apartment in Manhattan for $88 million – more than double what he’d paid for it, as well as attempting to unload his yacht for nearly $60 million. Weill moved to another apartment downstairs.
But downsizing doesn’t mean the same for an uber-banker that it does for the rest of us. He spent $31 million on the largest real estate-deal in Sonoma County’s history, buying a Tuscan-inspired villa that includes 8 acres of vineyards, seven miles of private hiking trails, and an 11,605-square-foot mansion made with 800-year-old Italian roof tiles and 200-year-old wood beams, and a fire truck that comes with seven firefighters. A real estate agent cautioned against viewing Weill’s purchase as a sign that the real estate market in the county north of San Francisco was recovering. As one Coldwell Banker agent said: “[The sale] is not an indicator of an emerging real estate recovery, but rather the ability of the world’s wealthiest individuals to buy what they desire.”
There’s been all kinds of speculation about why has now come out in favor breaking up big banks. But the best way to judge whether he’s serious, or just trying to get a little good PR, is to examine how much cash he’s willing to spend to make it happen.
When bankers, led by Weill, wanted to repeal Glass-Steagall, they fought for 20 years and spent millions in lobbying and campaign contributions before they won. The big banks would certainly put up a similar fight against its reinstatement. No one knows better than Weill that when it comes to changing banking regulations, it’s not what people say that matters; money talks.
How much is Weill willing to spend in support of his newfound conviction? Without massive amounts of money behind them, his words are no more than an old mogul’s sad, empty cry for attention.
No Lobbyist Left Behind
If we forced CNN commentators to wear the names of their clients on their sleeves like NASCAR drivers we might have a deeper, more honest debate over what’s going on in Washington.
Unless you live under a rock without any form of media, it’s hard to miss the nonstop frenzy over dumb comments made by CNN commentator Hilary Rosen about Ann Romney.
Rosen said Romney never worked a day in her life, which made her unqualified to comment on the economy. Republicans then attacked Rosen as another in a long line of Democratic elitists who have no respect for women who work in the home.
When she comments on CNN, the network labels Rosen a “Democratic strategist,” though they don’t disclose any particular strategy that she’s come up with.
CNN doesn’t mention her work representing many high-profile clients in Washington, D.C. with interests across a wide range of issues. Her firm, SKDKnickerbocker is filled with former government employees cashing in on their contacts on behalf of their corporate clients. The firm, which includes President Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn as managing director, isn’t required to disclose clients because it doesn’t acknowledge that what it does is lobbying. In Washington-speak the firm is “political consulting and public relations firm.”
Last year, Bloomberg Business week reported that the firm coordinated an army of lobbyists unleashed by a coalition led by Google, Apple and Cisco pushing for a tax holiday.
The Republic Report compiled a partial list of clients, including big railroads, agricultural interests, PepsiCo and General Mills and for-profit education companies.
In addition, the Washington Free Beacon reported that Dunn pitched SKDKnickerbocker’s services as part of a team that offered to restore hedge funds’ sullied reputations, though apparently nobody swung.
Rosen’s poke at Ann Romney may have stirred up media frenzy, offering just the excuse for a jive revival of jive working mom v. stay-at-home brawl that sheds no light and offers no insight to anybody.
It’s also not the kind of controversy that’s likely to upset Rosen’s clients, who will recognize it for the sideshow it is compared to their free-flowing access to the White House. It’s more likely that it will provide Rosen with an opportunity for some good-natured self-deprecating humor to grease her way as she makes the rounds through the corridors of power.
The Obama administration has made a big deal about how it holds itself to a higher standard by not taking money from lobbyists. But that doesn’t mean lobbyists don’t have a strong presence in the White House, as the New York Times reported Saturday. “Many of the president’s biggest donors, while not lobbyists, took lobbyists with them to the White House, while others performed essentially the same function on their visits,” the Times reported.
Several years ago, GOOD magazine came up with the idea of making politicians wear suits with the names of their biggest contributors, like NASCAR drivers advertise their sponsors. Politicians have been reluctant to embrace the idea. They’re perfectly happy to keep us focused on the sideshow provided by Rosen and those like her, who babble phony nonsense on TV but profit from their access to the real game off-screen.