An imagined conversation:
President Obama: Thanks for coming to the White House, everybody. I know how miserable it is to fly commercial, but thanks for doing it and for taking the subway over from the airport. The American people will appreciate that.
Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs: I got gum on my shoe. It's ruined.
Obama: Sorry about that, Lloyd. Didn't we include footwear expenses in the $14 billion your firm got from the AIG bailout?
Obama:. Well, maybe next time. Look, as you all know, I called you "fat cats" recently, and I've been bashing you on TV. None of you are really that fat – Vik Pandit here is downright skinny—but I need some villains, and you guys make pretty good ones. I mean, look at you all. Americans are sick of middle-aged white guys in dark suits. That's who's been firing everybody. YOU GUYS have been firing everybody. It's making my job a real pain. I came into office to completely revamp America's socioeconomic framework, not to run a jobs bank for the next three years.
Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase: We suck less.
Obama: Yeah, that was a good line, Jamie. Bit of advice, though: If you want to become a cabinet official someday, come up with a more uplifting slogan.
Anyway, here's what I need from you guys. First, you need to lend more money to consumers and small businesses.
10 CEOs in unison: Nooooo!!!
Obama: Now hold on. I know lending is like the janitorial work of banking, and you'd all rather design triple-secret derivatives on your Cray supercomputers. But if you don't start lending more, we're going to start making all banking activities illegal except lending.
Vikram Pandit, Citigroup: We can't lend more. We laid off our entire lending division.
Obama: Can't you rehire some of them?
Pandit: The stock price would go down.
[See what Ben Bernanke can learn from AIG.]
Obama: What are you at, Vik? Four bucks? You worried you'll dip down to a dollar again? Tell ya what. Citi wants the government out of its business, so I'll call Geithner and have him dump all of our shares….
Pandit: Sir, that would threaten the entire global financial sys….
Obama: I know! Your bank is so important that mothers couldn't feed their babies if we let anything happen to you. So here's what we'll do. Let's cut every Citi executive's pay by 50 percent. That should free up about, let's see here, $2 billion. Then you could put that into a fund and lend it to creditworthy Americans who need the money.
Pandit: But sir, if we cut our people's pay, we'll lose the talented bankers, brilliant bankers really, that we need to transform our business going forward.
Obama: Those would be the same talented guys who wrecked Citigroup, right?
Pandit: The global financial collapse was caused by a confluence of fac….
Obama: I know, Vik. But just tell me. Where are these talented bankers going to go? Is Goldman hard up for bankers?
Pandit: Well, Dimon's been hiring.
Obama: Captain America! Jamie, you've stayed out of trouble. Do you want Vik's talented bankers? They'll work really hard if you give them a job—anything to escape poor old Citigroup and its stodgy government shareholder.
Dimon: Uh, actually, no.
Obama: Anybody else eager to poach [air quotes] talent from Citigroup?
Obama: Didn't think so. Let me ask all of you: Can anybody in this room cite one example where your bank suffered because it lost a talented executive?
Ken Lewis, Bank of America: I certainly can. B of A is losing me, because the board thinks I'm damaged goods. But I'm the one who BUILT this goddamn bank from a little North Carolina teller operation into the mightiest consumer bank in the world—
Obama: By buying hot properties like Countrywide and Merrill Lynch?
Lewis: Look, when you're building an empire, you can't get bogged down with details.
John Stumpf, Wells Fargo: I hate to interrupt, but could we get to the point of this meeting? Mr. President, with all due respect, you've got to stop cutting our pay and spreading the idea that we're only worth $500,000 per year. That's ridiculous. And I'm sick of holding company retreats at the Holiday Inn.
Obama: John, it says here that Wells Fargo received a $25 billion bailout from the Treasury Department. You planning on paying that back anytime soon?
Stumpf: And the American people should feel privileged to be able to give us that money! Uh, did I say give? I meant lend.
Obama: Has anybody in this room ever run for office?
CEOs in unison: Ewwww!
Blankfein: At Goldman Sachs, we prefer to be anointed, not elected.
Obama. That's what I thought. So indulge me for a moment. Until the economy gets better, you guys are the equivalent of elected officials. People are watching. They're angry. They want to throw the bums out, and the bums are you. So until things get better—Ken, where are you going?
Ken Lewis: I think I hear Bernanke coming. I'm just going to slip out this side door—
Obama: Ken, Bernanke's on the Hill today. Chris Dodd asked him to testify about a new plan to have the Bureau of Mines regulate the banks, since they'd be more independent. He's not here.
Lewis: You sure?
Obama: Yep, it's OK, Ken. Relax. So as I was saying, I need you, the royalty of Wall Street, to think about the average voter. The little guy. The technician who fixes the elevator that goes to your penthouse. Your kids' governess. The guy who takes your clubs out of the trunk at the club. Those people are out of money, and they need you to lend them some, so they can buy stuff and get the economy humming again.
Stumpf: The economy's fine! Our stock is up 200 percent! The recession's over!
[See why stocks are surging as jobs disappear.]
Obama: Bear with me, John. So here's what we're going to do. I want all of you to lend more.
CEOs in unison: No!
Obama: I want new rules to limit the risky deals you guys love to do.
CEOs in unison: No!
Obama: I want new rules that will let the government break up your banks up if they get too big or do stupid things.
CEOs in unison: No!
Obama: And I want a new consumer protection agency that will stop you from dunning people with bogus fees and deceptive loans.
CEOs in unison: No!
Obama: And if you support me on all these initiatives, I'll stop trying to cut your pay.
CEOs in unison: OK!
Obama: Glad we could work something out. Thanks for coming.