Obama: After the Great Recession

By David Leonhardt, New York Times Magazine - April 30, 2009

On April 14, President Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University, trying to explain why he was taking on so many economic issues so early in his administration. He argued that the country needed to break its bubble-and-bust cycle and cited the New Testament in calling for a new economic foundation for the nation. This foundation would be built on better schools, alternative energy, more affordable health care and a more regulated Wall Street, he said. Later that afternoon (shortly before the Obama family introduced its new dog, Bo, on the South Lawn of the White House), I sat down with the president to talk about how his agenda might change daily life in this country.

President Barack Obama during an interview in the Oval Office on April 14.

Power Point President Obama and The Times's David Leonhardt during the interview.

This was our third interview about the economy, the first two occurring during last year’s campaign. And while the setting was decidedly more formal this time — the Oval Office — the interview felt as conversational as those earlier ones. We sat at the far end of the office from his desk and spoke for 50 minutes. None of his economic advisers were there. As the conversation progressed, Obama spoke in increasingly personal terms. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that interview.

At the end of our conversation, when I asked him if he was reading anything good, he said he had become sick enough of briefing books to begin reading a novel in the evenings — “Netherland,” by Joseph O’Neill.

I. The Future of Finance

Q: The idea here is to look beyond the current moment and try to think about what American life is going to be like on the other side of the so-called Great Recession. And so I thought it might make sense to start where the trouble started — finance. People who want to get a sense for how you think about education and jobs and all sorts of other issues can get a really good sense for your thinking by reading “The Audacity of Hope,” or by reading your old speeches, where you basically lay out your learning curve. But there’s no chapter on finance in “The Audacity of Hope.” And so I wonder if you would be willing to describe a little bit of your learning curve about finance, and what you envision finance being in tomorrow’s economy: Does it need to be smaller? Will it inevitably be smaller?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I think that we should distinguish between finance as the lifeblood of our economy and finance as a significant industry where we have a comparative advantage — right? So in terms of just growing our economy, we’ve got to have enough credit out there to fund businesses, large and small, to allow consumers the flexibility to make long-term purchases like cars or homes. So that’s not going to change. And I would be concerned if our credit market shrunk in ways that did not allow for the financing of long-term growth.

What that means is not only do we have to have a healthy banking sector, but we’re going to have to figure out what we do with the nonbanking sector that was providing almost half of our credit out there. And we’re going to have to determine whether or not as a consequence of some of the steps that the Fed has been taking, the Treasury has been taking, that we see the market for securitized products restored.

I’m optimistic that ultimately we’re going to be able to get that part of the financial sector going again, but it could take some time to regain confidence and trust.

What I think will change, what I think was an aberration, was a situation where corporate profits in the financial sector were such a heavy part of our overall profitability over the last decade. That I think will change. And so part of that has to do with the effects of regulation that will inhibit some of the massive leveraging and the massive risk-taking that had become so common.

Now, in some ways, I think it’s important to understand that some of that wealth was illusory in the first place.

So we won’t miss it?

THE PRESIDENT: We will miss it in the sense that as a consequence of 25-year-olds getting million-dollar bonuses, they were willing to pay $100 for a steak dinner and that waiter was getting the kinds of tips that would make a college professor envious. And so some of the dynamic of the financial sector will have some trickle-down effects, particularly in a place like Manhattan.

But I actually think that there was always an unsustainable feel about what had happened on Wall Street over the last 10, 15 years, and it’s not that different from the unsustainable nature of what was happening during the dot-com boom, where people in Silicon Valley could make enormous sums of money, even though what they were peddling never really had any signs it would ever make a profit.

That doesn’t mean, though, that Silicon Valley is still not a huge, critical, important part of our economy, and Wall Street will remain a big, important part of our economy, just as it was in the ’70s and the ’80s. It just won’t be half of our economy. And that means that more talent, more resources will be going to other sectors of the economy. And I actually think that’s healthy. We don’t want every single college grad with mathematical aptitude to become a derivatives trader. We want some of them to go into engineering, and we want some of them to be going into computer design.

And so I think what you’ll see is some shift, but I don’t think that we will lose the enormous advantages that come from transparency, openness, the reliability of our markets. If anything, a more vigorous regulatory regime, I think, will help restore confidence, and you’re still going to see a lot of global capital wanting to park itself in the United States.

Are there tangible ways that Wall Street has made the average person’s life better in the way that Silicon Valley has?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that some of the democratization of finance is actually beneficial if properly regulated. So the fact that large numbers of people could participate in the equity markets in ways that they could not previously — and for much lower costs than they used to be able to participate — I think is important.

Now, the fact that we had such poor regulation means — in some of these markets, particularly around the securitized mortgages — means that the pain has been democratized as well. And that’s a problem. But I think that overall there are ways in which people have been able to participate in our stock markets and our financial markets that are potentially healthy. Again, what you have to have, though, is an updating of the regulatory regimes comparable to what we did in the 1930s, when there were rules that were put in place that gave investors a little more assurance that they knew what they were buying.

There was this great debate among F.D.R.’s advisers about whether you had to split up companies — not just banks — you had to split up companies in order to regulate them effectively, or whether it was possible to have big, huge, sprawling, powerful companies — even not just possible, but better — and then have strong regulators. And it seems to me there’s an analogy of that debate now. Which is, do you think it is O.K. to have these “supermarkets” regulated by strong regulators actually trying to regulate, or do we need some very different modern version of Glass-Steagall, (1)

David Leonhardt is an economics columnist for The Times and a staff writer for the magazine.This article will appear in this Sunday's Times Magazine.

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