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TERRY GROSS, host:

From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: On today's FRESH AIR, we look at the economic crisis with Simon Johnson, who has worked on financial crisis prevention and recovery in large and small countries around the world.

He is a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund and a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. We'll talk about what we can learn from other countries' financial crises and why Johnson thinks our best solution might be a modified version of nationalizing zombie banks, which would allow the government to briefly take them over and then re-privatize them.

Also, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Ray Guns are Not Just the Future," the second album by the duo, The Bird and the Bee. That's all coming up on FRESH AIR. First the news.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Simon Johnson, is an expert on financial and economic crises. It used to be other countries he focused on. Now, he is writing about the mess we're in.

Johnson has worked on crisis prevention and recovery in countries around the world. He's consulted to governments, the private sector and also served as the International Monetary Fund's chief economist. He's now a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics and co-founder of a Web site on the global economic crisis called Baseline Scenario.

Simon Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR. First of all, can we agree on a name? Are we calling this the economic crisis, the downturn, the impending depression? What should we call it during the course of this interview?

Dr. SIMON JOHNSON (Professor of Entrepreneurship, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): I think we should call it a crisis. It's big, it's bad, and nobody remembers a crisis - a situation like this in the U.S. I think crisis conveys that, and we don't know where it ends up, either - how bad it ends up and for how long. So I think crisis is about right.

GROSS: Okay, so we'll go with economic crisis?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, that's a very subtle and important point. We used to call it a financial crisis, back in oh, I don't know, summer of 2008, summer 2007. It's clearly not just financial anymore. So I actually like economic crisis. That conveys - it's a broad, big deal for lots of people around the world.

GROSS: Okay. Now, you say that if you showed old hands at the International Monetary Fund, where you used to work, and it's their job to help countries recover from economic crises - if you showed them the U.S. ledger books, but you hid the name United States so they didn't know what country's books they were looking at, they would all say nationalize the banking system. That's the solution. What leads you to that conclusion - that they would say that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I worked with the IMF over the last 20 years. Most recently, I was there. I was the chief economist for the last 18 months prior to the end of August, 2008. So I was working on these crisis issues. And before that, I worked there, and I worked with private investors, and I worked with governments around the world on these problems, and that is what the IMF says.

That is standard IMF advice, and I've checked this. I've talked to their banking experts. I've talked to their leading finance macro people. I've said, you know, what would you do if we just had this problem, and it wasn't about the United States, and it wasn't the most powerful country in the history of the world and also the IMF's biggest shareholder? What would you say?

And the answer is, you know, without reservation, without hesitation, they say it's quite straightforward. The banks have lost a lot of money. You can't let them fail. That would be a catastrophe. That would be like the 1930s again. You've got to come in, nationalize them, use an FDIC intervention, actually.

That's the terminology they would use. Nationalization is a slightly politically loaded term. And then you immediately privatize them again. You clean them up, you privatize them. And it's not rocket science, as they say. It's very straightforward.

GROSS: Now your implication is that although they believe - the IMF people believe that's what the United States should do, they can't actually say that. Why can't they say that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think that's pretty obvious. The IMF was set up after World War II as part of the so-called Bretton Woods institution so that the main partner, sister if you like, is the World Bank. They were set up to help the U.S. rebuild the world's economy, and I think, you know, broadly speaking, they did a good job.

They are located about two blocks from the White House. Now their primary shareholder is the United States. And while they brought on board a lot of other countries - IMF currently has 185 members - it's the U.S. that has the strongest voice. Not that the U.S. dictates everything - not that this is a branch of the U.S. government - but that the U.S. is the dominant, most powerful, most influential shareholder. And you don't just turn around and start telling your major shareholder what to do. That would be extremely uncomfortable for everyone at the IMF.

GROSS: Okay, so if we took what you say would be the IMF's solution, and it's a solution you endorse, what exactly would the government be doing with the failing banks?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think the key thing to emphasize here: It's nothing new, and it's nothing we don't do all the time in the United States. In fact, the FDIC - the standard FDIC process for taking over, liquidating, repackaging and re-privatizing, if you like, failed banks is something that's world class. People look at it to learn how it's done.

The key point, of course, is that the FDIC typically does that - or perhaps only does that - for small and medium-sized banks. Now, they do it with some regularity - and of course, recently they've been doing up to two a week - but the point is we just want to take that same process and scale it up, make it bigger and make some adaptations so it can handle, potentially, very large banks.

GROSS: As large as, say, Citibank? Citigroup, I should say.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes, I don't like to name specific banks that definitely need intervention until I've seen the numbers. And, obviously, there's lots of speculation around Citigroup, and there's lots of concern. And I think, you know, Secretary Geithner has the right approach, the treasury secretary said we need to do a proper, rigorous stress test on the banks.

My concern is the stress test, as designed, as announced, is not a serious stress test at all. It's rather like going to the doctor to have your heart checked, and he says get on the treadmill. We'll do a stress test on your heart, but do please sit in this chair during the whole test. So it's not a serious test.

But anyway, if you did a proper test and you figured out the banks that needed the capital, Citigroup might be a bank that's insolvent. I don't know. That's something you need to figure out properly and that you probably shouldn't speculate about too much in advance.

GROSS: Now you say it would be a really big mistake to nationalize the banks and keep them nationalized.

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Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. Well, the way I always persuade this - make this point to people is I say: How much do you enjoy going to get your driver's license renewed, going to the DMV or, even worse, moving to a new state and having to get a new driver's license?

And of course, everyone recoils in horror as soon as you make that analogy. And I think the basic one is, at least in this country, we don't think the government does a very good job of managing things as simple as a driver's license, and certainly something as complicated as a bank would almost certainly not go well at all.

But there's no need for the government to run it. We're very comfortable with private management of assets that have big, public implications. And that's what this bank would be, or privatized bank would be.

Now, you want to structure that so the taxpayer keeps a lot of upside: As the bank gets better, the value of the public investment goes up. And you also want, I think very importantly moving forward, to put in place some new - let's call them antitrust laws or a big modification or modernization of antitrust - precisely so that the new owners don't inherit or take over a bank that's too big to fail and, therefore, they get a lot of economic and political power out of that and perhaps repeat the same mistakes as the last set of people.

GROSS: Okay, do me a favor. Compare what the U.S. government has done so far in propping up really large banks to how it would work with the system that you're talking about.

Mr. JOHNSON: I think the key difference, Terry, is that everything the U.S. has done so far - and I mean under Secretary Paulson and now under Secretary Geithner - has been deal by deal. And every deal has been different.

You know, what they did for Lehman or AIG or Washington Mutual - WaMu, or Citigroup - I think we're on the third or fourth round with Citigroup - it's always different, and they're always moving the (unintelligible) around. You don't know what the rules are.

And what I'm proposing - and what the IMF would propose if it were in a position to speak publicly about this - is that you do it once and for all. You do it systematically. You have very clear rules that are pre-announced. And any bank that is found to be deficient in capital after a tough stress test has a certain amount of time - a short period of time, one or two months - to raise capital privately, and then if it can't raise that capital privately, it needs to receive capital from the government. And the government, in return, will get a large ownership share.

This is, for example, what the Swedes did in the early 1990s. And it's really quite straightforward. It's easy to explain to people, and everyone knows where they stand while you're doing this. And during the whole process, you have a temporary - I stress temporary - government guarantee on all the liabilities of the banking system so that people feel sure that whatever happens, it's not going to be shocking, and it gets, you know, all kinds of strange ways for bondholders or other creditors of the banks - odd ways in which they'll lose money.

GROSS: Well, what's been happening now, for instance with Citigroup, is that the government loans them billions of dollars. They come back and say we need more. We loan them more billions of dollars, and they come back and say we need more.

So if it was like a nationalizing kind of system, what would be different?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it's once and for all. You don't do this iterative process that's kind of a mess, and people are very confused. And it's the same deal for everyone.

So the deal that Citi got was close to but different from the deal that Bank of America got in mid-January, for example. And it's probably different, seems likely to be different, in fact it's been announced it will be different, from deals that other banks are going to get going forward.

Although, then again, Citi got their deal after that announcement. So does that mean we have to revise the announcement? It's complete chaos and confusion, Terry. And this is exactly the situation in which you, you know, so-called asset-stripping, or sometimes people call it tunneling - tunneling of value out of these kinds of banks occur.

There was a very good finance minister in Russia in the mid-1990s, a very honest, honorable man who tried really hard to make Russia better, Boris Fedorov. He died recently. And he liked to say, and he liked to emphasize, that periods of chaos and confusion are perfect for people who want to make off with valuable assets because no one knows what the heck is going on, and all kinds of things are going to disappear. And I'm afraid that's exactly the situation we're in right now with the United States.

GROSS: What do you mean by that, people making off with assets?

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GROSS: Things disappear. Money disappears. A valuable property, perhaps, seems to be no longer quite so valuable - and these are enormous, complex holdings of interconnected pieces. And you know, when people's time horizons get short, and when they're under a great deal of pressure, and when they feel that they've been - you know, it's every man or woman for himself or herself - then honestly, all kinds of strange and inappropriate things happen.

GROSS: So in the kind of modified nationalization that you're proposing, where we - the government would take over the bank very quickly and then immediately re-privatize it, kind of using the FDIC, like an enhanced version of the FDIC model, what happens to stockholders? What happens to the executives at the bank? What happens to the boards of directors?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the board of directors need to be changed. In fact, it's rather strange to me that the board of directors of these major banks haven't resigned already. I guess one or two of them have taken that honorable course, but given what they've overseen and the scale of the disaster and the complete breakdown of governance and risk management and inappropriate behavior in these banks, I would've thought they would resign by themselves.

But anyway, they can be forced out. You know, the government's going to be a big shareholder. And it's also, by the way, a big lender to these banks already.

Somehow, these people missed this point. But we've kept these banks going pretty much completely since at least September of last year. So in a sense, we're - we put a lot of money, we supported the banks nationally. We didn't exercise change of control, and we kept the board of directors in. Well, that was pretty much a disaster, keeping those guys on.

Time to change board of directors. New board of directors can, of course, appoint the CEO. That is not for the government to choose. I think that that would be an inappropriate level of meddling. The shareholders appoint the board of directors, the board of directors decide who runs the company. And they've got to manage, of course, this transition to new controlling shareholders. That's the re-privatization process. So this is all mixed up in there.

But I would stress, you know, the extraordinary moment we're in right now is sort of represented by the fact that last week, the U.S. Treasury, when they announced the third or fourth bailout of Citigroup, said that Vikram Pandit, the CEO of Citigroup, would be staying on, even though the board of directors will change.

Now that's an extraordinary statement because that means we already - for the government to have the right to appoint the CEO is not just nationalization. That's going beyond sensible nationalization into micro-meddling in the affairs of the company. We're really going down a very dangerous, dark, blind alley here.

GROSS: You're saying that it's the government who decided that the CEO would be staying on?

Mr. JOHNSON: That is what the New York Times reported. And I called up a friend of mine who works at the New York Times, and I said are you really sure that's what the Treasury said to you, specifically, Mr. Pandit will stay on? And my contact there said yes, that is what they told us, I believe on Thursday evening. I mean, that just knocked me out of my chair, hearing that. This is an absolutely extraordinary moment in American history.

GROSS: My guest is Simon Johnson, and he's an economist who served as the chief economist for the International Monetary Fund. He's a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management and is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: We're talking about the global economic crisis. My guest is Simon Johnson. He is the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. He's helped countries who have financial crises get healthy again. He's worked both with countries, with the private sector and with the IMF. He's currently a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

I think one of the big obstacles to doing anything that looks like nationalization - or that's called nationalization - is that a lot of people consider that an offense to capitalism, a crime against the capitalist system.

The word socialism is being used a lot to discredit President Obama. So what do you think? Is a temporary, however brief, takeover of banks and then their re-privatization, a temporary nationalism, an offense against the capitalist system?

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Mr. JOHNSON: That's a good question. And, obviously, control over the message and the terminology has been lost by the administration, unfortunately. And that's part of their problem.

My view is the offense against American capitalism was committed by the big banks who brought us to this point: Their mismanagement, their compensation schemes, their, I think, attitude towards the public. (Unintelligible) the arrogance - the arrogance in asking for massive bonuses at the end of last year, after they'd had a disastrous performance, and of course all of them got those bonuses, which is absolutely shocking.

So a huge number of offenses have been committed against American citizens in the broad sense you're talking about, although perhaps nothing criminal whatsoever, which perhaps tells us part of the problem.

You know, this socialism discussion is a complete red herring. I see in the newspaper on Monday morning James Baker, the former Republican -let's see, treasury secretary and secretary of state under presidents Reagan and Bush - calling for, essentially, a form of nationalization or takeover of the banking system.

Now, I think my scheme is a little bit different from his. But I think that tells you where we've come to. That even - that everyone who is not involved directly in these big banks or running Treasury department, everyone else has had enough and thinks it's time to wipe the slate clean and move on with a private banking system.

I don't want the government to run the banking system. I want private controlling shareholders to run the bank system. I also want to break up the big banks so that next time around, we don't have this, you know, too big - I'm too big to fail, and I'm about to fail unless you give me a trillion dollars kind of attitude.

GROSS: Since there haven't been a lot of strings attached to the billions of dollars that taxpayers are giving banks in the bailout, how much at risk does it leave the U.S. government and we taxpayers?

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, we're massively at risk. We're at risk not just in terms of money sneaking out or disappearing from these banks, either in bonuses, or I guess sometimes they call them - they call them awards now so they're not bonuses, retention awards, whatever.

Not only that, Terry, but I think it's much, much worse and much broader, which is it doesn't matter, really, what you do with the fiscal stimulus or with monetary policy or with other kinds of - or housing policy, other kinds of attempts to turn the economy around. Unless and until you fix the banking system and really clean it up and really make it, you know, more or less sensibly functional again, you won't get a sustained recovery.

All the countries that have tried - so Japan in the 1990s, of course, is the classic case. Japan in the 1990s did a lot of things but never fixed the banks. And you turn around, you look at Japan, they looked at themselves, and they realized they lost 10 years of growth - 10 years without growth.

So it's not a recession of - you know, are we in a recession lasting 18 months or 24 months. It's we could lose a decade. And you know, President Obama actually said that in his first press conference, about two weeks ago now. He said we could lose a decade. And I thought that was an absolutely brilliant statement of the problem and amazing because most American presidents obviously choke on the word recession, let alone talk about the possibility of a lost decade.

And then he said Secretary Geithner will tell you tomorrow how we're going to solve the banking piece of this. And so we were all, you know, waiting with eager anticipation for that, realizing, feeling that he had identified the key issue, and Secretary Geithner was going to speak to it. And then, of course, Secretary Geithner's speech was a disappointment, to put it mildly.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. JOHNSON: It was vague. He didn't have a clear plan. It seemed like it was more of this resuscitation by deal-making over the weekend. And then that's what we've seen: AIG, which was just announced in the last couple of days, the Citigroup deal at the end of last week. It's business as usual, meaning business as it was usual under Mr. Paulson, which did not go very well.

GROSS: When you say that Japan failed to fix the banks, and that's why it had a lost decade, what do you mean when you say fix the banks?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, somebody invented this great expression with regard to the Japanese banking system, which was zombie, zombie banks. And the idea is that the banks were not, you know, cleaned up, killed off, cleaned up, restarted, whatever you want to say - (unintelligible) a right, sort of, popular term for that.

They were allowed to keep on functioning, even though they had massive bad debts, even though they were very much impaired by these non-performing loans that they had. And as a result, they, you know, didn't make sensible loans. They didn't support, you know, sort of business development or transactions around the economy in the normal fashion. And you know, they were a problem.

They were zombies who were, you know, haunting or holding back the Japanese economy. It wasn't the only problem that Japan had. Their consumers were also in shock because they'd had a massive property boom that had bust. And the firms were also trying to be extremely cautious and pay down their debts. Now all of that sounds very familiar to us in the United States, also.

GROSS: So what would it have meant to fix the banks?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think fixing the banks in Japan - and this was the advice of the IMF and, funnily enough, the advice of the U.S. Treasury at the time, and of course, the U.S. Treasury at that time was run by some of the same people who are running the treasury and broader economic policy in the United States today.

Their advice was exactly the standard advice in these situations, which is take over the banks, break them into a good, functional part of the bank that you can immediately re-privatize. And parts of the assets or holdings of the banks that are, you know, in really deep trouble - for which there's no clear value and you'll probably have trouble finding a buyer - put them in an asset-management company, bring in some professional people to run them, and try and minimize your losses on that, which of course is - was also in turn building on the lessons of the Resolution Trust Corporation in the United States that was set up after the savings and loan debacle - the 1980s.

So this is standard stuff. And they told the Japanese to do it early, and they kept on them. And I think the IMF and the U.S. Treasury position, vis-a-vis Japan, looks good in retrospect. And the Japanese didn't do it. The Japanese ignored that advice, and consequently, they lost a decade.

GROSS: Simon Johnson will be back in the second half of the show. He's a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management and co-founder of a Web site on the global economic crisis called Baseline Scenario. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with the economist Simon Johnson. He has worked on financial crisis prevention and recovery in countries around the world. He has consulted to governments as well as the private sector and served as the International Monetary Fund's chief economist. He's now a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and co-founder of a web site on the global economic crisis called Baseline Scenario. When we left off, we were talking about lessons learned from other countries' financial crises. So, talk about the Swedish approach -when Sweden had its economic crisis - and this was in the '90s, right?

Dr. JOHNSON: Early '90s, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. So, what do you think we can learn from the Swedes?

Dr. JOHNSON: So, the interesting thing about the Swedes - and I talked to, you know, lots of Swedish colleagues and I worked for some of them at the IMF because obviously the IMF wanted to hire them because they had this rather positive experience. The key point there was you have to face down the bankers. And there's a story told to me by one person who was involved - and we'll leave the names out of it - but he said, you know, there was a key moment when basically he sat down across the table with a very powerful business family in Sweden.

And they wanted, you know, to keep the bank, they wanted subsidies, they wanted the government to basically provide them with unlimited financial support. And it was his job to say no - and to say no, you lose the bank, you lose this amount of money, and you know, that's a deal. Now these were really powerful people. They were good people. They were people who, no doubt, had done great things for the Swedish economy over many years, but they were big part of the problem and they had brought the economy and the banking system to that point.

And my friend, my former colleague, had to face them down. And of course he had to feel that he had political support to do that, and he did. The technicians were very good in Sweden. And the politicians built enough firewalls around them, so the bankers who push back - I mean bankers are always going to push back in this situation - they couldn't undermine the program sufficiently. And they were actually able to get through a big FDIC-type intervention and clean up.

GROSS: One of your concerns is that a lot of the people who are behind the structure of the bail out are people who have connections to the banking industry. Give us a couple of examples of people who are in that position.

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, it's hard to find people who are not in that position actually. I would say that the key point person is, of course, Secretary Geithner. Secretary Geithner was president of the New York Fed until recently, in fact throughout this entire - as this crisis developed…

GROSS: But that's a regulatory agency.

Dr. JOHNSON: Right, but the president of New York Fed's job is to be the eyes and ears of the Federal Reserve and the broader U.S. government, with regard to Wall Street. And so this person has to be close to those people on his board - for example, back in the spring was Jamie Diamond, who's the head of J.P. Morgan. And of course the way in which Bear Sterns was rescued back in the spring, was being sold at what many people thought was a very low price - they sold the assets, the valuable assets including the headquarters, to J.P. Morgan.

And it's just a very, it's a very strange world in which you can sell, over a weekend, such a valuable asset to someone who is on new board of directors. And nobody even raised an eyebrow about that. Nobody questions the degree of connections and the degree of interwoveness there.

GROSS: Well, one of the questions in the United States has been: Should the U.S. government buy the troubled assets? Those toxic assets, those bundled mortgages that are worth very little, but it's hard to estimate the exact value of them, which would make them hard for the government to buy. So have you advised a country that actually did that plan of buying troubled assets?

Dr. JOHNSON: No. I don't think anyone has ever bought troubled assets like that. That's a terrible idea by the way. If you look at what Sweden did and talk to the people who manage the bank interventions and takeovers in Sweden, they will tell you - and they write this in various reports that are available - that it was very hard to value the main assets held by the banks. They were real estate, okay? And a real estate always does what it is doing now in the United States.

It becomes very illiquid and it's very hard to know what is the market price, and that's part of the problem. So we think there's a uniqueness in that somehow this is part of how Mr. Paulson and Mr. Bernanke presented this back in September: Oh my goodness, we've never seen this before.

The markets have suddenly dried up. It's - it's crazy, temporary and it will go away if only we would pay top dollar for these assets. Well, that's not true. I mean, this is what happens all the time in financial crisis. You always get a liquidity, you always get assets, the value of assets becoming questionable in this same fashion. And what you do is the takeover and the nationalization and the re-privatization of banks. And while you're doing that, you take the really bad assets off the bank's balance sheets and you create an asset management company, recently people calling that a bad bank in United States.

I guess they stopped using that terminology because it was confusing, you have so many bad things after all. But the idea is you'd to set up these - put this money, these troubled assets, in a separate entity where they do loss minimization. And that was done by the people who ran the Resolution Trust Corporation at the end of the 1980s. They did a great job by the way. They were again state-of-the-art and best practice in the world in terms of minimizing the losses.

You know, generally getting 40, 50 cents in a dollar on a lot of that commercial real estate that was the real problem back then. And I would like to stress, while I think it's pretty straight forward in economic terms, I do realize it's hard in political terms. I do realize that these banks are very powerful politically. They make a lot of campaign contributions. They're very interwoven with the economic policy elite -not just of this administration, but all of recent administrations. And it's very hard to face them down.

GROSS: Two of the banks in crisis are Bank of America and Citigroup. And they're both - they're mega banks, they're huge. And they both come under that category of too big to fail. One of the things you've said is that we can't allow banks so big that they are too big to fail. They need to be broken up. Why do you say that?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, if you are too big to fail and you're smart - and these people are very, very smart. You know that you can take a lot of risk and if things go well, you pay yourself massive bonuses - you can check that box. And if things go badly, it's not your problem or not just your problem. The government has to come and save you because banks are really fundamentally different from any other activity in the economy. If the banks get into trouble and if the banks fail, then there's going to be no credit and without credit, the economy doesn't function.

So you have this power to have the government come in and save you - to be negotiated, details no doubt to be negotiated but that's why you make big campaign contributions. And you just can't afford to have anybody with that kind of power over your economy.

GROSS: Gazillions of dollars have been lost in the global economic crisis, and it's hard to understand, like, what happened to them. Like, how can a world lose that much money? It's not like, well another country has it all, like one country lost it and another country got it. Where does the money go in a global financial crisis like this? Does it just disappear into the ether?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JOHNSON: Yes, it does. And it's not - you know, money is not disappearing in the sense that paper money is not being ripped up or anything. What you're alluding to - and, of course, what is absolutely on everyone's minds - is this big loss of wealth. So we had stocks that are now worth 50 percent or less of what they were worth. We owned houses that in many parts of the - this country and other countries -have fallen in value substantially. The value of our cars is probably going down as well. And you, sort of, go down the list of all the various assets that we owned. The value of those things is less than what it was before. Now, you can say, well, perhaps it was exaggerated before. Perhaps it wasn't really worth that much. That may be right, I mean, these prices move up and down all the time.

The point is people were banking - if I can excuse the pun - they were banking on these assets having certain value. And that had implications for how much they were willing to consume and if they were firms how much they are willing to invest. And everyone now is revising down their views of what is a safe level of spending and also what is a safe level, a reasonable level of debt to carry. And that is happening everywhere in the world at the same time. This is why we have a big global slow down.

GROSS: So, you're saying it's not that, like, paper money has been lost or that, you know, gold has disappeared. It's just that the things we estimated were of one value are not anymore. It's all, it's all, like, values of things as opposed to actual cash.

Dr. JOHNSON: Absolutely. And so if you could - the thing about Harvard's endowment, as an example - this is all in the public domains and very much written about in the newspapers - so, their endowment took a very big hit. I think they were in somewhere around the $30 billion mark and they probably lost something like $10 billion. It's a big amount of money. Now, you know, you could say, well look that's just, you know, it was on paper, that was the notional value of these investments, but you wouldn't trying to turn them all into cash anytime soon.

And, you know, how much should you really, should - I mean, Harvard, obviously, the brand name is not affected, the franchise value is not affected, they still have the same loyal alumni - how much should they really change their behavior? And the answer is, at least in the case of Harvard, they think, or their view, is they should change it a lot. They say, you know, we've lost a lot of value. We don't have a lot of liquidity in our portfolio right now.

We need to scale back on many of our investment plans. They had a big science campus they were planning to build in part of Boston and they're going to slow that down a lot. And I believe they've got to freeze on hiring, at least in some parts of the university. And I believe also they're encouraging people to take early retirements. So, I don't think they're laying people off - I'm not sure it's going to come to that.

But my point is that you, you know, they had run-up in the value of these things - perhaps that run-up was illusory, but affected their behavior as it increased and now as it's come down so sharply, it's also affecting their behavior. Perhaps they should do something different. Perhaps they should lean against the wind. Perhaps they should draw down the endowment, but that's not their rules. That's not how they run things, that's not how they see the world. And, you know, Harvard is a very well-financed, deep-pocketed entity compared to most of rest of us anywhere.

GROSS: That is like a real problem as opposed to an abstract problem -if you lose one third of your endowment. Universities, non-profits -they run in part on the dividends or the interest of the endowment. And so the dividends or interest has been cut by a third too. So, that's a practical amount of cash that you're losing.

Dr. JOHNSON: That's right, and that's exactly how they see it. There's a payout from the endowment. There are rules about the payout, but you could say, but there's a big crisis. And perhaps it's a big opportunity for a university because buildings become cheaper. It becomes much -land becomes cheaper, it becomes cheaper to put up buildings. Labs are cheaper to build and faculty are probably easier to hire away from other universities or companies that are in trouble. So, you could say this is a great opportunity to expand and to dip into the endowment to use up some of the capital that you wouldn't ordinarily use. And, you know, catapult yourselves forward.

GROSS: My guest is Simon Johnson, an expert on economic crises. He's a professor at MIT and a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Simon Johnson and he's a former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund. He's currently a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management. And he is also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

The United States is going to be loaning the mega-insurance company AIG another $30 billion. And this was just after AIG announced that it's had the biggest quarterly loss in history - $62 billion. So, in of all the money that the U.S. is giving as part of the bailout, where is the money coming from? Because the United States is already deep in debt.

Dr. JOHNSON: Where is the money coming from. Well, that's a very interesting question.Of course we have this great feature of the American system, which is really not available to anyone else, you might say ever, in the history of crises, which is, we can borrow a lot of money. In fact, the U.S. government - U.S. Treasury and Securities in particular - are the last safe heaven for everyone around the world.

When things really get bad on terrible, terrible days, when people are afraid of all kinds of bad things happening, they move their money into U.S. Treasurys. So the good news is we haven't lost that ability. I don't think we will lose that ability to borrow. And you can borrow from American citizens.

You can borrow from foreign citizens because foreigners want to lend to you. And you can borrow today at relatively cheap interest rates. So the U.S. government has a lot of financial and fiscal capacity. It comes from the fact that we don't have a lot of debt. People are very confident the U.S. will pay back its debts. And we can use that, we will use that and we are using that.

And I think that, you know, that was part of the thinking behind the fiscal stimulus, which while the stimulus didn't come out - I'm sure -perfectly for everyone, it was a remarkable achievement given the way our political system operates. So it does work, it can work, it can be applied and that's what - it's really the application of that that can get us through the banking mess, also.

GROSS: I guess, I don't mean to sound, you know, like, downbeat, or a pessimist or may be just ignorant, but since the United States is having such a profound economic crisis why are people still confident that Treasury bonds are safe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, I think what it comes down to is our record as a country. So Alexander Hamilton faced this issue. He was the first secretary of the Treasury. And there was an issue of debts that were owed to - that had been incurred during the war of independence. And, you know, people say, well may be we should just renege on those, that was quite long time ago. And a lot of the soldiers who received IOUs, for example, sold them onto other people. So we're not actually the bondholders, if you like, and not the people who really deserved it and who really did the work initially. And Hamilton took a very strong position, I think, that stayed with us and it's really served the country well which is, he said no.

These are debts that were really incurred by the United States and by the forerunner of the United States and they must be honored. And that's a very important principle, which may sound somewhat abstract but it's really fundamental to the functioning of any economy. There are many, many countries around the world that are defaulted on their debts from time to time. And they exist, they function as countries. But they're not a country like this one. And they don't have the kinds of opportunities that we have. And they haven't been able to build the kind of position we built in the world. And I don't think we're going to give that way ever.

I don't think that - you know, it may be called into question, there may be debate about it. I think ultimately people will realize that this 200-year tradition is really absolutely essential to what this country is about. And we can afford it. We can afford to payoff - it may be painful, but we can do it.

GROSS: Between the stimulus and the bailout, the U.S. government is putting out an amount of money that's difficult for most of us to comprehend because the numbers are so high. So how much of risk do you think we're taking as a nation, to be spending so much on the stimulus and a bailout at the same time?

Dr. JOHNSON: I don't think we're taking much risk as a nation, to put in those terms. I think that's an important point to be clear on. I just want us to get better value for our taxpayer dollars. So, the way you think about debt is how big it is relative to your economy. And right now the amount of debt the government has outstanding - debt held by the private sector, not held by other parts of government - is around 41 percent of GDP. These numbers come from the Congressional Budget Office, which is very authoritative and nonpartisan on these issues.

They estimate that debt - or using their numbers you can estimate that U.S. Government debt as a percent of the economy at the end of 2010, given the policies that we're seeing put in place now will be around 62 to 64 percent of GDP. Okay? That's still a moderate level of indebtedness, that's actually below the level of debt that many European, many rich European countries have. But unfortunately that won't be the end of the story. On top of that, we'll have to do a bank clean-up which I think could cost 10 percent of GDP, if it's done properly and quickly and well.

If it's done the expensive way, which is what I think the treasury is heading towards then it'll cost you 30 percent of GDP. So that puts you up in the - under my proposal - say, mid 70 to 75 percent of GDP, and under that proposal closer to 100 percent of GDP. Then, of course, the key issue is, are you growing again. Do you get growth back at this point, let's say sometime in 2011, in which case that you can bring the debt back down. If you don't get debt back - and I think, again, this is the danger of the treasury scheme - then you're looking at a weak performance and a lot of trouble restarting the economy with debt to GDP close to 100 percent. And this is how Japan lost its decade.

This is how you lost a decade. Japan's debt to GDP ended up close to 180 percent. That's a problem.

GROSS: What is the Obama administration up against now in trying to fix the banking problem? And what I mean is, what are they up against politically?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, I think, it's all about the politics. And I think it's about brining Congress with you - obviously the banking industry is incredibly powerful in Congress. I think they've given money to, my understanding is pretty much everyone who's involved in an oversight role and perhaps almost everyone who you'd have to engage with in order to persuade them that you're going to - that these kinds of changes need to make, make sense. And, you know, there's, I think, a philosophy or perhaps it's a culture and a way of thinking about banks and the role of banks and the role of big banks in our economy that's pervasive and is very much, you know, it's not a corrupt thing.

It's not paid advertising that you've got to worry about. It's the fact that you know these big banks and everyone who works with them and around them and consult with them, and so on and so forth, has persuaded themselves that you need these kinds of banks to operate as they are under more or less current management in order for us to have an economic recovery. Now, see, that to me seems to be completely at odds with the historical record from crises elsewhere. And it doesn't really mesh with what I think are the issues are in the bank system. And I think a lot of people outside of these Washington-Wall Street pockets agrees with me.

But you know the administration has got a very broad political-cultural issue they are going to get over on this point.

GROSS: Simon Johnson thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. JOHNSON: My pleasure.

GROSS: Simon Johnson is a professor at MIT's Sloan School of management, a senior fellow at The Peterson Institute for International Economics and cofounder of a Web site on the global economic crisis called Baseline Scenario. Coming up Ken Tucker reviews the new CD by the duo The Bird and The Bee. This is FRESH AIR.

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