Clinton: I Was Wrong to Listen to Wrong Advice Against Regulating Derivatives*

By Evan Harris

Apr 17, 2010 7:20pm

In my EXCLUSIVE “This Week” interview, I asked former President Bill Clinton if he thought he got bad advice on regulating complex financial instruments known as derivatives from his former Treasury Secretaries, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.  He acknowledged that he was wrong to take the advice of those advising him against regulating derivatives.   

(Note: please see update at the bottom of this post.)

“On derivatives, yeah I think they were wrong and I think I was wrong to take [their advice] because the argument on derivatives was that these things are expensive and sophisticated and only a handful of investors will buy them and they don’t need any extra protection, and any extra transparency. The money they’re putting up guarantees them transparency,” Clinton told me.

“And the flaw in that argument,” Clinton added, “was that first of all sometimes people with a lot of money make stupid decisions and make it without transparency.”

The former President also said he was also wrong about understanding the consequences if the derivatives market tanked.  “The most important flaw was even if less than 1 percent of the total investment community is involved in derivative exchanges, so much money was involved that if they went bad, they could affect a 100 percent of the investments, and indeed a 100 percent of the citizens in countries, not investors, and I was wrong about that.”

Clinton also blamed the Bush administration for scaling back on policing the financial industry.   “I think what happened was the SEC and the whole regulatory apparatus after I left office was just let go.” 

Much of the financial carnage of the past several years, Clinton said, could have been prevented if only his appointed regulator had been kept on after he left office..  “I think if Arthur Levitt had been on the job at the SEC, my last SEC commissioner, an enormous percentage of what we’ve been through in the last eight or nine years would not have happened.” 

Clinton said he regretted not trying to regulate derivatives, but that Republicans would have stood in the way.   “Now, I think if I had tried to regulate them because the Republicans were the majority in the Congress, they would have stopped it.  But I wish I should have been caught trying.  I mean, that was a mistake I made.”

WATCH VIDEO HERE:

TAPPER:  One of the things that President Obama is pushing for is regulation of derivatives, and also with a thing called the Volcker rule, he’s trying to separate commercial banking interests from investment banking interests.  These were things that were the opposite policies of Treasury Security Rubin and Summers at that time, do you think in retrospect they gave you bad advice on these issues?

CLINTON:  Well, I think on the derivatives – before the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed, it had been breached.  There was already a total merger practically of commercial and investment banking, and really the main thing that the Glass-Steagall Act did was to give us some power to regulate it – the repeal.  And also to give old fashion traditional banks in all over America the right to take an investment interest if they wanted to forestall bankruptcy.  Sadly none of them did that.  Mostly it was just the continued blurring of the lines, but only about a third of all the money loaned today is loaned through traditional banking channels and that was well underway before that legislation was signed.  So I don’t feel the same way about that.

I think what happened was the SEC and the whole regulatory apparatus after I left office was just let go.  I think if Arthur Levitt had been on the job at the SEC, my last SEC commissioner, an enormous percentage of what we’ve been through in the last eight or nine years would not have happened.  I feel very strongly about it.  I think it’s important to have vigorous oversight. 

Now, on derivatives, yeah I think they were wrong and I think I was wrong to take it because the argument on derivatives was that these things are expensive and sophisticated and only a handful of investors will buy them and they don’t need any extra protection, and any extra transparency. The money they’re putting up guarantees them transparency.  And the flaw in that argument was that first of all sometimes people with a lot of money make stupid decisions and make it without transparency.

And secondly, the most important flaw was even if less than 1 percent of the total investment community is involved in derivative exchanges, so much money was involved that if they went bad, they could affect a 100 percent of the investments, and indeed a 100 percent of the citizens in countries, not investors, and I was wrong about that.  I’ve said that all along.  Now, I think if I had tried to regulate them because the Republicans were the majority in the Congress, they would have stopped it.  But I wish I should have been caught trying.  I mean, that was a mistake I made.

*UPDATE: After the show Sunday, Clinton Counselor Doug Band wrote me to say that "during the interview, reflecting on a derivatives debate that occurred twelve years ago, President Clinton inadvertently conflated an analysis he received on a specific derivatives proposal with then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's arguments against any regulation of derivatives."

Band wrote that President Clinton "still wishes, as he has said several times, that he had pursued legislation to provide additional regulatory authority in this area, even though the Republican majority in Congress would have blocked such an effort. And he remains convinced that he received excellent advice on the economy and the financial system from his economic team, led by treasury Secretaries Bentsen, Rubin and Summers; that Chairman Greenspan served the nation well during those 8 years; and that SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, and others in regulatory positions fulfilled their responsibilities in a manner that supported remarkable growth without improvident risk."

You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus