What Bill Clinton said about Summers

In an April 17, 2010 ABC News article, Evan Harris wrote:

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.

“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.”

But Harris later appended the following “update,” in which a Clinton counselor walks back the ex-president’s derogatory statement.

*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.”

Rubin had been Obama’s chief economics adviser during the 2008 campaign and the subsequent transition, and in fact Rubin’s Hamilton Project was essentially a government-in-waiting that moved to Washington as soon as Obama took over. Summer’s, in particular, is a Rubin protoge.

I think that Clinton belatedly realized that the truth that he spoke had been more than a bit impolitic, but I don’t think any of it was wrong.

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