Top bank executives can expect a grilling when they appear before a congressionally appointed panel investigating the causes of the 2008 financial collapse.
Four of Wall Street's most powerful leaders — Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chairman-CEO Lloyd Blankfein, JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO James Dimon, Morgan Stanley Chairman John Mack and Bank of American Corp. CEO-President Brian Moynihan — were to give sworn testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which was holding its first session Wednesday.
The bipartisan, 10-member panel was handed the job of writing the official narrative of what went wrong before the financial system nearly collapsed in the fall of 2008.
The banking executives summoned to testify spent the days leading up to the hearings in meetings with corporate lawyers and government relations specialists.
Dimon planned to highlight JPMorgan's relative strength, saying it did not engage in some of the riskiest practices that led to the industry's near-collapse, according to a person who does not work at JPMorgan but is familiar with the executive's thinking.
Dimon also was to discuss gaps in the regulatory structure before the crisis, including those that allowed banks to use too much leverage, and the weak oversight of vast swaths of the mortgage industry, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the plans.
Mack's testimony also was to highlight regulatory failures and would include calls to improve regulators' tools to oversee financial activity, said another person familiar with Mack's plans.
Mack was to emphasize Morgan Stanley's relatively early response to the crisis, which included reducing leverage and tying compensation to long-term performance, said the person, who also spoke anonymously because she was not authorized to discuss the matter.
The hearings come at a sensitive time for the banking industry. Congress is writing a full-scale overhaul of financial regulations, bankers are about to announce huge bonuses for their executives and the Obama administration is considering extracting a fee from banks to cover about $120 billion in taxpayer losses from a government Wall Street bailout fund.
The bankers' demeanor before the commission, the tone of the commission's questions and the continuing inquiry could affect public perceptions and influence how lawmakers and the White House deal with the industry.
A coalition of liberal activist groups is urging the commission to work aggressively and look beyond the bankers to the actions of former government regulators. In newspaper ads set to appear in Washington publications Wednesday, the group, Accountable America, singles out former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox for not detecting Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
"The hearings are important and a good first step, but they are not sufficient," said Tom Matzzie, the group's chairman. "We don't just have to look at the people who are going to be witnesses. We also need to be investigating the role of the regulators under the Bush administration who failed to stop the crisis."
The commission is chaired by former California Treasurer Phil Angelides, a Democrat. His vice chairman is Republican Bill Thomas, a former California congressman who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee.
In an interview last week, Thomas expressed impatience with bankers who worry that some additional government scrutiny and demands for transparency will hobble the industry.
"We came close to the worst thing in the world," Thomas said. "So whenever you hear from these people, 'Well, this will make us not to do this and not to do that,' I immediately flip it from negative to positive and say, 'Yeah, and so?'"
In featuring the bankers at its first public hearings, the commission is sending a clear message that the first part of the narrative starts with the chief executives.
The commission is modeled on the panel that examined the causes of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But its prototype could be the Pecora Commission, the Senate committee that investigated Wall Street abuses in 1933-34. It was named after Ferdinand Pecora, the committee's chief lawyer.
Congress instructed the new commission to explore 22 issues, ranging from the effect of monetary policy on terms of credit to bank compensation structures.
On the Net:
Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission: http://www.fcic.gov
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