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Bank Execs Offer Head-Scratching Answers

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
For all the so-called financial wizardry one would imagine the executives of four Wall Street banks could demonstrate when gathered under one roof, it was surprising when JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon told a congressional panel Wednesday that "in mortgage underwriting, we somehow missed that home prices don't go up forever."

(At left, from left, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein; JPMorgan Chase & Company Chairman and Chief Executive Officer James Dimon; Morgan Stanley Chairman John Mack; and Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Officer and President Brian Moynihan testify on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.)

Such was one memorable quote uttered by Dimon and the heads of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley and Bank of America during .

Dimon's revelation about home prices wasn't the only head-scratching response he gave to the panel.

"One of the surprising things about all these things, a lot of these problems with mortgages, derivatives … they were all known," Dimon said.

But in a complete 180-degree turn from the seemingly wide-eyed responses he gave during the morning, Dimon later told the panel that the downturn shouldn't be much of a surprise because he expects them to happen on a regular basis.

"Not to be funny about it, but my daughter asked me when she came home from school 'what's the financial crisis,' and I said, 'Well it's something that happens every five to seven years,''' Dimon said. "We shouldn't be surprised, but we need to do a better job."

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chairman-CEO Lloyd Blankfein provided just as much relief about his hand on a bank's tiller when he told the commission about the days when the financial system neared collapse in the fall of 2008.

"I know it's become part of the narrative that people knew what was going to happen at any minute," Blankfein said. "We never knew what was happening at any minute."

Blankfein acknowledged lapses in judgment in some practices leading up to the crisis.

"Whatever we did, it didn't work out well," Blankfein said. "We were going to bed every night with more risk than any responsible manager would want to have."

Toward the end of the morning's testimony, Blankfein used a baseball reference to exemplify how little he knew about the crisis in 2007:

"I remember being teased at a shareholders meeting in '07 and being asked what inning we were at in the crisis," said Blankfein. "I said we were in the seventh inning of the crisis. As it turned out, we were in the second inning."

BofA's CEO-President Brian Moynihan demonstrated a kind of political jiu jitsu in an environment where the United States has an unemployment rating of 10 percent when he told panelists that compensation levels at his bank will be higher in 2011 than they were in 2008, the year of the meltdown.

"We understand the anger felt by many citizens," Moynihan said. "We are grateful for the taxpayer assistance we have received."

Morgan Stanley Chairman John Mack summed up the banks' behavior in the most concise way, saying "We did eat our cooking and we choked on it."

Although one could argue that, given the amount of taxpayer assistance the banks received, they sold back whatever they coughed up for a good price.

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