World and Nation

Bankers’ Regrets Might Be Wrapped in Nuance

As America recovers from the worst financial crisis since the Depression, some of the nation’s chief executives are offering that rarest of statements: an apology.

But often, their words are so carefully parsed, scrubbed by lawyers or picked over by public relations professionals that it is unclear just how much mea is in their culpa.

The former Time Warner chief, Gerald M. Levin, dropped jaws last week by taking the blame for “the worst deal of the century,” the decade-old merger of America Online and Time Warner. Yet few other chief executives, including the handful of Wall Street chieftains who acknowledge missteps, have embraced his plea to accept personal responsibility for decisions that have caused pain, loss and suffering for many ordinary Americans.

“American culture does not put a premium on apology,” said Michael Useem, professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “The level of anger in this public in general is extremely high against those who led Wall Street into the abyss, in part because they never stepped forward to apologize for the mess they made.”

The art of the nuanced regret — admitting mistakes without accepting blame — will be on display Wednesday at a hearing of the new Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in Washington, where Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, John J. Mack of Morgan Stanley and Brian T. Moynihan of Bank of America are to testify about their roles in the financial crisis.

Moynihan, who recently took over Bank of America after Kenneth D. Lewis steered it into a troubled merger with Merrill Lynch, plans to say that the banking industry caused a lot of damage and acknowledge that mistakes made by financial companies can affect Main Street, said a person briefed on his testimony. But he will stop short of the statement that Blankfein offered several months ago.

Blankfein, whose firm is on track to report blowout 2009 profits, uttered the word “apologize” in November although he is not expected to repeat it in his testimony Wednesday. His remarks came a week after he drew fire for saying the firm was doing “God’s work,” but it was never clear what the subject of his atonement was. “We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret and apologize for,” he said, without elaborating on what “things” the firm did wrong.