Watching recent congressional testimony by former executives of failed regional banks invoked memories of my early-1980s experience as executive director of the Federal Trade Commission. The agency was involved in controversial matters that often led to its hearings before congressional oversight committees. Most were cordial, though still not happy hours, while serving a healthy purpose: keeping the FTC in harmony with elected officials’ interpretation of what it should be doing.
The hearings went with the territory. After all, we were government bureaucrats funded by and answerable to “we the people.” Unfortunately, this never-perfect institution can no longer be considered healthy.
The testimonies included executives of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), First Republic Bank and Signature Bank, and other free Americans. Former SVB president Gregg Becker became the focal point, but there is apparently lots of blame to be assigned. Key players, including bank officials and regulators, may be held accountable.
Yet, while making this point, the hearings seemed more about expressions of schadenfreude than learning to avoid future financial calamities. For example, when Becker genuinely apologized for the misery and cost generated by his bank’s collapse there was no sympathetic response. Indeed, it was just the reverse. He was treated shabbily.
With the FTC, I sometimes saw those testifying treated condescendingly, if not rudely, by otherwise-civil elected officials. This was inevitably the case when TV cameras were in the room. Indeed, when hearings were televised, we sometimes heard the same questions or loud-voiced criticisms repeated as the camera moved from one committee member to another. It was soundbite politics.
Though we understood our role in a strange Shakespearean drama, it still felt odd to answer the same question multiple times. Committee members needed to signal to folks back home that they were doing their job and keeping unelected bureaucrats at bay.
We also learned there were favorite topics of inquiry that apparently the good folks at home could more readily relate to than theories of antitrust law enforcement. Among these were salaries and bonuses, travel expenditures, attending conferences in exotic locations, and redecorating offices.
This holds true today. “You were paying out bonuses until literally hours before regulators seized your assets,” said Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, when addressing the former bank officers. “To most Americans, a lack of Wall Street accountability tracks with their entire experience with our economy.”
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pennsylvania, asked Becker about work requirements for bailed-out bank executives. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, asked how much of his $40 million salary he’ll return to the FDIC to help offset $20 billion in deposit insurance paid to SVC depositors. These points can be debated but are neither fact-finding nor likely to generate solutions.
Their Republican Senate colleague John Kennedy of Louisiana, also questioning Becker, said: “What happened with Silicon Valley Bank was bone-deep, down-to-the-marrow stupid,” “you made a really stupid bet that went bad,” and “unless you were living on the International Space Station, you could see that interest rates were rising and you weren’t hedged.”
Kennedy may believe that almost everyone knew the Fed would raise rates continuously to fight inflation, but that was not the case for the Fed itself. Indeed, until November 2021— when banks invested in low-yield government securities that would fall in value when interest rates rose — the Fed famously argued that inflation was “transitory” and higher rates unnecessary. These questions were staple content in the financial press and, to some degree, still are.
One thing has changed: TV cameras are no longer the predictors of tough talk. Now, it’s Twitter and other social media. This, while not surprising, means members of Congress can be expected to be uncivilized all the time and toward just about anyone. They now compete round the clock for the soundbites of the day, which will be heard by their charged-up voting bases.
That essentially defeats the purpose of the hearings and obscures what we seem to know: that a combination of COVID- and war-induced economic difficulties and central bank responses led to the painful collapse of some important-but-vulnerable banks. Serious errors were likely made, and the political response was imperfect, but sullen and impolite treatment of citizen witnesses fixes nothing.
We might do well to apply one of George Washington’s 110 rules of civility, which he wrote when he was 14: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.” Consider this another call for a kinder, gentler nation.