Four top bank chief executives told a panel probing the financial crisis Wednesday that they made mistakes but didn’t realize how bad they were at the time.
In a heated exchange in Washington with the head of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’ CEO, agreed the banks had assumed too much exposure to risk at the height of the crisis, and he wished he could go back and change things.
“Anyone who says I wouldn’t change a thing, I think, is crazy,” Blankfein said. “Knowing now what happened, whatever we did, whatever what the standards of the time were — It didn’t work out well.”
“Of course, I’d go back and wish we had done whatever it took not to find ourselves in the position we found ourselves in,” he added.
The remarks came during a hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a 10-member panel appointed last summer by Congress. Testifying were chiefs of some of the best-known and largest banks: Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500), Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500), J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) and Bank of America (BAC,Fortune 500).
The panel’s chairman, Philip Angelides, said he wanted to hear about the banks’ role in creating the crisis and benefiting from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which was set up to provide them with liquidity.
During the hearing, Angelides cast doubt on Blankfein’s defense of Goldman Sachs’ actions in the mortgage markets — such as buying parts of risky mortgages and then placing bets against such morgages — as part of their job as a “market maker.”
“It sounds to me a little like selling a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyers of those cars,” Angelides said. “It doesn’t seem to me that that’s a practice that inspires confidence.”
Blankfein responded that Goldman was just selling what investors wanted.
“These are the professional investors who want this exposure,” he said. “Even today, people are coming for exposure to these very products. .. That’s what a market is.”
The chief executives — Blankfein, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America — testified under oath, standing up for a swearing-in during the public session.
The hearing lasted more than three hours and most of the testimony revolved around bad lending in the housing market.
Dimon said that one of the the banks’ “big misses” was failing to “stress test” the housing market.
“We didn’t stress test housing prices going down by 40%,” Dimon said.
It has been suggested that this lack of accountability could be remedied if all of the firms and individuals involved in the creation of financial instruments had to “eat their own cooking.” That would, for example, require that the bulk of their fees not be taken in cash, but in the securities they created, which they would be required to hold unhedged until maturity.
One commissioner asked Morgan Stanley’s Mack if investment banks could have remediated the volume of illiquid toxic securities by eating “their own cooking,” and taking fees for financial transactions via toxic securities, instead of cash. Mack said his firm did hold some of those securities.
“We did eat our own cooking and we choked on it,” Mack said. ” We kept positions and it did not work out.”