How to make progress

How to make progress

June 25th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

A $2-billion loss can produce a moment of humility even in a master of bluster in international financial circles.

Jamie Dimon, formerly known as the King of Wall Street, was a little less than his normally fighting self when he got to the Senate Banking Commitee recently. He even admitted he'd been "dead wrong" when he tried to blow off news of JP Morgan's colossal screw-up earlier this year. Or at least the people he'd relied on were dead wrong. (The surest sign of an executive who doesn't need to be one is a tendency to pass the buck to subordinates.)

It's a rule in the military: A commander is responsible for everything his unit does -- or fails to do. In business and government, another rule applies all too often: It was somebody else's fault. CEO Dimon, you see, simply was misinformed by his underlings. And in the White House, all the problems with the economy are George W. Bush's fault.

At one point Mr. Dimon did grant that, yes, a ban on banks-cum-investment houses like JPMorgan Chase playing the market, formally known as Proprietary Trading, "may very well have stopped parts of what this portfolio morphed into."

Then again, changing the law may very well not have prevented this little $2-billion slip-up -- given the outsized egos of international financiers and the ingenious ways that ambitious gamblers (excuse us, investors) always find around the rules. The way so many did after the wall that once separated commercial from investment banking in this country was dismantled by financial masterminds like Bill Clinton, D-Ark., and Phil Gramm, R-Texas, at the end of the last century.

Who says bipartisanship is dead? A bad cause always seems to unite the worst instincts of both parties. In this case, they united to rev up the economy and the power of banker-investor combines. It proved a ghastly miscalculation. We're still living with the results.

The old Glass-Steagall Act, itself the result of lessons learned in the Great Depression, had stood for half a century, but the appetite for ill-gotten gains and power proved too much to keep it in place.

And soon enough the Great Recession demonstrated, once again, that lessons don't stay learned. People may learn; governments never seem to.

Now we're assured that the old wall is being restored under a new name, the Volcker Rule. But that rule has been so diluted in the course of making it into law, and it's still so vague and unformed, with at least five federal agencies hammering out its none-too-clear provisions, that it may prove less a wall than just a bunch of gaps. With the usual favored special interests allowed to speculate with federally insured funds.

It would have been too simple just to re-enact Glass-Steagall and admit a mistake. Instead, a new and vast bureaucratic compromise was passed with details (the most important part) to be ironed out later, or maybe never. The key decisions, as with Obamacare and all other aspects of America's new regulatory regime, are to be left to the usual anonymous regulators, our new high priesthood.

This "solution" is supposed to let investors hedge their bets but not engage in speculation. Although no one has ever satisfactorily explained the supposed difference between hedging (good) and speculation (bad), perhaps because there really isn't much of one. Some of us suspect it's just a matter of conjugation: "I hedge, you speculate, they gamble." Hedging is starting to sound like just a polite term for betting across the board.

If banks are going to play the market, let's call them what they are -- investment houses -- and let them risk their own money rather than mix it with ours, which is what happens when a federally insured bank decides it wants to be an investment house, too.

In his appearance before the committee, Mr. Dimon emphasized that the $2 billion that JPMorgan somehow lost in this welter of high-stakes deals and counter-deals (whale trades, they were called) was the company's own money, not its customers' or the government's.

In that case, why not call an investment bank an investment bank, and not a regular, commercial bank, too, the kind that makes business, house and car loans to the rest of us? Because in that case, JPMorgan might not have been eligible for the federal bailout it agreed to take, or have its deposits insured by the full faith and credit of the United States of America, and in general be treated as Too Big to Fail. Like all too many other giants. Which was the country's big mistake during the Panic of '08-'09.

It was one thing for the feds to rescue federally insured banks, another when it started taking over investment houses, hedge funds, automobile companies, you name it. The road to serfdom is lined with just such emergency legislation, which tends to stay in place long after the emergency has passed. As this president's chief of staff at the time put it, a financial crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

There ought to be a clear line of demarcation where Chase bank ends and JPMorgan investments start. Instead, we get this two-headed monster that can lose $2 billion before the beast realizes it. Or at least before its CEO does.

Let's go back to the good old Glass-Steagall Act. Let's return to the past; it would be progress.