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Fri, Jan 15, 2010 - Page 10 News List

Bankers sorry for moves causing crisis

OWNING UP Brian Moynihan, the chief executive and president of Bank of America, acknowledged that the banking industry had caused a lot of economic damage

AP , WASHINGTON

Challenged by a skeptical special US commission, top Wall Street bankers apologized on Wednesday for risky behavior that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. But they still declared it seemed appropriate at the time.

The bankers — whose companies collectively received more than US$100 billion in taxpayer assistance to weather the crisis — offered no regrets for executive pay that is now likely to increase as a result of their survival. They did say they are correcting some compensation practices that could lead to excessive risk-taking.

The tension at the first hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was evident from the outset.

“People are angry,” commission Chairman Phil Angelides said.

Reports of “record profits and bonuses in the wake of receiving trillions of dollars in government assistance while so many families are struggling to stay afloat has only heightened the sense of confusion,” he said.

Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, took the brunt of the questions, especially on his firm’s practice of selling mortgage-backed securities and then betting against them.

“I’m just going to be blunt with you,” Angelides told him. “It sounds to me a little bit like selling a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer of those cars.”

Blankfein replied: “I do think the behavior is improper. We regret the consequence that people have lost money in it.”

Later, though, he defended the firm’s actions as “exercises in risk management.”

In a moment of self-analysis, Blankfein said the world of high-finance simply rationalized its way into risky transactions.

Summarizing the thinking in the industry at the time, he said: “Gosh, the world is getting wealthier. Technology has done things ... These businesses are going to do well.”

“You talked yourself into a place of complacency,” he concluded.

The panel began its yearlong inquiry amid rising public fury over bailouts and bankers’ pay.

“We understand the anger felt by many citizens,” said Brian Moynihan, chief executive and president of Bank of America. “We are grateful for the taxpayer assistance we have received.”

“Over the course of the crisis, we as an industry caused a lot of damage,” Moynihan said.

With Bank of America having repaid its bailout money, he said “the vast majority of our employees played no role in the economic crisis” and do not deserve to be penalized with lower compensation.

Moynihan said compensation levels will be higher next year than they were in 2008 — but not at levels reached before the financial meltdown.

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co, said most of his employees took “significant cuts in compensation” in 2008.

He said his company would continue to pay people in a “responsible and disciplined manner” to attract and retain top talent.

Still, Dimon said, “We did make mistakes and there were things we could have done better.”

John Mack, chairman of Morgan Stanley, said the crisis was “a powerful wake-up call for this firm.”

He said he didn’t take a bonus last year and his bank has overhauled compensation practices to discourage “excessive risk-taking.”

The other executives also said their companies had tightened bonus policies, including provisions to “claw back” some of the money when performance falters.

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