Sandy Weill's conversion on the road to a CNBC Squawk Box interview, at which he stunningly argues that breaking up the banks is key to U.S. competitiveness -- sent a bombshell through the blogosphere and market talk shows. Viewing the tape is great television: Andrew Ross Sorkin, co-host of the show and author of Too Big To Fail, is at a loss for words -- "I am speechless" he says between attempts to get Weill to eat his words or at least make sure he heard correctly.
But Weill was steadfast: "I think what we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make commercial loans and real-estate loans, have banks do something that's not going to risk the taxpayers' dollars, that's not going to be too-big-to-fail." (Check out the video here.)
It reminds me of another late-to-the party conversion: this one from the long-standing CEO of GE, Jack Welch, in a 2009 interview in the Financial Times: "On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world." This, from the same Welch whose single-minded focus on share price set the tone in boardrooms across America, and for which we are still paying today in fixation on quarterly forecasts and obsession with Morningstar ratings.
Weill also calls for leverage controls, and greater transparency of investments and derivatives, allowing investors to mark assets based on better information. He told Sorkin and co-host Becky Quick that he has been thinking deeply for the past year about the changes that are necessary.
This is the same guy who invented the bank supermarket -- one-stop shopping for consumers, banks built for speed and scale to face up to increasing global competition. Back then, when he was building Citigroup, he made the case -- yup, you got it -- that eliminating Glass-Steagall was critical to U.S. competitiveness. And now the switch: no apologies for having gotten it wrong. No admission of failure. Conditions have changed. Full stop.
The cynicism that is engendered when someone like Weill, or Welch, changes his stripes is understandable. Who wants to hear from the guys who already cleaned up in Act 1? But, frankly, I find it refreshing. Where are today's leaders on these same subjects?
The number of CEOs willing to speak out on issues that are critical to the country's health is remarkably low. Indra Nooyi at Pepsi was slammed for taking a stand on, and investing in, a healthier product mix. Howard Schultz at Starbucks has been in the public sphere on jobs and politics and has utilized his stores to raise consciousness. Klaus Kleinfeld of Alcoa published an op-ed last week on how to address the skills gap in manufacturing. And, of course, there is Jeff Immelt at GE, who joined a ridiculously short list of business leaders willing to campaign for a cap on carbon. Given the state of the world, and the power and influence of the corporate sector, is this the best we can do?
Most CEOs are advised to keep their heads low -- for fear there could be pushback from investors if the message moves against them. They could be perceived as wasting time, or money, or confusing their brand. The idea that a CEO, or even better, a major coalition of CEOs, would join forces to move the needle on an issue like climate, or discouraging high-frequency trading, or addressing, heaven-forbid, the need for investment in mass transit? Preposterous.
That doesn't mean business is out of the policy sphere, far from it. Industry associations are alive and well, but to say they really engage in public policy is less than accurate. Our country has long depended on business -- that moderate, centrist, long-term oriented voice that was critical to the Marshall Plan, to creating jobs after WWII, to the need for infrastructure to stay competitive. That voice is needed now.
Sandy Weill may have turned heads by speaking out, but it was our forebear, Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Good for Weill. Let's hope he starts a parade.
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