Jul 302012
 

Who is Sandy Weill and why should we care that he now says he thinks big banks should be broken up?

Weill built Citibank into the financial colossus whose spectacular collapse in 2008 helped tank our economy. He said he had a vision of creating giant financial supermarkets that conjured up convenience, friendly service, well-lit aisles and lots of choices. But what he was actually building were massive financial tankers fueled on fraud and risky, toxic assets no one understood, kept afloat with dirty back-room deals, hijacked regulators, lobbying and campaign contributions.

To make that vision a reality, Weill also did more than anyone else to drive the final spike through the heart of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law, which for seventy years had kept risky investment banking separate from federally-guaranteed traditional banking, reducing the risk of bank failures. President Clinton signed the bill repealing Glass-Steagall in 1999.

For his efforts, Weill, 79, made gazillions before he retired in 2006, ahead of the financial collapse.

He also earned a spot among a very select group – Time Magazine’s “25 people to blame for the financial crisis.”  Weill, Time said, helped create the country’s “swollen banks,” which remain one of the economy most serious unsolved problems.

His Citibank is one the worst, and remains on life support only through $45 million [million?] worth of the taxpayers’ generosity.

It didn’t help Weill’s reputation that a few weeks after Citibank accepted its bailout, he used the Citibank jet to fly to his vacation in Cabo, a flight immortalized by the poets on the New York Post copy desk with the headline: “Pigs Fly.”

It was only six months ago that Weill announced he was “downsizing” and simplifying his life, selling his Central Park West apartment in Manhattan for $88 million – more than double what he’d paid for it, as well as attempting to unload his yacht for nearly $60 million. Weill moved to another apartment downstairs.

But downsizing doesn’t mean the same for an uber-banker that it does for the rest of us. He spent $31 million on the largest real estate-deal in Sonoma County’s history, buying a Tuscan-inspired villa that includes 8 acres of vineyards, seven miles of private hiking trails, and an 11,605-square-foot mansion made with 800-year-old Italian roof tiles and 200-year-old wood beams, and a fire truck that comes with seven firefighters. A real estate agent cautioned against viewing Weill’s purchase as a sign that the real estate market in the county north of San Francisco was recovering. As one Coldwell Banker agent said: “[The sale] is not an indicator of an emerging real estate recovery, but rather the ability of the world’s wealthiest individuals to buy what they desire.”

There’s been all kinds of speculation about why has now come out in favor breaking up big banks. But the best way to judge whether he’s serious, or just trying to get a little good PR, is to examine how much cash he’s willing to spend to make it happen.

When bankers, led by Weill, wanted to repeal Glass-Steagall, they fought for 20 years and spent millions in lobbying and campaign contributions before they won. The big banks would certainly put up a similar fight against its reinstatement. No one knows better than Weill that when it comes to changing banking regulations, it’s not what people say that matters; money talks.

How much is Weill willing to spend in support of his newfound conviction? Without massive amounts of money behind them, his words are no more than an old mogul’s sad, empty cry for attention.

 

 

 

About Martin Berg

Martin Berg, WheresOurMoney.org editor, is a veteran journalist.

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